Toronto

WW II vet Fred Arsenault wanted 100 cards for his 100th birthday. He received more than 90,000

When Second World War veteran Fred Arsenault requested 100 cards for his 100th birthday, one gift he wasn't expecting was the opportunity to hold a gun very much like the one he carried in combat all those decades ago.

Arsenault was also recently given the chance to hold a machine gun much like the one he carried during the war

Ron Arsenault leans over to read a birthday card for his father, WW II veteran Fred Arsenault, at the Sunnybrook Veterans Centre on March 5. (CBC)

By the time Second World War veteran Fred Arsenault blows the candles out on his birthday cake, he'll have more than 90,000 birthday cards to read. 

Arsenault turns 100 years old on Friday. He spent Thursday morning enjoying an early birthday celebration at the Sunnybrook Veterans Centre in Toronto where his family tallied all the cards they received.

"Thank you for all your words and for the people that were all here for my birthday. I'll remember this for quite some time," said Arsenault with a big smile. 

It all started with a birthday wish from his son that was shared privately with friends and family but has since turned into a global event.

His son, Ron Arsenault, told CBC News the whole family is overwhelmed by the response. 

"We're getting cards and calls from everywhere in the world. It was more than dad and I could have ever imagined. His birthday wish is now complete," he said. 

Lt.-Col. Barry Pitcher sits down with Second World War veteran Fred Arsenault with a machine gun similar to the one Arsenault carried in battle 75 years ago. (Trevor Godhino)

In addition to all the birthday cards Arsenault received, he was also presented with a special plaque from the government of the Netherlands, a country he and other Canadian soldiers helped liberate during the Second World War. 

Reunited with a Bren gun

When Arsenault initially requested 100 cards on Feb. 4 for his 100th birthday, another gift he wasn't expecting was the opportunity to hold a gun very much like the one he carried in combat all those decades ago.

After Arsenault told his story to CBC Toronto last month, among those who took note was the Princess Louise Fusiliers, a reserve light infantry regiment of the Canadian Forces based in Halifax. The regiment made arrangements to hand deliver a birthday card in Toronto.

When unit commander Lt.-Col. Barry Pitcher arrived with the card at Sunnybrook Veterans Centre where Arsenault now lives, he was also carrying a Bren gun. 

"The moment was amazing. Fred cried when he saw the gun and kissed it gently. When asked if he remembered it, he stated, 'I sure do,'" Pitcher wrote in an email. "This machine gun … he has not touched since the end of the war."

The regiment found out while speaking to the family that Arsenault carried a Bren during his time in Europe between 1940 and 1945, a tour of duty that included the Italian campaign and the liberation of the Netherlands. A chief petty officer with the regiment, who is also a military collector, happened to have one and lent it to Lt.-Col. Pitcher to take to Toronto. 

Ron Arsenault arranged for Pitcher and professional photographer Trevor Godhino to meet his dad and do a special black-and-white portrait of Arsenault with the gun.

"Fred, originally from P.E.I. and having served in the Cape Breton Highlanders during World War Two, certainly has a special connection to the Maritimes," Pitcher wrote.

Birthday cards pouring in, son says

Although the veteran has surpassed the 100 card mark, Ron Arsenault said the birthday cards have continued pouring in.

In some cases, postal workers have been going above and beyond to ensure the veteran gets his cards on time. 

Peter Welter, who works for Canada Post as a manual sorter on the night shift, said he's come across two cards for Fred that were not mailed correctly. 

"I found Fred's birthday cards without an envelope so I approached my supervisor and we repackaged them, put the appropriate postage on it and sent them," he said.

One of the many handmade cards Arsenault has received from Canadians. (Submitted by Leslie Zhao)
 

Welter said everyone he works with wants to know if Fred ends up getting the 100 cards he deserves. 

"While I'm not a betting man, I've mumbled a quiet prayer and have my fingers crossed that Mr. Arsenault received a lot more than just 100 cards," said Welter.

Welter was right. 

It isn't only postal workers who haved helped grant the special birthday wish. Children were also doing their part to show Arsenault their appreciation for his service. 

"My daughter and her friends were inspired by your article and made birthday cards for Mr. Arsenault," Kelly Ainsworth wrote in an email to CBC Toronto. "My daughter's great-grandfather was a bombardier in the Avro Lancaster in WW II so she's always keen to learn about other war heroes." 

Children hold up cards written for Arsenault ahead of his 100th birthday on March 6. (Submitted by Kelly Ainsworth)

Meanwhile, Leslie Zhao said her daughter Michaela Han, a Grade 9 student in Surrey, B.C., was very excited when she heard the news about Arsenault's request for birthday cards.

"She was thrilled and watercolour painted the card with her beautiful handwriting of wishes the same night," Zhao wrote.

Ron Arsenault said the cards are still being tallied ahead of his father's birthday on March 6 and the family will continue to collect them. 

"We have boxes and boxes all over the place. We just received 700 cards in one box from students. We're organizing now as much as we can. Our concerns are about the cards that are still coming in but family is helping out," he said. 

While the family still figures out how to properly display all the cards they received, they say every card will be received any donations they get will go to charity. 

Ron Arsenault said the next photograph of his dad will show him holding a large card revealing the number of birthday cards he receives.

Fred said he's just excited to read them all and play bingo with his friends. 

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