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Son writes about military service of Bay Roberts native Eric Wood in WWII

Eric Wood, top row at the left, with fellow members of the 166th Royal Artillery. He joined the artillery in 1941. — Submitted photo
Eric Wood, top row at the left, with fellow members of the 166th Royal Artillery. He joined the artillery in 1941. — Submitted photo -

By Fred Wood

Special to The Compass

Eric Wood grew up on Smith Street in downtown Bay Roberts.

His father and grandfather were blacksmiths and tinsmiths. They had a forge. His mother was killed in 1926 in the first motor vehicle fatality in the town’s history. An older brother died of pneumonia at the age of 12. Once, upon discovering an unimpressive report card in some family papers, we learned he was an indifferent student in school — much to his children’s delight!

We have heard stories of his growing up as an adventurous and mischievous youth. There developed a love of motorcycles. Early pictures show a pleasant face, wide grin and bushy eyebrows. Those eyebrows have followed me to this day! We know of an early girlfriend of a prominent family.

That adventurous spirit was evident when in 1941 he joined the 166th (Newfoundland) Royal Artillery. He spent most of the next three years of his life in North Africa and Italy. The 166th RA participated in some of the pivotal battles of the Mediterranean Theatre in World War II. They were there at Longstop Hill, Ortona and Cassino.

Eric's task

As a gunner, Eric’s task was to maintain the regiment’s 25-pound guns in Q (Qweenie) Battery and keep them in good working condition. He spoke of being sick in the desert heat and watching the walls on the great Benedictine Monastery on Monte Cassino come tumbling down under bombardment.

However, more often his stories were of the humourous kind, the sort of dark humour that soldiers adopt. Riding through Italian cornfields at night on a motorcycle, with no headlights. Periods of activity so intense that he wouldn’t get a chance to wash his clothes for weeks on end. The times spent with comrades were most treasured.

A fellow soldier in the regiment remembers Dad as a ‘bit of a laddio’! When the regiment was on the move he was the first into a new village, apparently scrounging up materials and provisions for the regimental kitchens, especially of the liquid variety.

A poignant occasion for my wife and I came during a trip to Italy in 2010 when we were able to travel to the very locations where Eric and his comrades fought 65 years earlier. We also visited the graves of those comrades and friends left behind in the cemeteries at the foot of Monte Cassino and on the Sangro River.

After his return from the war, Eric continued his adventurous ways by going to work on the American Air Force Base in Goose Bay, Labrador. Albums of photos show him and his buddies at work or on hunting and fishing trips into the Labrador wilderness — great manly pictures of hunting success and comradery.

The Wood family pictured on their way to the annual Memorial Day ceremonies on July 1, 1960. Starting from the left, daughter Florence, mother Winnifred, sons Philip and Fred and father Eric. — Submitted photo
The Wood family pictured on their way to the annual Memorial Day ceremonies on July 1, 1960. Starting from the left, daughter Florence, mother Winnifred, sons Philip and Fred and father Eric. — Submitted photo

It was during this time in the late 1940s that a young Winnifred McTeer paid several summer visits to Bay Roberts from Montreal with her mother. Eric and her met, and the rest is history!

They married in July 1951 and moved to Bay Roberts. My father then began working with Canadian National Railways doing plumbing repair at the railway stations in Newfoundland. By the time three children had been added to the household Eric was working with his brother Bill in a rising plumbing and heating business and practising his trade as a tinsmith.

And we remember our father when he was at his proudest! That happened whenever there was a function involving his comrades and friends at the Royal Canadian Legion (Branch 32) Bay Roberts. Eventually our mother joined the Legion Auxiliary and it seemed our lives became closely intertwined with the Legion. There were meetings and conventions; there were parades; there were suppers and dances — oh the dances!

Eric’s health eventually failed him, and he died in 1977. It would have been nice to have had a few more years to catch up on all that was missed, or never told, to fill in a few gaps. What was it like growing up in Bay Roberts during the 1920s and 30s? What was the great Confederation debate like for them? Why did he really go overseas? He never did tell us.

But, that’s being selfish really. Many of his comrades never even had the chance to start a working and family life. We were very lucky as kids to have the combined efforts of two caring parents. Even today, I will have occasion to meet someone from the Bay Roberts area and they will stop, look me over, and then say, “You’re Eric Wood’s young fella aren’t you?” I am 65. Eric Wood passed away 40 years ago this year. Nice that some remember.

Remembering

If we remember them and their stories, they will remain important to us. This gives us reason to attend the upcoming Remembrance Day ceremonies and services. Those men and women, mothers and fathers, grandparents or cousins, and those long forgotten from our communities are who we are. By paying respect we honour them and ourselves.

But it is more than those from forgotten wars we need to remember. Today we still have a chance to pay respect and give dignity to the service of those who remain in our community. They are the peacekeepers of Cyprus, the Middle East, Haiti and the Balkans who thrust themselves between the worst kind of disputes—civil wars.

There are those who fight against terrorist organizations in Iraq and Afghanistan, including, as it happens, Eric Wood’s grandson. New and even more uncertain times of tension are raising fears in Eastern Europe, Africa and the Persian Gulf.

Just as the pride my brother Philip and I feel in our father’s service rises up at this time of year, we as a society have an opportunity to show respect, appreciation and empathy to the soldiers, sailors and air force personnel who serve us today. With them in the spotlight we are better able to identify and advocate for their needs that were not available to our father’s generation of men and women in the services. Those needs include their pensions, their health care and treatment, their families and their overall well being.

On this coming Nov. 11th, people will gather at cenotaphs and memorials throughout Canada. Make a special effort to attend. Bring along another family member or friend. Watch the young, the old, the retired and the current-serving members of our military march by. Applaud all those in uniform who serve our country and our communities. They serve so that we can live in hopefully a safe, free and just society.

Besides, there is nothing like a good parade. Eric Wood loved one, marching with his Legion comrades wearing Branch 32 on his jaunty blue beret. It is especially inspiring on a calm cool sunny fall day in Canada. Red poppies everywhere. You will hear the Army Cadet or Church Lads Brigade band approaching from way up the street. You feel the anticipation. You stretch your neck for the first glimpse of the Drum Major and the Parade Commander. You’ll marvel at the long lines of swinging arms and shiny boots. You know that those who are no longer here with us would love to be marching too.

And you will have fulfilled a promise — we will remember them!

Fred Wood and his brother Philip Wood are members of the Royal Canadian Legion (Branch 32) Bay Roberts.

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