VANCOUVER – It’s credited as the most famous Canadian photo of the Second World War, a little boy running from his mother for the outstretched hand of his soldier father, but for Warren “Whitey” Bernard his image as a five year old is more powerful for what it doesn’t show.
That little white-haired boy — who’s now a 79-year-old retiree from Tofino, B.C. — will unveil a monument Saturday in New Westminster, B.C., based on the photo that symbolized the emotional turmoil of Canada’s men heading off to war.
The photo, called ‘Wait for Me, Daddy’, moved from the newspaper to Life magazine, then to every B.C. school during the war and is now proudly displayed in the Canadian War Museum.
For Bernard, it’s the memories behind the image that are distinctive.
“That’s probably the last time we were together as a nuclear family, as they put it today,” said Bernard in a recent telephone interview from his home. “We were never together again as a family after that moment.”
His parents’ marriage didn’t survive the war, they’d split up just a few years later, and there was no joyful reunion between his father Jack and mother Bernice when his father returned to Vancouver in October 1945, said Bernard.
When Canada declared war against Germany in September 1939, the Bernards were living in Summerland, a community in B.C.’s Okanagan Valley.
His father was in the militia and was a sergeant and an acting troop sergeant major for the B.C. Dragoons, a senior rank for non-commissioned members.
But the unit was not activated, and Bernard said his father decided to drop his rank and enlist instead as a private with the British Columbia Regiment, Duke of Connaught’s Own Rifles, which is based on the coast, and is also known as the “Dukes.”
“Therein lies the rub,” said Bernard, noting his mother didn’t want his father to join up, at least not yet.
“He was 33 years old, he had a dependent child and she was madder than a hornet and she wanted him to wait until the BCDs, the B.C. Dragoons, were called up as a regiment and then he would have gone into the army as a sergeant, and of course a sergeant’s pay was twice what a buck private’s pay was.”
Bernard said his mother never forgave his father, adding their marriage was “never made in heaven.”
So the Bernards uprooted themselves from their little brown house in Summerland, their neighbours, their family and friends and headed to Vancouver, where his mother — who had been orphaned as a child — had no relatives and needed to find a job and a place to live.
“It ain’t easy for single women today,” he said. “In those days there was no support whatsoever.”
Then came Oct. 1, 1940, when the Dukes marched down Eighth Street in New Westminster, greeted by family and friends and a photographer from The Province newspaper named Claude Dettloff.
Just as a little boy broke away from his mom and ran to his marching dad who cocked his head to the right, transferred his rifle to his left hand, and reached out to his son with his right hand, Dettloff took a photo.
For Dettloff’s granddaughter, Candace Macpherson, the photo has its own special meaning. She said she equates the photo with her grandfather.
“Honestly, when I look at that photo, I see granddad because I grew up with it and it was something he took,” she said.
She said the photo is remarkable because her grandfather was using equipment of the era, not the digital equipment of today, and his timing was perfect.
John Maker, Second World War historian at the Canadian War Museum, said the photo touched a public nerve at the time and sums up the war experience.
He said the photo depicts pride, sadness and the anxiety of what’s to come. The image of the mother letting go of the child and the child trying to grab his father’s hand is symbolic of the links between soldiers and the home front, Maker said.
“I think for the Second World War it is probably the most famous Canadian photo of the war, really,” he said.
Bernard said after Dettloff took the photo, his dad was shipped to a training camp on Vancouver Island, headed east and then sailed across the Atlantic to England.
His parents split up, his father returned once for compassionate leave in 1943 but didn’t return for good until October 1945, said Bernard.
He sometimes wonders what would have happened had there been no war, but does not blame it for breaking up his family.
“They may have even stayed together because divorce was certainly not that common,” he said. “I mean I was one of the rare kids on the street where I lived, I grew up in Vancouver, that had parents who were divorced. I was a bit of an anomaly in the group of the kids that I jumped around with.”
Bernard will speak when the memorial sculpture commemorating the photo is unveiled Saturday in New Westminster’s Hyack Square. Canada Post and the Royal Canadian Mint are also releasing a commemorative stamp and $2 coin, respectively.