VERNON, B.C. – As Cathy Gaetz-Brothen opened the box to show her book club the hundreds of love letters her father had written her mother during the war, she recalls several people recoiling.
Nestled alongside what may be the largest surviving collection of Second World War correspondence from a Canadian army soldier was a soiled, red armband decorated with the unmistakable sign of a swastika.
Gaetz-Brothen explained how her father, Joseph Gaetz, had been given the artifact, along with several other pieces of Nazi memorabilia, from enemy prisoners at the wind down of the conflict in Europe.
“In the letters, he talks about being given an armband as a memento,” she said during an interview at her home in Vernon, B.C. “And some of the soldiers who were prisoners at the end of the war gave him some of their badges.”
Those relics are part of an extensive collection of wartime paraphernalia. Included are black-and-white photos, an army-issued scrapbook and a half package of Wild Woodbine cigarettes, each wrapped in disintegrating, yellowed papers.
For Gaetz-Brothen, the letters hold the real treasure.
Carefully tied bundles tell handwritten accounts of a man whose upbringing in small-town Alberta to German-speaking parents saw him repeatedly sent behind enemy lines, tasked with capturing and interrogating enemy soldiers.
Those same dispatches chronicle the misgivings of a soldier buffeted by the bloodshed around him and the affection he felt for the woman who would become his wife.
Most importantly for Gaetz-Brothen, they offer a window into the father she never knew.
Joseph Gaetz died at age 41 of chronic hypertension in October 1956, days after Gaetz-Brothen’s first birthday. It was another 40 years before she began reading and documenting her father’s letters.
“To sit down in the evening and take notes, it became like sitting down with him and getting to know him,” she said.
“When I finished them all it was a great sense of feeling whole, feeling complete, because you have all the pieces of the puzzle … Now I know my whole family.”
Joseph Gaetz joined the army in 1942 at 27. Five months later he became engaged to his sweetheart, Margaret Jean McRae, before shipping off to Europe with the Calgary Highlanders.
Over the next two years he sent 451 letters home, describing his transfer to a scout platoon to work as an “interpreter.” He wrote of various covert expeditions into enemy territory to seize German soldiers and gather intelligence.
“My officer and I went a mile into the Jerry lines one night and took 52 prisoners out of a barn … That was quite an experience,” Gaetz penned from “somewhere in Holland” in late 1944.
Many of the details are intentionally vague and every letter is stamped with the ID number of the censoring soldier, sometimes accompanied by blacked-out lines.
Despite the redactions, Gaetz-Brothen said her father’s personality shone through in the writing, especially in the way he treated her mother.
“(He) always addressed her as ‘my dearest darling Jeanie,’ always signed off with three Xs,” Gaetz-Brothen said. “That was their little signal. And later in life my mother would do that in writing to us girls.”
A snippet of dried heather survived the decades following the war, preserved in a plastic bag. It’s the same fragment Gaetz carried in his uniform pocket for good luck, in homage to his fiancee’s Scottish heritage.
It was through his letters that Gaetz-Brothen discovered her father’s fondness for Rosebud chocolates, Chiclets and 1,000-piece puzzles. She learned that his fellow soldiers nicknamed him Pearly Gates because of his brilliantly white teeth.
“I would send my sisters copies of my notes and little gifts of what I learned about him,” she said. “That gave us another connection, another way to appreciate and know him.”
Gaetz-Brothen’s eldest sister, Linda Gaetz-Roberts, was seven when her father died. She remembers him marching in Remembrance Day parades and recalls seeing her mother’s name inked on his upper arm.
“It’s a good thing he married her or he’d have had to change his tattoo,” she said in an interview, laughing.
Gaetz’s letters are believed to be the largest known collection of such correspondence in the Canadian army, though larger examples do exist elsewhere in the military, said Stephen Davis, director of the Canadian Letters and Images Project. The project is an online archive of war materials based out of Vancouver Island University.
As for the Nazi armband, Gaetz-Brothen has a theory that it may have been part of a disguise he used, though war historians say that’s unlikely as a soldier risked summary execution for espionage if caught as a spy.
Once she’d finished reading his letters, Gaetz-Brothen said she was surprised to find herself mourning her father.
“I don’t think we ever really grieved for our father because we never really knew who he was,” she said. “The sad side … is knowing how much we missed.”
Still, Gaetz-Brothen said she’s grateful for the chance the letters have given her and her siblings to better understand their family history.
“It was a beautiful gift,” she said. “We got to know our dad.”