Mervin Fisher never thought he deserved the medals that line the left breast pocket of this tunic.
The 93-year-old says he spent much of his adult life living with a sense of guilt that he didn’t serve his country to the best of his ability during the Second World War. He was captured by the Germans and held in a prisoner of war camp in northwestern Germany.
“To see all of your friends and buddies and comrades laying there dead as a doornail and not a mark on yourself, and you wonder why,” explained Fisher.
Fisher grew up on a farm in Collingwood, Ont., and was raised primarily by his mother. His father was absent and had moved out west when he was young. At just 16 years old, Fisher joined the Militia in an effort to support his mother, consistently sending half his wages home each month.
“My grandmother was the one that gave me a whack on the backside to bring me alive,” laughed Fisher while recalling his childhood. “She said she did it nicely to see if I had a pair of lungs.”
The young private trained with the armoured corps until he was 17 years old. On his 18th birthday, he went into active service, serving in the Canadian Army’s infantry in Belgium and later in Holland.
“As long as you could walk, they were happy to have you.”
Fisher was moved into action serving with the Essex Scottish infantry regiment of the Canadian Army in January of 1945. The very next month, his regiment was peppered by bullets, the majority of the men killed following a major Allied offensive attack in Groesbeek, Netherlands.
“They were dug in with machine guns. You don’t know what you’re going to anticipate when you go out,” Fisher said. “When you lose that many, you’re not efficient anymore. That’s the first time fear really gets into you.
The teenager lay covered in mud while the German cleanup crew went through, finishing off anyone found still alive as the tanks made their way through the fields.
The troop had run into a German stronghold. He waited patiently for hours until the sounds of the tanks disappeared in the distance. Choosing to head in the opposite direction of the troops, Fisher hoped to find a Dutch family willing to take the Canadian in.
“I found an old house, it was dark — no lights, nothing, nobody moving — so I went around to the back door and the first thing I notice was a guy with something in the back of my head saying in German, ‘Do not move,’ and I don’t understand German but I didn’t move.”
Fisher had walked directly into a German base camp.
“Don’t ever sell them short. Boy, were they ever intelligent,” added Fisher. “They had their plans out on the table.”
In total, 25 prisoners were picked up and shipped to Stalag 11B, the camp run by the “old guard” Germans considered unfit for front-line service. The work camp was made up of Canadian, British and Russian soldiers.
“They were all elderly, the old guard. Now, some people had some of the SS crew looking after their camps and they were treated terribly,” he said, admitting he was somewhat lucky as the old guard treated the prisoners fairly well. “If you tried to be a hero or something, I’m sure you would have lost your life.”
The private lived there until the camp was repatriated on May 7, 1945, which was also his birthday. He was released and sent to hospital in England, where he was treated for hepatitis, and was back in Ontario by August and discharged on October 2.
Following the war, Fisher worked for Toronto Hydro, retiring after 35 years. He married his first wife Bess and the pair had two children. He remarried in 2009.
Fisher has spent much of his retired life supporting acts of remembrance, speaking to schoolchildren, not-for-profits and legions. One yearly event he holds close to his heart is No Stone Left Alone, where schoolchildren place poppies on the headstones of veterans in honour of their service.
“To see this type of thing going on and people who care it makes your heart feel good,” said Fisher, who usually participates in such events with his wife Doreen Flockhart.
“I think children should remember how there was sacrifice to make this a free country,” added Flockhart. “I think we have to remember and when you look at the ages on the gravestones, you know they never had a life — those boys were just put in action.”
Sharing his story has helped Fisher let go of the guilt he once carried. He now puts on his medals with a sense of pride because honour doesn’t necessarily come from how long you served or where, it comes from the decision to put your life on the line for the greater good — a decision Fisher made at only 16 years old.