Veterans’ families are linked by the clarion call to never forget

Photos of William "Billy" Murphy and Kenneth "Kenny" Murphy, surrounded by memorabilia from the Second World War, in which they served. John Vos / Global News

There is little doubt we all have deep and abiding indebtedness to the men and women who have fought and died for our country.

What’s been lost on me, from time to time, is the cascading and profound impact losing a loved one to war has on the moms and dads, brothers and sisters and countless family members.

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The power of the pain that families go through — and the grace they demonstrate — hit home for me this Remembrance Day.

In the summer of 1943, Edna Jaques was touring Western Canada. Jaques was of some notoriety for the poem she wrote, In Flanders Now, a companion piece to John McCrae’s In Flanders Fields.

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Jaques’ verse reads:

“We have kept faith, ye Flanders’ dead,
Sleep well beneath those poppies red,
That mark your place.
The torch your dying hands did throw,
We’ve held it high before the foe,
And answered bitter blow for blow,
In Flanders fields.”

Jaques’ travels took her to Fort Macleod, Alta., where she met Marie Murphy.

An undated photo of William Murphy with members of the Royal Canadian Air Force. John Vos / Global News

Murphy’s sons William (Billy) and Kenny had signed up to fight in the Second World War and were both overseas. At the time, her boy Billy was missing in action. Even though the fate of Murphy’s son was unknown and potentially dire, she brought grace and stoicism to the day-to-day.

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It was that strength that so impressed Jaques that she reached out on Aug. 13, 1943, in the letter below to acknowledge and pay homage to Murphy’s fortitude.

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My dear Mrs. Murphy:

When I was at Macleod last spring, some of the women told me how your son was missing and yet you went out just the same, helped with church work, Red Cross and a hundred other things you did and kept your sorrow and fear bravely to yourself. They were so proud of you and your bravery that one or two of them cried when they told me about you.

So I watched you, helping with the supper that night, being cheerful and smiling and I thought how wonderful you were, too. I am sure if it were my girl, I would be the darnedest coward and sniveler on earth and everyone would desert me. So if you don’t mind, in tribute to your staunch heart, I wrote a poem, which I am sending to you, it is written with humbleness and pride in a great Canadian woman.

Sincerely yours,
Edna Jaques

The poem Jaques wrote was called Her Son Is Missing:

Her Son Is Missing

Her son is missing and yet she goes
To Ladies’ Aid and to picture shows
Keeps herself busy the whole day long
Hums a bit of a wartime song,

Turns the heel of a seaman’s sock
Steels herself against fear and shock.
Her son is missing, out there alone
His buddy saw him before Cologne,

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“Thumbs up” he signalled and drove right in
To the hellish glare and the ack-ack’s din,
He glimpsed him once near a Messerschmitt,
Screaming down on the tail of it.

Her son is missing, and in the night
She pictures him in his last long flight,
In a prison camp, or a bed of pain
Wounded and hungry … out in the rain,

Or maybe a cottage small and dim
With a kindly woman to care for him.
Her son is missing — yet every day
She goes about in her quiet way,

Doing her housework, making a pie,
With a proud clean courage that will not die,
Mothers of heroes who carry on,
With a steadfast smile when their sons are gone.

My mother-in-law, Patricia Macdonald — Kenny and Billy’s sister — often shared with me how the Murphy family prayed for the return of their two boys.

They dreamed of that moment where they all would be reunited once again on the family farm just outside of Fort Macleod in southern Alberta. Through that hellish period of not knowing, Murphy continued being “steadfast” and living “her quiet way” even though her son was missing.

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Alas, Billy and Kenny died in action and never returned home. Billy was declared killed in action in 1946, and Kenny died in action in July 1944. Both were in their early 20s.

An undated photo of Kenneth "Kenny" Murphy, surrounded by memorabilia from the Second World War. John Vos / Global News
A photo of William "Billy" Murphy, taken in May 1941, surrounded by memorabilia from the Second World War. John Vos / Global News

As a former radio reporter, I covered many Remembrance Day ceremonies here in Calgary. If there was a single message — the clarion call from veterans and civilians alike — it was and still is: “Lest we forget.”

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It truly is the ultimate sacrifice to lay down one’s life for your country.

This Remembrance Day, I’m reminded how that sacrifice is so inextricably linked to the mothers, fathers and families of the fallen men and women of our armed forces.

John Vos is the director of talk and talent at Global News Radio 770 CHQR and the father of seven children.

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