Celebrating VE Day
Frank Putnam, local member of the provincial Parliament, and Creston businessman Guy Constable were sitting together in the office they shared in downtown Creston, one day in late April 1945. Both had sons fighting overseas. “Well,” said one of the fathers, “I guess our boys made it.”
Doug Putnam, a quartermaster, had been serving overseas since 1942 and had survived, among other battles, the invasion of Normandy on D-Day. Art Constable had spent three years in the army in Italy and southern France, and Bill Constable was a pilot, escorting convoys out of Halifax on the first leg of their journey across the Atlantic.
The war was rapidly drawing to a close. For a few weeks now, the Village council and various organisations were putting plans in place to celebrate the end of the war. The plans were a little vague, of course, because nobody knew exactly when the armistice would be signed – but the general outlines were fixed. The town siren, installed just two years earlier to warn of air raids or other attacks, would sound when word was received of the armistice. The Legion, and any other organisation that wanted to parade, would fall in at the grain elevators and march to the “centre” – possibly meaning the Civic Centre. The rest of the day would be devoted to Thanksgiving services and prayer which would, weather permitting, be held outdoors at the school (present-day Adam Robertson). The day would end with a public dance at Park Pavilion.
The newspaper published details of the contingency plans: If peace came before noon, the parade would start at 2:00 PM; if it came later, the parade would be at 11:00 AM the following day. If it was any time on a Saturday, the thanksgiving day services would take place on the following Sunday. There were also detailed instructions to merchants as to when they would close, again depending on the time and day of the week that the siren sounded to announce the peace.
The three blasts of the town siren rang out at 7:12 AM to let the population know that the armistice had been signed. Despite the previously announced plans, there was some confusion as to whether Monday or Tuesday would be the actual holiday and day of celebration – until Reeve Edward Mallandaine stepped in, at about 9:30 AM, and settled it: Both days were holidays.
Stores closed. Houses and store fronts were brightly decorated with bunting, flags of the various allied nations, and even an effigy of Hitler, hanging from the tall façade of what is now Lectric Avenue. The scene on the main street was, to borrow the Creston Review’s term, sheer bedlam. The ARP siren blasted four or five times over the course of the morning; the whistle at the mill joined in just in case someone in town had not yet heard the news. Queens candidates roamed the downtown core with loudspeakers, selling tickets for the upcoming Blossom Festival – the Queen in those days was chosen based on her fundraising abilities for the war effort. The parade duly followed, featuring the Legionnaires, military men and women already returned or on leave, the Cadet Corps from the school, the Air Raid Patrol and Pacific Coast Militia Rangers, and the Boy Scouts.
The Thanksgiving service that followed was suitably solemn and respectful: O Canada the Last post, two minutes of silence, a series of prayers offered by the Valley’s ministers. The school band and choir led the assembly in singing hymns, and two more prayers followed. “Rev. Ennals gave a stirring address to the Creston Valley population,” reported the Review, then Rev. Partington led the Litany of Division. Reveille, played by cadet corporal L. Millin, and God Save the King completed the ceremony.
But the joy and relief that all residents felt, and the optimism that Frank Putnam expressed in his office that day a week or so earlier, were premature. The Creston Valley still had bad news in store.
On 4 May 1945, a German soldier had risen from where he lay hidden in a ditch, fired into the transport carrying Doug Putnam and several other soldiers. The German surrendered immediately – but Doug was killed.
The Huscroft family had just returned home after the Thanksgiving service when a telegram arrived. Two weeks earlier, on 21 April, Denis Huscroft and John Stace-Smith took refuge in a barn when German troops shelled a field near Wagenborgen, Holland. John had enlisted in 1940, and Denis in 1941, and both had survived more than three years of service overseas. John was struck on the ear by shrapnel during the shelling. Denis, standing beside him, was killed.
Flight Lieutenant John Henry “Harry” Skelly survived nearly four years with the Royal Canadian Air Force, enlisting on 21 January 1942. His service included time with 124 Squadron out of Rockcliffe, England, and in Halifax. After the war ended, he remained in England, as an instructor at an air force training school. He was killed in an accident 23 June 1945.
Of the 809 young men and women who served in the Second World War, forty-two were killed. Despite the joyful celebrations on May 7-8, the war was not fully over: Japan did not surrender until well into August, and many of the soldiers, sailors and airmen released from the European front were preparing to ship out to finish that job. Even then, there were the wounds to be recovered from, the last Victory Bonds to be purchased, the returning service men and women to re-integrate into the daily lives of the community, the challenge of letting go, somehow, of the fear and suspicion of people of German or Japanese origin that had governed people’s thinking for so long. The impact of the war would go on for many months, even years, after the war itself had ended.