A Five Year Wait - Stephen Sherman
Stephen George Cochrane Sherman, of Boswell BC, was quick to sign up for military service in the Second World War; he enlisted with 2 Battalion Canadian Scottish on 26 June 1940, and in less than a month was on Coastal Defence duty in Prince Rupert.
Leaving home could not have been an easy decision. Stephen had been running the fruit ranch he owned with his parents for the past eleven years and supplementing the income from the ranch with work as a warehouseman for the Boswell packing shed. With his only brother living in England, a sister confined to a hospital for the mentally ill at Essondale, and his father “incapacitated from earning a living,” Stephen was undoubtedly vital to the family’s livelihood. Indeed, when asked for particulars for his family, he declared that his parents would have to hire outside help for the farm and that they could not afford to.
Stephen’s enlistment may well have been motivated in part by the patriotic fervour that was sweeping Canada, but may also have been linked to a family tradition: he and his parents had all been born in India, suggesting a long history or service with the British Army or other imperial services.
Whatever the case, twenty-nine year old Stephen acquitted himself well with the Canadian Scottish for a little over a year, and then decided he wanted to be a pilot. He joined the Royal Canadian Air Force 5 September 1941.
His dream of becoming a pilot was short lived. According to the commanding officer at No. 5 Initial Training School (Commonwealth Air Training Plan) at Belleville, Ontario, he was “physically fit but Mathematics, Signals and Navigation are hopeless.” He was shifted into the Air Gunner stream, where he redeemed himself, graduating from No. 6 Bombing and Gunnery School at Mountain View, Ontario and earning the commendation, “His air firing results are very good. He is hardworking, keen, reliable, and definitely a good type. He will make an excellent NCO.”
Stephen arrived overseas on 19 July 1942, serving first with 49 Squadron RCAF as a gunner in Lancaster bombers on submarine patrol. By the middle of February, 1944, he had flown twenty-eight missions and was eligible for alternate operational service. Instead of taking a desk job, though, Stephen signed up for officer’s training, earned his commission as Flying Officer in early April, and joined 97 Squadron.
On 13 May 1944, his parents received a telegram.
The more detailed letter arrived shortly, informing them that Stephen had gone missing during a bombing mission over Lille, France, but his parents, Stephen Sr. and Minnie, waited nearly a full year for further news. When it came, it was nothing more than a letter dated 4 April 1945 that informed them that their son was now presumed dead for official purposes. There was still no word on what had happened, and to the disconsolate parents that appears to have been worse, even, than knowing he had been killed.
In about October 1945, the older Shermans left Boswell for England, as the father later wrote, “to find out full details of my son’s death and burial and when I could cross to France.” They took up residence in southeast London and wrote constantly to military officials. Their other son, Douglas, with whom the elder Shermans lived in London, as well as a cousin in Plymouth, had also been making inquiries.
After the armistice, some Allied troops remained in Europe where, amongst other duties, they identified fallen soldiers buried in hastily-dug graves. One of these details found seven bodies in a communal grave at Lesquin, near Lille, in mid-August 1946. Two of the bodies were identified: Flight Lieutenant Smith, and Flying Officer S.G. Sherman. That identification led authorities to a report from German military units about the events of 10-11 May 1944.
Finally, on 13 March 1947, the Air Ministry was able to tell Mr. and Mrs. Sherman how their son had died and where he was buried.
Still, this did not provide the closure they needed; only visiting his grave could do that. But the Shermans, as their son had indicated when he enlisted, were not particularly well off. They had waited months to receive his military pay (a total of $758.57 which, given their financial hardships, must have been very welcome), but would have had to spend some of it for their journey to England and were now living on a pension for military survivors of $75 per month. That, in England’s post-war economy, translated into a little over £18. Mrs. Sherman was not faring well in the English climate; the couple wanted to return to Canada; they could not bring themselves to return until they had seen their son’s grave – but, in such straitened financial circumstances, travelling to France was out of the question.
Their letters to the Air Ministry and other officials got increasingly urgent. As a letter from the Ministry to the British Consulate in France noted, “A considerable amount of correspondence has been given to this case and it would be greatly appreciated if you would action [their] request for a photograph.”
Finally, in February 1949, Mr. and Mrs. Sherman received a photograph of their son’s grave in France.