The horror of war. The conflict of faith. The Mennonite burden.
WINKLER — The last soldier has remnants of the war spread out on the kitchen table.
There is the grainy black-and-white photo of his troop, circa 1943, the Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry.
Which one is you, someone asked.
"I’m that old-looking boy right there," Harvey Friesen says.
That boy was just 16 years old when the photo was taken, fresh off a train from his home in Winkler. He took the trip with a schoolmate, and both teenagers were looking for adventure.
Friesen then shows the letter of commendation for his training stint at Suffield, Alta., where he and fellow recruits took part in mustard gas experiments, which put him in a hospital bed for eight days, covered head-to-toe in blisters. It would be the closest the teenager would get to live action.
Finally, Friesen shows his navy Legion blazer, which contains his volunteer, victory and Queen’s Jubilee medals, and a gold bar signifying a commendation from the Minister of Veterans Affairs in 2006.
"They’re all on the right side," Friesen said, brushing the medals with his fingers, "like the poppy, over the heart. Of course, the guys who went overseas have many more medals. And they earned them."
But this isn’t a story about medals. It’s about the little known experiences of young Mennonite men who, in many cases, defied their own family and church to enlist and fight in Second World War. In all, it’s estimated that between 3,000 and 4,500 Mennonites volunteered for the Armed Forces. In some rural Manitoba communities, that decision earned them only scorn.
And if these soldiers did survive, they did not return to a hero’s welcome. Many were shunned and ostracized by their churches. Even their family members.
Figuratively damned if they didn’t, and literally damned if they did. Some brothers left for the war, some stayed. Some families were torn apart.
"It was a cultural dilemma and a moral dilemma," noted Royden Loewen, chair of Mennonite Studies at the University of Winnipeg. "There was all kinds of dilemmas."
And to this day, some of those wounds that never involved a battle field have not yet healed. And only a precious few of the soldiers are left to tell the tale. Now 87, Friesen is the only remaining Second World War veteran alive in Winkler.
So he shrugs.
"I don’t know how much interest there will be in this story," he said. "I’m the last one left."
Updated on Saturday, November 9, 2013 at 9:26 PM CST: Corrects typo.
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