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.
Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories? Please use the form below and let us know.
Having problems with the form?Contact Us Directly
RCMP investigate bee deaths in Manitoba
Beautiful buildings, bad planning dominate discussions at mayoral forum
Jackson croons his way into hearts of country-lovin' MTS centre crowd
Knife-wielding driver subdued at scene of crash
More boats in the water, more chances of finding something: Nepinak on Drag the Red River
Over 2,000 homes threatened in California fire
Province giving $100K to help with Ebola
CFL needs to follow NFL's lead, adopt policy against domestic abuse
Hustler and Lawless: Live at the News Café
Avril Lavigne and Chad Kroeger to split?
Replay: News Café hosts mayoral forum on urban planning
Wanted: top pot grower
Bowman offers up solutions to city's infrastructure woes
Rob Ford devastated by rare-cancer diagnosis
Mayoral candidates offer no vision for city: Chamber of Commerce
Bones discovered on riverbank still have to be examined
Vogiatzakis hoping to appeal to get on mayoral ballot
Steeves would boost speed limit signage, takes aim at photo-radar
Manitoba sees net gain of MDs over 2013
Fed keeps rates low, but brace for the inevitable
Harbouring runaway stymies CFS
Fielding will be PC candidate for Kirkfield Park
Soprano Gauvin earns bravas at MCO season opener
Expect lots of new faces on Winnipeg school boards
Streets near Forks closed Friday for CMHR opening ceremonies
Vigier analyzes Maurice's likely impact as Jets head coach
Rally to shed light on African Ebola epidemic
Collision in Brokenhead proves fatal
Searchers find bones near river
Extra blast of summer-like weather headed our way
After making 'mistake,' Vikings bench RB Peterson
Candidates offer food for thought
Orange is the new black
Scratching a seven-year itch
Big break in ambush probe: suspect's abandoned SUV
Comic books take over TV with four new series
Muskox makes rare appearance in Manitoba
Judy W-L vows to help spur ideas
One journey ends, another begins
A fond farewell to my buddy, Dale