Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Short block long on valour

One 20-house stretch of Selkirk's Dufferin Avenue sent 29 sons -- and maybe a daughter -- to war

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Mae Gulewich holds a photo of her father, John Sinclair, one of the Dufferin Gang wounded in the Second World War.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Mae Gulewich holds a photo of her father, John Sinclair, one of the Dufferin Gang wounded in the Second World War. Photo Store

SELKIRK -- The funny thing about John Sinclair being struck by two bullets during fighting in France in the Second World War was who found him.

Sinclair was one of 29 men who enlisted at the same time in 1942 from a single block on Dufferin Avenue in Selkirk.

But it wasn't someone from his residential block who found him. It was a guy named "Chappy" Adams, who lived one street over, on Robinson Avenue.

"My dad was just lying in the mud. The tanks were leaving and (Adams) said, 'Hey, that looks like Sinclair,' because my dad had moved. So they picked him up and threw him up on the tank," said Sinclair's daughter, Mae Gulewich.

Winnipeg has Valour Road, where three men earned Victoria Crosses for separate acts of bravery in the First World War.

Selkirk has Dufferin Avenue, where 29 men from a single residential block were enlisted in the Canadian Forces at the same time. Local people believe that's a record until proven otherwise.

And it's a short block. There are just 20 houses.

Almost as amazing is that the sacrifice of those men is little recognized outside of Selkirk. People here have always known their city had a high concentration of enlistees in the Second World War. And many people know about the Dufferin Gang, as they are nicknamed locally. But few people know of the Dufferin Gang outside Selkirk.

"Dad always spoke about it. 'How come nobody knows about it?' All us kids knew," said Gulewich, who still lives on Dufferin.

Ted Barris, author of 17 books on the military, and the son of famous CBC broadcaster Alex Barris, broke the story in his book, Juno: Canadians at War June 6, 1944, published in 2004.

But Barris made only passing reference to the feat. In a telephone interview from Toronto, Barris said he doesn't know if it's a record but he's never heard of anything surpassing it. The one factor working against it is it's a small block.

The Canadian military practice of putting friends, neighbours and family in the same unit helped that kind of neighbourhood recruitment back then, Barris said. It was different in the United States, where military brass tended to separate enlistees for fear an entire family or neighbourhood could be wiped out in a single battle. Even so, the Dufferin Gang was split up into various divisions: sailors, airmen, soldiers and armoured personnel.

In Selkirk, Blaine McVety of Blaine's Books, and Dr. Lorne Canvin, a podiatrist at Allan Foot Service, and a military history buff, are trying to have the Dufferin Gang recognized. They are working to erect a memorial to the veterans of Dufferin Street. They recently raised $6,000 from a "mug, spud and steak" night. They are also in talks with three levels of government for financial support, and are being assisted by the local legion.

The block on Dufferin is between Main and Jemima streets. A condo development on Main Street has agreed to leave a 250-square-foot space for a monument of some kind.

It's uncertain how many of the 29 came back. There may also have been a woman enlistee, making 30, but that hasn't been verified yet. McVety and Canvin are still researching the fate of the 29 Dufferin volunteers. The McLean family on the Dufferin block had four sons serving at the same time. The Scramstad family had three sons enlisted, and several families had two sons join.

Canvin knows one who didn't return, his cousin, Charlie Griffiths. "He was a bomber pilot and was shot down. The whole thing exploded and he was never found," he said. Canvin had another cousin and an uncle in the Dufferin Gang. McVety's father served but was not from Dufferin. Only one of the original 29 is still alive and is believed to be living somewhere in Ontario.

John Sinclair passed away last year at the age of 86. He fought with the Canadian Essex Scottish Regiment out of Windsor, Ont. He told his children he carved his initials into the Eiffel Tower in Paris shortly before his fateful battle.

Sinclair was the youngest of the Dufferin Gang, lying about his age so he could enlist at 17. "He felt left behind. Everyone else was going. He said, 'I'm not being left behind. I'm joining,' " said daughter, Mae.

Sinclair took two bullets in his left leg before he was rescued. When he finally made it back to Winnipeg, he laid on the floor in the CN Rail station on Main Street for two days while officials sorted out which hospitals the casualties would be sent to. Sinclair's left leg was almost two inches shorter after the bullets were removed, and he walked with a limp all his life. He later found employment with Manitoba Rolling Mills in Selkirk.

The extent of a memorial to the Dufferin Gang will depend on how much money the group can raise. McVety and Canvin have also begun talks with an architect. The memorial is unlikely to have a statue but it could be something along the lines of steel girders for each enlistee, since Selkirk is known for steel production.

A memorial would make Mae happy and would have greatly pleased her father. "He always wanted something to get done for the boys to remember them," she said.

bill.redekop@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 8, 2013 A4

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