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Last Winnipeg Grenadier dies
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Last Winnipeg Grenadier dies

Back a few years ago, I came up with the idea to write a story about some of the final witnesses to the cruel infamy of the past century.

It was an idea that once the eyes of these witnesses — all who live in Winnipeg — closed for a final time, the part of history they saw in person would only be accessible to us through history books and websites, and not with the people who were there at the time.

The story, which we entitled The Final Witnesses, chronicled what a former Ukrainian woman experienced decades earlier living through the Holodomor. A woman who survived the Holocaust. A man whose family was forced off their land and moved to a sugar beet farm near Winnipeg during the Japanese internment. And a soldier who was the last of the Winnipeg Grenadiers who survived for years as prisoners of war after being captured by the Japanese army in the Battle of Hong Kong during the Second World War.

Now one of their eyes has closed for a final time.

George Peterson was 100 when he died at Deer Lodge Centre on Sept. 5. Read about him here. 

When I met him, Peterson was 96 and recovering in hospital from a couple of broken bones in his foot. But it wasn't that which was still keeping him in hospital — it was the legacy of the beriberi he was sickened with during those years in a Second World War prison camp. It was caused by not getting enough vitamin B-1 or thiamine in his body because of the white rice diet they were given.

"It's in both feet and these fingers," he said. "The nerves are damaged."

Peterson was a 20-year-old corporal and one of 915 officers and troops with the Winnipeg Grenadiers who left Winnipeg in October 1941 on their way to Hong Kong.

Less than two months later, on Dec. 7, just hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese attackers attacked Hong Kong. The Allied forces surrendered two weeks later on Christmas Day.

There was a total of 1,977 Canadian soldiers who fought in the battle and, when I spoke with Peterson, there were 16 still alive with him being the only one left of the Winnipeg Grenadiers.

Peterson was taken to the Japanese mainland to work in a coal mine.

"We didn't live. We survived on hope," he said. "We were taken prisoners of war on Christmas Day and we thought we would be out by Easter. Easter came, and then we thought Victoria Day. We didn't dare put the date too far ahead.

"We were there for three years, eight months, two weeks and one day."

Peterson was working in the mine when he was told to go up to the surface. That's when he learned the war was over. The front page of the Sept. 27, 1945 Winnipeg Free Press featured an article and photo of a smiling Peterson and his twin brother Morris returning to Canada.

Back home, Peterson helped form the Hong Kong Veterans Association so they could get together with each other and tell people what happened to them.

Peterson never forgot the soldiers who fought beside him, died beside him, and survived beside him.

Even in his obituary, which also noted he was the last surviving Winnipeg Grenadier, it said he "was extremely grateful to have been granted 76 extra beautiful years of life in Canada that many of his friends and comrades were not as privileged to enjoy."

And, when I asked Peterson what he would want people to remember after he dies, he didn't hesitate and said the ultimate futility of war.

"It’s what the War Amps say — ‘never again,’" he said.

"A war is never settled completely. There are never winners. Everyone is a loser. And the losing ones are between 19 and 30. They were the biggest losers."

Peterson, who was predeceased by his wife, one daughter, and his twin brother, is survived by two daughters.

Kevin Rollason

Kevin Rollason, Reporter

Kevin Rollason

How They Lived

Ronald McLeish was a speedster on skates.

McLeish, who died on Aug. 18 at 68, was a world-class speedskater who competed around the world. He was the Canadian long track champion in 1973 and 1974.

He later went into real estate and land development and in one subdivision — Highland Park in East St. Paul — he named several streets using his Scottish heritage, including Highland Park Drive and Tartan Way. He also named two for his daughters — Lori Lane and Jenna Cove. Read about Ronald here.

Obituaries usually have a date of birth and when a person died. Maria Lee's obituary only has one.

That's because Lee, who died on Aug. 27, didn't know when she was born because her mother died giving birth to her in Russia, her dad went off to war, and she survived being in a concentration camp.

When the camp Lee was in was liberated, she was arbitrarily given a birth date and year. All she knew was it was sometime in the 1920s.

She came to Canada, became a psychiatric nurse at the Selkirk Mental Health Hospital, met and married the son of the owner of a local Chinese restaurant, and had two daughters. Read about Maria here.

Jack Winters saw a lot of change during his career in education.

Winters, who was 87 when he died on Aug. 15, started his career in a one-room schoolhouse in Melba where he had to get up early, fire up the wood stove, and then go outside to greet the students coming there on horseback.

He next taught at Jefferson Junior High School in Winnipeg — where he met his wife — and later was a proponent of the community schools concept, which was first adopted by the Seven Oaks School Division before spreading through the city and province.

Winters was there when both James Nisbet Elementary and Ken Seaford Junior High opened and, when he retired he had gone from teaching in a one-room school house to being principal at Maples Collegiate, then the largest school in the province. Read about Jack here.

Georgina Pinette worked for years in a hospital laundry.

But it was what Pinette did in her off hours that was so exceptional.

Pinette, who was 91 when she died on Aug. 27, loved history and she loved reading history and biography books. It's probably how she got into genealogy after she retired.

And Pinette got into it in a big way. Along with two other family members, they traced her family's tree and they were able to, for part of her dad's branch, to go all the way back to 1000 A.D. Read about Georgina here.

You could say Hildy Leverton loved summer camp so much she never left.

Well, actually Leverton, who died on Aug. 29 at 90, did leave for a few years - she graduated as a nurse and worked in psychiatric nursing and took further courses.

But it was her experience at Pioneer Camp when she was a young girl which helped shape her life. It was there, she always said, she found her love of God and became a devout Christian. She also loved the canoeing, nature studies, camp fires, the life-long friends she met, and Bible studies.

And it was where, years later after being a camper, nurse and counsellor at the camp, that she returned as its girl's camp director, a position she stayed in for 33 years. Read about Hildy here.

Dr. John Foerster was a hematologist and oncologist.

But while Foerster helped many patients, he has helped many more by his central role in developing the renowned St. Boniface General Hospital Research Centre.

Foerster, who was 85 when he died on August 30, also created the prestigious International Award given out by the St. Boniface Hospital Foundation. Past recipients include Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Rosalynn Carter, Sir Edmund Hillary, Sir Bob Geldof and Steve Nash.

Because of everything Foerster did, he was honoured with many local and national awards including the Order of Canada. Read about John here.

A Life's Story

Gerry-Jenn Wilson was a rock and roll force of nature.

The daughter of a former MLA Bob Wilson, she left Winnipeg for the Vancouver music scene and became the face of numerous bands including the punk outfit JPS.

Wilson, who died in March at 52, was recently featured in our weekly feature on the front of the Saturday Passages section.

DAVE JOHNSON / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Wilson holding Psychobelia, a zine she published at 17-years-old in 1986.

"So much charisma without even trying," Wilson's JPS bandmate and long time friend Ligaya Fatima told Jen Zoratti.

"Just absolutely naturally gifted with whatever that touch of the universe is."

Wilson even wrote a song about her dad, "The Ballad of Bob Wilson", about his conviction on drug conspiracy charges, which ended his career in the 1980s, because she maintained his innocence.

Until next time, I hope you continue to write your own life's story.