Second in a three-part series
As he reflects on the Second World War, Goward Heath sits still in an easy chair with his hands often folded and resting on his chest.
The 97-year-old’s speech is slow and clear until he’s asked about his work on a Royal Navy minesweeper.
Suddenly, he’s completely animated, like he’s actually on a ship in the Mediterranean or in the Atlantic, the theatres of war where he served.
Heath flashes his arms and positions them like he’s holding a rifle. He pans the room and fires a shot.
“Bang,” he whispers.
One of Canada’s oldest surviving veterans, his mind sharp as a tack, Heath was a gunner and leading seaman, firing the big, attached guns on ships. Today he lives in
Returning home from military service involved some adjustment.
Whether at sea or on land during the conflict, Heath says, they were always prepared for an enemy strike — planes, torpedos, mines.
That preparedness didn’t go away after the war when he returned to Newfoundland in 1946.
He remembers being startled by every little move, “especially if it was an aircraft or something.”
There was a guy in Corner Brook he knew who would hide under the bed if he heard a plane.
Heath’s voice fades as he talks about a good friend who died during the war.
There were also some fellows he got to know who were killed in action.
“You were expecting to get it any time,” he says.
Heath, who fell in love, married and had six children after he returned from the war, considers himself lucky.
Although they encountered German U-boats and other enemy threats, his ships were never torpedoed or bombed, although he’s quick to note there were near misses and he was an eyewitness to devastation.
“I saw an iron ore ship go down in 60 minutes. She was in the Mediterranean,” he says, adding he got used to the constant threat.
“It was the same as a day’s work and that was it.”
Eventually, for Heath, the expectation of attack subsided.
One thing that never left him was the importance of service.
He’s only missed a few Memorial Day or Remembrance Day ceremonies since the war.
A fisherman from Fogo when he enlisted, he worked as a warehouse foreman for a wholesaler in Lewisporte after the war and now lives in a retirement home.
He’s spoken in schools, laid wreaths and cut Maple Leaf cakes on July 1 to celebrate the birth of the country he helped defend.
In 1953, Heath was among the 16 servicemen who helped form Branch 31 of the Royal Canadian Legion branch in Lewisporte.
He stayed heavily involved until it closed in 2009, holding the positions of president, past-president, secretary and treasurer numerous times.
“We lost that three years ago, and never had enough (members) to keep it up,” he says of the branch.
Heath’s work with the Legion included the Remembrance Day poppy campaign.
“I really put my heart and soul in it. I still do. I can’t get at it now,” Heath says.
It bothers him when people don’t wear poppies, and it saddens him when poppy tins are stolen.
“I think it’s mean, and I don’t have a word for it,” he says. “It’s not right, especially when we know what (the money) is used for.”
Heath knows a lot about young people and remembering.
Besides his involvement with the Legion, he was an officer with an Air Cadet Squadron for 15 years, and served on a cadet sponsoring committee — until he was 90.
The importance Heath has placed on remembrance throughout his life undoubtably stems from the sacrifices he made or witnessed.
But he was reluctant to provide any more details or share memories about the losses or some of the things he saw during his years in the Navy.
“We never ever talk about the bad times, because we all done our part,” he says. “We all done our part.”
For his part, Heath was decorated with 15 medals, honours he rhymes off effortlessly.
He seems particularly proud of other awards he’s been given since the war — Queen Elizabeth’s Jubilee Commemorative Medal in 2002, the Legion’s Meritorious Service Award and Palm Leaf, and the 2005 Year of the Veteran Award.
Heath has great hope for the future of remembrance.
“It seems like the young ones growing up now are getting more attached to it. They’ll keep it up,” he says.
As of March, Veterans Affairs estimated there were 107,600 veterans of the Second World War still living in Canada.
Their average age is 88.
Monday: The effects of service on family life.