by Chris Daponte
(November 2, 2012)
On a warm October evening, as he has done dozens of times before, John Walsh provides a tour of the Arthur and Area Historical Society’s headquarters on George Street here. He points to photos - including his own - of Second World War veterans from the village lining the walls of what society members have come to call the “military room.”
Now 86, though he looks closer to 70, Walsh has myriad memories and stories to go along with many of these faces. But on this particular day, a sombre and inescapable detail captures his attention.
“You don’t realize how many are gone until you start going through them,” he says quietly of those killed in action and those who have died in the 67 years since the end of the war.
In 1942, one out of every seven Arthur residents was involved in the Second World War (126 from a population of 890), prompting the Toronto Star to publish a now-famous front page story that November entitled “Arthur village gives sons and money to aid the war.”
It was the highest ratio Canada, in comparison to villages of comparable size, leading to the moniker “Canada’s most patriotic village.” By the end of the war, 338 Arthur residents had enlisted and 25 were killed in action.
It was not uncommon for families to have more than one member volunteer for the war - some had as many as three to six - or for those families to experience multiple casualties.
Walsh said he believes a number of factors contributed to Arthur’s overwhelming support for the war.
“You kind of felt as though you were a slacker if you weren’t [in the service],” Walsh recalls of the sentiment in the village, adding he had many friends and several cousins who also volunteered.
“I think that was carried forward from the First World War.”
He noted a lot of locals fought in the Great War, many of whom were killed (Walsh estimates 41), and many of their sons were among those who volunteered between 1939 and 1945.
The village had also offered great financial support of the first war, becoming the first community in Ontario to reach its war bond quota within a few minutes. Arthur led the communities in Wellington County for every other war and victory bond campaign and surpassed all objectives. In total, Arthur raised $250,000, equal to 64 per cent of the assessed value of the village’s taxable property.
In addition to the palpable obligation to carry on the patriotic tradition started in the Great War, Walsh said the harsh economic reality of the 1930s also influenced a number of local men to enlist during the Second World War.
“It was right after the depression ... [fighting] was a paying job, and for a lot of them, they hadn’t had one,” he said.
That the area was populated by a lot of residents with strong English ties, also spurred on some young men to join the war effort, he added.
Walsh was born on a farm just outside Arthur but moved to the village in 1932, at the age of six, with his mother and four siblings after the death of his father.
He was in high school when the war broke out and decided to enlist not long after his 18th birthday.
It was around the time of D-Day (June 6, 1944) and reports of heavy Allied casualties had flooded local and national media reports for the preceding two years, so Walsh’s mother was very concerned about her son’s decision to volunteer.
“I think most mothers would react the same way - kind of proud that you did it, but at the same time they’d be worried,” Walsh said.
He had applied ahead of time to both the Navy and Air Force and, just days after turning 18, he received a letter from the Navy that was very succinct.
“It just said ‘you will report on this date’,” he said with a laugh.
He was sent to basic training in London, Ontario - it was “quite a change” he said, despite his cadet experience - before advanced training at the Cornwallis base in Nova Scotia. He also received additional training in the use of sonar before being stationed to the HMCS Wallaceburg, a 990-ton minesweeper, in the fall of 1944.
Walsh’s crew completed many “triangle runs” and “mid-ocean meetings” as an escort to various convoys in the north Atlantic that were making their way from Nova Scotia to Europe, and vice versa.
His job, as part of the ASDIC team (the anti-submarine detection investigation committee), was locating submarines. Luckily for his crew, German forces were taking a beating in Europe at the time and submarines were not as commonly detected in the area.
“But there were some in the east coast,” he said, noting another Canadian ship was torpedoed in March of 1945 near Halifax.
According to the Canadian Military History Gateway website (http://www.cmhg.gc.ca), the minesweeper Guysborough was sunk near Halifax on March 17, 1945, killing 44 of its 70 crew members.
Records show several other ships were torpedoed by German submarines in early 1945 off Canada’s east coast.
“No one on our ship was killed, but I know a lot that were,” Walsh said.
He was discharged in December 1945 and went to “rehab school” in Kitchener to complete his high school education.
He wasn’t sure what he would do for work, until town druggist Maurice Douglass asked if he would be interested in working at the pharmacy.
“I never gave it much thought before that,” said Walsh.
He served a three-year apprenticeship with Douglass Drugstore in Arthur, followed by two years at the University of Toronto, and graduated in 1952.
Later that year he purchased the inventory and fixtures of Russells’ Pharmacy in Arthur, located where the L&M Market parking lot is today.
Walsh also married his wife, Mary Teresa, in 1952 (she passed away last year), and they had eight children.
In 1955 Walsh built a larger store further north on George Street. The store, which has undergone two major renovation projects, celebrated its 60th anniversary earlier this year.
Though his son Joe took over the business several years ago (two of his grandsons also want to get into the field), Walsh still works about 12 to 15 hours per week at the iconic store on the corner of George and Charles Streets.
Walsh, whose face is as familiar as they come to area residents, dedicates much of his time now to the Arthur and Area Historical Society.
“I was always interested in it,” he said of local history.
Walsh is currently writing his third book on the history of the village, and he donates the proceeds from book sales back to the society.
His dedication is certainly not lost on those in the community - particularly members of the historical society.
“He’s not one to boast about it, but the society just wouldn’t exist without him,” said Mabel Henderson, of Arthur, an active member of the society.
Walsh explained both he and fellow Arthur resident Dave Stack had for years discussed aspects of local history and the possibility of a group dedicated to its preservation.
“We finally decided to call a meeting,” Walsh said with a smile.
Both he and Stack were founding members of the society, which was officially established in January of 2003.
Also at the first meeting was Henderson, who credits Walsh with the impressive collection of books, photos, artifacts and photos displayed in the historical society rooms.
“Everybody’s been behind John the whole way,” said Henderson. “He certainly is the heart and soul of the historical society, and he’s done so much to remember the veterans.”
In recent years, Walsh and the historical society have taken on a number of local projects, including:
- three murals, two of which are completed (Walsh actually posed as the saluting veteran for the mural on the side of Sussman’s);
- several Memories of World War Two books (900 sold to date) and DVDs featuring firsthand accounts of local veterans;
- unveiling of historical plaques in smaller communities in Wellington North Township; and
- various tours and lectures, including a recent trip to the Niagara area to commemorate the bicentennial of the War of 1812.
Walsh is also on the committee - composed of Legion and historical society members - in charge of restoring the village’s cenotaph, which was built of stones gathered from local farms and unveiled in 1923.
“It needed some work,” Walsh said. “We hope to have everything finished by Nov. 11.”
The restoration will include stone pointing, repair and cleaning of marble panels, and removing and cleaning two plaques that Walsh says were “almost impossible to read.”
In what some might characterize as a modern-day validation of Arthur’s “most patriotic village” status, local service clubs, businesses, organizations and individuals have rallied to raise funds for the project (and two local tradesmen have also volunteered their services).
“The response, financially, has been amazing,” Walsh said. “People have been very generous.”
He explained the committee is still about $12,000 short of covering the expense, but he adds, “I’m quite sure we’ll get it” (donations can be made at the Royal Bank in Arthur or be sent to the Arthur Legion Cenotaph Fund, Box 341, Arthur, ON, N0G 1A0).
In the meantime, Walsh will continue his work with the historical society and serve as a guide for tours of the rooms at 146 George Street (the former Arthur village municipal building is owned by Wellington North Township and is also home to the chamber of commerce, the OPP and the local food bank).
Some visitors stop by to research pieces of local history, while others are looking for clues to complete their family trees.
For Walsh, one of the most rewarding aspects of his role is the visits by students from various local schools.
“You never know ... out of a class of 25 or 30, you may get one or two that show an interest and they may carry on with that,” he said. “It’s worth the effort.”