Remembering New Westminster’s heroes
New Westminster’s annual Remembrance Day Ceremony will be Thursday, November 11, 2010 at the Royal Westminster Regiment Armoury. People are asked to assemble by 9:30 a.m. at the Armoury, and the ceremony will begin at 10 a.m. Overflow seating is available at nearby Queen’s Avenue United Church. Following the ceremony, there will be a procession to the Cenotaph in front of City Hall, where two minutes of silence will be observed at 11am.
For many younger people, it can be harder to understand the importance of Remembrance Day because fewer Veterans are left surviving from times of war. Over the past 50 years, New Westminster’s residents have not had as many friends and relatives who have gone to war for our country and brought those experiences home to share, and knew people who have been lost in war.
Throughout my life I have met many Veterans, been touched deeply by their stories, as well as learning of the long and diverse history of The Royal Westminster Regiment (the oldest Unit in B.C.) and our Armouries, so this week I will share the stories of a few special heroes and look briefly at the story of a very special place on Queen’s Avenue.
Over the past 150 years, thousands of people have protected New Westminster, and fought, served and died elsewhere around the world during several times of war, since the time Queen Victoria sent the Royal Engineers here to protect the Fraser River. After they finished their duty in 1863, about 55 of the soldiers who remained here came together with some civilians to establish the New Westminster Volunteer Rifles. They protected the city and built the Armouries building on Queen’s Avenue in the 1890s. It survived the 1898 fire and served as a hospice for people whose homes were lost while the city was rebuilt. In 1910, the Rifles became the 104th Fusiliers of Canada and trained people from around the area during the First World War with 2 Battalions. They became the Westminster Regiment in 1924 and served throughout World War II and shortly after served an important part in securing the city during the floods of 1948. They became the Royal Westminster Regiment in 1967 and been maintained as a reserve Battalion since that time.
The Victoria Cross is the highest award granted to a very small number of Commonwealth soldiers (about 1350 since 1856) for very special courage in duty. Three people serving New Westminster have been granted the Victoria Cross during World War I and World War II. The first person serving New Westminster to win was Corporal Filip Konowal, for his bravery in France in 1917. He was a Ukranian-born soldier, who emigrated here just before World War I. He was trained in New Westminster as part of the 47th Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Forces and was one of 6500 men from around New Westminster deployed to serve in Europe between 1916-1918. Cpl. Konowal was leading a section of soldiers near Flanders on August 22, 1917 during a very difficult time mopping cellars and houses to provide protection for others. Cpl. Konowal was an expert in quickly dealing with difficult situations underground, and on 3 different occasions in 24 hours he stormed forward into dangerous situations and killed at least 16 enemy soldiers continuously to gain protected land until he was severely wounded. For this amazing work he was awarded the Victoria Cross later that year. Unfortunately, Filip Konowal’s injuries took several years to recover from and he eventually moved to Hull, Quebec where he died in 1959.
During the Second World War, two people born and raised in New Westminster were awarded the Victoria Cross. The first one was Major John Keefer Mahony, a company commander with the Westminster Regiment at the River Melta in Italy in the spring of 1944. Commanded to secure a line across the river on May 24, Maj. Mahony led his company across and survived assaults from German guns on 3 sides throughout the day and into the evening. He held strong with injuries and maintained his company as it weakened. They finally drove back the German guns and secured the river for other Commonwealth soldiers to cross. For his incredible fortitude and disregard of his own condition, Maj. Mahony was awarded the Victoria Cross by King George VI in July of 1944. When he arrived home to New Westminster, Maj. Mahony was proudly welcomed and honoured. He continued in the Army to become a Lt. Col, working across the country with youth. He died in 1990 in London, Ontario.
Perhaps the most well-known New Westminster Winner of the Victoria Cross is Private Ernest “Smokey” Smith. Born in New Westminster in 1914, he joined the Seaforth Highlanders in 1942 and was deployed to Italy. On the night of October 21, 1944, Pte. Smith was part of an infantry force spearheading an attck over the Savio River during bad rains. Pte. Smith fought hard to wreck a Nazi tank, then moved out to drive the German soldiers in it away, helped a fallen comrade and protected the river courageously all night. For this work, he was awarded the Victoria Cross by King George VI at Buckingham Palace. After he returned, “Smokey” Smith’s great sense of humor lent well to him becoming a figurehead for Veterans and Remembrance Day in New Westminster, British Columbia and across the country for nearly 60 years. He told his story well, remembered his fallen friends and laughed with everyone. He was later awarded the Order of B.C., The Order of Canada and upon his death 5 years ago “Smokey” Smith was celebrated for his many years of work. His last words to Colin Stevens in July, 2005 were “You’re all invited to my Funeral”.
Hopefully hearing the stories of great courage and service by these people through the years will help some of you understand Remembrance Day better. I know I will think of the people I’ve met and learned about over the years. I will also think of the soldiers from the Royal Westminster Regiment who continue to serve in the war in Afghanistan. In my research for this article I learned Master Corporal Colin Basin, a soldier from Abbotsford serving the Royal Westminster Regiment , died in service in 2007. I will think of him this Thursday.
Ken Wilkinson is a founding member of the Friends of New Westminster Museum & Archives Society, which aims to help more people learn about the unique and vibrant history of our community and region.