Remembrance Day Tribute: Our Beloved Eddie

A Soldier’s Story, A Farm Boy Hero

How do we thank a war veteran? How do we express our gratitude to the men and women who have defended Canada on the battlefield, be it in the Second World War or in Afghanistan?

I see the seasoned veterans proudly wearing poppies. I’ve watched on television the parades of soldiers newly-returned from Afghanistan, and I struggle with the question, “How in the name of god do we ever find the words to say thanks for what you’ve done for us?”

For many Canadians, the mention of Remembrance Day conjures up images of aging war veterans or medal-bedecked heroes. These are the familiar, and genuine, faces of war.

But, in a quickening of a heart beat, and a tightening of my throat, my thoughts turn to Eddie.

Eddie. That name echoed throughout my childhood, uttered in moments of thoughtful, and sometimes sad, remembrance by my Dad and my aunts.

On Remembrance Day I think not so much of medal-adorned soldiers but I save my thoughts for an innocent, 24-year-old farm boy  I never got to meet, but whose name and memory have been a family fixture since I was a boy, pointing at a black-and-white photograph of my dad and his six brothers and wondering, “Who’s that? Who’s the missing one?”

Trooper Edward Henry O’Neill. Slaughtered on a summer’s day, July 21, 1944, in a remote town north of Rome during the Second World War, in the hell that was the Italian campaign, the Allied effort to rid Europe of the Huns.

Eddie was my uncle, one of my dad’s older brothers. In fact, six of my father’s brothers volunteered for armed service in the Second World War and were sent overseas to fight in Europe. My Dad was too young to join. The war ended before he was able follow in his brothers’ footsteps. My uncles William, Patrick, Bernard, John, Paul and Edward, who had rarely ventured more than a few miles from the family farm, were shipped overseas to to defend their country on foreign soil. Eddie was the one who didn’t return.

Trooper Edward Henry O’Neill, lost his life July, 1944, at age 25

No doubt some of these farm lads from southern Ontario anticipated adventure, perhaps a new experience.  Others simply did what they felt compelled to do. The O’Neill lads had virtually no experience of the world outside our rural concession road.

From all accounts, Eddie was the humorous one. He had an adventurous side. Family lore has it that he even got engaged to a Dutch girl while overseas. Is it the romantic in me that is glad Eddie knew love in his short lifespan? But what do I know of the horrors this young man experienced in the battle field?

I know Eddie’s service number: B/4698. I know the name of his regiment: The Three Rivers Regiment. I also know the names of his four buddies who were slaughtered along with him on that summer’s day in 1944: Thomas Lewis, Enoch Owen, Joseph Anton Whitaker, Ross Whittard. I know they were Canadian, most likely all in their 20s, just like my uncle.

I struggle to think of him as “Uncle Edward.” In my mind’s eye, he will always be “young Eddie.” At his age, I was starting university, trying to find my way in the world. He, on the other hand, was navigating a living hell to save his country. How do I say “thank you”? How do I honour his memory?

Can I even begin to imagine what he saw from the age of 20 until his death at age 25? I also have difficulty imagining what it was like for my Aunt Elizabeth, the baby of the family, who was only 11 years old when the war broke out. What was her adolescence like knowing six of her big brothers were overseas fighting?

What was it like the day my father’s family received news of Eddie’s death?

My uncles were reluctant to talk about their experiences during the war. They too suffered wounds, both visible and hidden. I remember curiosity getting the best of me when I was in high school, and I plied my oldest aunt with questions. I seem to recall her telling me that my grandmother saw a black car coming up the dirt road and stopping at their gate at the end of the lane. Gas rationing was in effect so any automobile coming down their country road would have caught their attention.

The telling of the story becomes murky as the years pass on. Did my aunt explain it like this, or has my imagination filled in the details? Apparently, the parish priest and a member of the armed forces got out of the car and walked up to the modest farm house

Was my grandmother standing on the porch watching, overcome with impending grief, knowing full well it could only mean one thing? It’s only conjecture that allows me to imagine what thoughts flew through her mind as the bearers of bad news approached her porch? “Willy, Patrick, Bernard, John, Paul, Eddie. Which of my boys? Which one of my sons?” I still struggle to imagine what the war years were like for her, going about her daily chores as a farmer’s wife, constantly worrying and praying for her six sons who were fighting overseas.

Young Eddie never made it home from World War Two. He died in Italy at age 25. He lies in a cemetery for Canadian soldiers, in Abrezzo Italy. He was the uncle I never knew.

Eddie lies buried in the Arezzo War Cemetery, which lies on the main road from Rome to Florence. My cousins Rosemary and Ron were the first family members to make the pilgrimage to his grave in the 1990s. The snapshot they took of his grave enabled my aunt Elizabeth, Eddie’s baby sister, to finally draw closure half a century later.

Veterans Affairs Canada  does an admirable job of suggesting ways we can all – including young Canadians – honour the men and women who served Canada in times of war.

You can attend a Remembrance Day memorial service. You can devote two minutes to silence on November 11. You can wear a poppy with pride.

Me? I shall spend time remembering a young man named Eddie, a young man who gave his life for family and country. And I shall thank him from the bottom of my heart.

Have you found a special way to honour our men and women in uniform on Remembrance Day?