Hill Wilson was not yet 17 when he joined the Canadian merchant navy as a cadet to serve during the final 12 months of the Second World War.
He also served during the Korean War and eventually emerged as an authority on the sacrifices of Canada’s merchant mariners during the war as an author — some 1,500 died during the so-called Battle of the Atlantic facing off against German submarines — and as advocate during their fight after the war to gain recognition for their utilitarian but indispensable contribution to the Allied war effort.
Ninety years old now, Wilson can look back on a life lived to the fullest, the kind of life that the great conflicts of the 20th century denied to millions of children, women, and men. Time has since claimed many of those who served during those conflicts. The last Canadian veteran of the First World War died eight years ago, while the number of veterans like Wilson, who served in subsequent wars, seeps away, their losses growing with each year.
Wilson was among the handful of veterans with first-hand knowledge of war during the late first and early second half of the 20th century, who attended ceremonies in Oak Bay marking the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, and each time one of them appeared in public view to lay a wreath, the audience spontaneously applauded.
With his medals hanging off his chest and his jacket covering his legs, Wilson followed most of the ceremony from a chair, and never appeared in public view. But the public applause was also meant for him.
“It’s very nice to be amongst people, who remember,” he said. He turn remembers those who served with him.
Some 2,000 people braved chilly temperatures under a grey ski to remember all of them Sunday morning. It opened with a territorial acknowledgment from Garry Sam of the Songhees First Nation, followed by O Canada and an opening prayer from Rev. Michelle Slater of Oak Bay United Church.
A bugle playing the Last Point marked the beginning of two minutes of silence in memory of the fallen, ending with Piper’s Lament played by Piper Sgt. David McMillian.
Following an act of remembrance, reveille, and a rendition of in Flanders Fields by Ryan Yarnell from Willows Elementary School, Rev. Angela Wood delivered a reflection in which she described the mechanisms with which First World War soldiers (which included her own grand-father and his four brothers) coped with its physical and psychological brutality through art and poetry in drawing an arch that connects the veterans of the Great War, with veterans of the Second World War, and veterans of subsequent wars.
“This [Great War] generation has passed from the world, but not their memories,” she said.”Today, we have new generations of veterans, who need our advocacy.”
Perhaps the emotional highlight of the ceremony came with the placing of the wreaths, as representatives of the armed forces, veterans’ organizations, various spheres of government including local MLA Andrew Weaver and Oak Bay Mayor Kevin Murdoch, and local protective services among others placed wreaths underneath the Cenotaph.
Towards the end of this part of the program, Jack McLellan representing the Canadian Merchant Navy Veterans Association spotted Wilson in his seat. Coming over, McLellan touched Hill’s hands, as they exchanged greetings, and reminded each other where they had last seen each other through their shared history as merchant navy mariners.
While they had never actively served with each other, they had in a way, and Sunday offered at least one last opportunity to do so again.