Dusty attic gives up little-known chapter of Canada's war history

Nearly 300 letters detail life abroad in the Canadian Forestry Corps

By Richard Foot, Canwest News Service, June 22, 2009

Like many Second World War veterans, Pat Hennessy never talked much about his wartime service. But nearly four decades after his death, his own vivid memories -- and the story of a little-known chapter of Canada's war history -- have come to life in a rich cache of private letters discovered in a dusty New Brunswick attic.

Hennessy was one of 7,000 Canadian lumbermen who served in the Canadian Forestry Corps in the 1940s, felling trees in the Scottish highlands for the war effort. It wasn't heroic work but it was critical: the Allied armies needed huge quantities of wood for everything from ammunition crates and soldiers' coffins to building materials for factories and army living quarters.

Hennessy's family in Bathurst, N.B., had known for years about their grandfather's service as a cook in the Scottish lumber camps during the war.

But the old man never discussed his experiences in detail before he died in 1970. And anyway, his exploits paled beside those of other family members who had flown Lancaster bombers, or served as spies in Germany.

"He wasn't fighting the Nazis or landing on the shores of Normandy or flying Spitfires," said Melynda Jarratt, Hennessy's granddaughter. "We knew he was a cook in the Forestry Corps, which always seemed sort of lame compared to what my uncles had done."

All that changed last summer, when Jarratt's cousins found, while rummaging in the attic of the old Hennessy home, an extraordinary archive of nearly 300 letters written by Hennessy to his wife and children during the war. Lying in a dark corner of the attic was a large lump, covered by a soiled canvas tarp, apparently untouched for half a century.

"They pull it off and what do they find?" said Jarratt. "Handmade crates with latches on them, and old chests, holding something meant to be protected. They bring all this stuff downstairs and discover inside my grandfather's letters from Scotland -- hundreds and hundreds of them -- a treasure-trove of history."

Jarratt and her relatives pored over the letters, which for decades had been carefully stored by their grandmother Beatrice when she was alive.

Not only did they discovered a detailed archive of life in the Forestry Corps, they also found the poignant story of a serviceman, thrilled to be working for five years near the town of Beauly, in the far north of Scotland, but also deeply worried about his family in Canada and longing to see them again.

"There's one amazing letter where he just describes the scene around the cook house," said Jarratt. "He describes the birds and flowers in the most loving way for his wife, whom he knew would never have a chance to see it for herself.

In other letters -- every one of them opened by army censors -- he writes about the news of the deadly Canadian raid on Dieppe, the triumphant Normandy landings and the Battle of the Atlantic.

And in others he frets about how his wife and children are keeping up the family farm, and he pleads with his Beatrice -- in vain as it turned out -- not to allow his 18-year-old sons to enlist.

The war in Europe, he writes again and again, "is no place for a boy."

Jarratt, a Fredericton historian who has chronicled the story of Canada's war brides, is in the process of putting every one of Hennessy's letters on a website -- lettersfrombeauly.com -- and is looking for surviving veterans of the Forestry Corps, to gather their stories alongside her grandfathers', for a book about the service.

The letters will be donated to the New Brunswick Archives.

Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen

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