Dr. C.M. Johnston's Project

Discover McMaster's World War II Honour Roll


Most of the McMaster University graduates and undergraduates commemorated on the Honour Roll of the fallen (hereafter HR) were born and raised in the Province of Ontario. The latter and its eight sister provinces made up the emergent nation designated the Dominion of Canada. In 1939, on the eve of war, this federal union was marking its seventy-two years under the banner of Confederation. It occupied a sprawling lake and bay-studded land mass at the crown of the Western Hemisphere, romanticized by the Canadian patriot as “the true north, strong and free”.

The Dominion was then home to some ten million people and extended from tiny and comparatively tranquil Prince Edward Island on the Atlantic to the bustling and expansive British Columbia on the Pacific. The most populous provinces were Ontario and Quebec, two of the founding jurisdictions that had joined Nova Scotia and New Brunswick to form the original union of 1867.

Outside francophone and almost exclusively Roman Catholic Quebec and parts of the prairie West, Ontario, and the Maritimes, Canada’s population was for the most part ethnically British and Irish in origin and, after excluding Irish Catholics, was Protestant in religious persuasion, sometimes militantly so. Inroads, to be sure, had been made by European and Asian immigrants but many in so-called mainstream society looked down on these newcomers, the maligned “other”, often insulting them with a variety of ethnic and racial slurs. Jewish newcomers and residents alike were frequently singled out for varied forms of anti-Semitic abuse. In turn Indians and Negros, as they were then known, were by and large dismissed as the ultimate other and beyond assimilation. All this was especially true in the country’s burgeoning cities where many of the immigrants came in contact with the self-styled “true born” citizen. Those who arrived in the wake of the Great Depression of 1929 faced a further challenge, the often desperate competition for elusive jobs.

Still, in one respect there was a sociological upside. In time offspring of the newcomers formed a bridge between the Old World and the New, across which they had journeyed on an assimilative merger with their Canadian mainstream. In turn that mainstream and its structure had travelled through considerable changes. For example, while agriculture, particularly its Western extension, was in 1939 an important sector of the Canadian economy, urbanization and its frequent stimulants, commerce and industrialization, had forged ahead to the point where the residents of cities and larger towns clearly outnumbered those living and working on the concession lines.

In the vanguard of this urban march were, in order of size, Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg, Vancouver, and Hamilton. The last named starkly represented the twinning of heavy industry and urban development, with such enterprises as the Steel Company of Canada (Stelco) leading the way. Though the grain elevator and cattle ranch dominated much of the West’s skyline, in central Canada the factory smokestack was becoming almost as emblematic as the rustic haystack.

The technological nuts and bolts that held everything together had been in place for some time, in certain instances for decades: the telegraph, the railway, the telephone, the motor vehicle or automobile, the airplane, and not least hydro electricity. The advent of the popular car and its vital concomitant, road improvement and the building in Ontario at least of “King’s Highways”, produced a social and economic revolution in private and public transport unparalleled since the appearance of the railway in the early Victorian period.

At the same time, while the sturdy work horse continued to be the mainstay on many farms, motorization had already wheeled itself into position in the countryside. Steam-driven and then gasoline-powered tractors and other heavy farm equipment had created a labour-saving and more efficient breakthrough of their own in agrarian Canada.

Almost paradoxically the urban centres that heartily embraced whatever mechanization was on offer still resounded to the clip-clop of horse’s hooves, the signal that equine-drawn vans were delivering dairy products, baked goods, or blocks of ice for the by now venerable “ice boxes” of the day. By 1939, however, this echo, not to mention aroma, of the countryside was beginning to fade as the electrically fueled refrigerator began to find its way into Canadian households.

The majority of Canadian homes within reach of a broadcasting station had also welcomed the often imposing piece of furniture housing the revolutionary innovation known as radio. Starting off commercially in the early’ twenties it robustly stirred the imagination of its many appreciative and dedicated listeners, both the young and the not so young. Though radio did not supplant the power and influence of books and the traditional newspaper’s coverage of news and information, it nonetheless could, as they actually unfolded, dramatize sporting events and international and domestic crises that often plagued the ‘thirties. These were relieved by comedy productions, dramatic skits, and diverse musical programming. Made to order for the younger HR generation was radio’s presentation of tales of suspense, mystery, and perilous adventure.

All of these and more were supplied visually by another innovation that had taken the country by storm, the movie theatre. Every large urban neighbourhood seemed to have its own. In the heart of Canada’s budding metropolises movie theatres could have passed for modest temples in which the assembled film addict sat enthralled by a busy Hollywood’s latest black-and-white productions. They covered a wide range to gratify every taste: westerns, dramas, romances, war stories, comedies, mysteries, hair-raising adventure serials, animated cartoons, travelogues, and newsreels. The movies that had become “talkies” in the ‘thirties and were already being enhanced by the splendour of Technicolor were a quantum leap from the silent films of past decades.

In this age of technological improvements, which somehow managed to sidestep most of the crippling effects of the Depression, the airplane too was undergoing a metamorphosis. The modernized biplane that had evolved from the flimsy “crates” flown in the Great War now had a sleek and powerful competitor. It was the twin-engined low wing monoplane that was providing air travel for those who could afford it. As for space travel, it was left to the imagination and confined to what then passed for science fiction, movie thrillers, the daily newspaper’s cartoon strips and the immensely popular comic book. One well crafted and seemingly plausible radio program about a Martian invasion of the earth unleashed a storm of anxiety among apprehensive listeners in parts of North America.

While the growing diversity of radio programming and ever more elaborate movies were strutting their stuff, the phonograph record, which was then the approximate size of a dinner plate, also had its many devotes. This was particularly true of the younger set, which avidly listened, danced, and “jitterbugged” to big swing and jazz bands whose leaders were far better known than most Canadian politicians.

On the other hand, one had to be a provable twenty-one years of age to pursue another public diversion, which dated back centuries, namely, the partaking of beer, wine, or the “demon rum”. Normally these could be consumed, not in flashy American style bars but only in invariably drab establishments euphemistically dubbed “beverage rooms”. Those who preferred to indulge at home were required, at least in Ontario, to buy a license for the purchase of beer, wine, and spirits at regulated outlets administered by the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, which monitored their operations and curtailed their hours of business.

This restriction and others could be circumvented by the albeit risky use of the “bootlegger”, who illicitly and furtively sold off hours liquor at inflated prices. All aspects, legal or otherwise, of the so-called liquor question were a constant sore point with those who administered the Baptist inspired McMaster University, the academic home of the HR generation, whose sobriety was always hopefully assumed. For Baptists and other moral guardians of society, however, there was one modestly cheering note. On the Sabbath, all licensed alcohol-dispensing places along with other business enterprises of every description, including movie theatres and dance halls, were firmly shut down out of respect for what was called the Lord’s Day. As expected, a significant part of this welcome day of rest from the weekly grind was spent praying in the pews, learning Bible stories in Sunday Schools, or listening to inspirational speakers at church-related young men’s clubs, some of which enrolled members of the HR generation.

That generation was in its adolescence when Canada underwent a constitutional transformation as well. Its impact, however, was less visible and tangible than the technological and electronic innovations of the period. In any event, Canada, the one-time British colony, had been officially accorded essentially complete autonomy in 1931, along with sister dominions Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. Together with the “Mother Country”, they duly became constituent parts of what was called the British Commonwealth of Nations.

All this high-level re- structuring of the British Empire may have meant little, however, to those harried Canadians battling through the Depression that was playing havoc with the country’s economy. Moreover, dry constitutional documents were invariably trumped by what amounted to a kind of secular religion, Anglo-Canada’s strong emotional attachment to Great Britain, still perceived as the centre of the civilized world.

The bond was reflected in any number of ways and in any number of places. For example, classrooms given over to history and geography lessons were usually festooned with large world maps showing in a distinctive red the many dominions and dependencies of a British Empire that stretched from “palm to pine” and back again. Again in school texts Canadian history was long a “colonial” too, a mere side dish to the main course of British history that dominated the menu of instruction in most schools. At another level, red postal vans bore the large inscription, “Royal Mail”, and Canada’s diminutive peacetime armed forces were regally anointed and often had “royals” serving as their honorary commanders. All this the country took as a matter of course, symbols of the overarching trans-Atlantic connection that packed such an emotional punch.

At no time was this more evident in Canada than during the jubilantly received visit of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in the spring of 1939. For a community still suffering from the lingering effects of the Depression, it was an uplifting treat and spectacle, especially for Anglo-Canadians who had never before set eyes on their monarch and his consort. On hand to greet them in south-central Ontario, along with a cheering multitude and a swarm of dignitaries, was the recently completed Queen Elizabeth Way (QEW). Named for and ceremoniously opened by the consort herself, it was a cutting edge four-lane expressway corridor connecting Toronto, Hamilton, and the American border at Niagara Falls.

All the ribbon-cutting, flag-waving, and pageantry aside, arguably the underlying goal of the royal visit was to strengthen ties with North America in general and to that end, a well orchestrated regal trip was also laid on for Washington DC. The overtures were shrewdly timed. Ominous war clouds were already gathering on Britain’s doorstep and soon she might be in need of all the friends she could muster. The alarming rants of Adolf Hitler, the dictator of Nazi Germany, who had already gobbled up Austria and Czechoslovakia, were being frequently aired on radio, reported in newspapers, and presented in movie newsreels, the media of the day.

Although Canada’s prime minister, W.L. Mackenzie King, had warmly greeted their visiting majesties, he had made it plain on several occasions that given the Dominion’s expanded autonomy, it would henceforth be for the Canadian Parliament, not the Westminster one, to decide on whether or not the Dominion should participate in future wars. Indeed at the microcosmic McMaster level in Hamilton, the institution’s new home after 1930, the war issue was addressed in the so-called peace ballots of the mid-‘thirties. Admittedly only half the McMaster student body of some six hundred participated in the polling, the other half presumably made up of the blissfully indifferent or those more interested in the job market than the vagaries of international affairs. But to the horror of the local newspaper’s editorial board, a majority of those undergraduates who did vote opposed Canada’s involvement in any future conflict, even if Britain herself were dragged into it. All the same, when a general war became a far greater certainty as 1939 wore on, it was a foregone conclusion that, however resignedly, the vast majority of Canadians, McMaster students included, would expect their Parliament to opt for the Mother Country’s side should she be forced to declare war on Nazi Germany.

On the opening day of September, 1939 that country put the issue to the test when it invaded Poland, which Britain and her ally, France, were treaty-bound to aid in such a dire circumstance. On September 3rd the Allies duly went to war against their old enemy. After observing the constitutional niceties and deliberating for several days, the Canadian Parliament predictably gave the go-ahead for Ottawa to follow suit on 10th September.

The HR generation would soon be stepping up to the plate. One of their number served at sea with the United States Navy in the Pacific. Nineteen joined the Royal Canadian Air Force and were trained under the auspices of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. Nearly all of them served in the Royal Air Force’s Bomber Command or Coastal Command. The Army was selected by the remaining fifteen who served in a variety of ground forces in Britain, Normandy, northwestern Europe, and Italy. They and hosts of other Canadians were engaged in a grim no-holds-barred contest that would determine the fate of Western civilization itself.

The Second World War, into which the Soviet Union and the United States were also plunged, was even more global than the Great War of 1914-1918. The hostilities that had begun with the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939 finally culminated six horrendous years later in the total defeat of the so-called Axis powers, Germany, Italy, and Japan, whose 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor had brought the USA into the war.


Several years after hostilities ended, an attractive red brick building christened Alumni Memorial Hall was erected on campus to honour the McMaster fallen of two world wars. A temporarily veiled tablet was installed in the new building to commemorate the 35 McMaster graduates and undergraduates who had not survived the second global conflict. Their families were invited to take part in the unveiling ceremony, which unfolded on 7 April 1951. They were joined by sympathetic members of the McMaster community, representing faculty, alumni, and students. On hand to greet and mingle with the guests was a moved George Gilmour, McMaster's President, who during the war had written personal and heartfelt notes of condolence and comfort to the grieving relatives of the fallen. Gilmour gave the Address of Acceptance acknowledging the tablet's donors, represented by R.W.S. Freeman. Invited to unveil it was a McMaster graduate ('46) with a distinguished war record, Squadron Leader William Olmsted, DSO, DFC and Bar, a former Spitfire pilot. Another veteran, a Baptist chaplain, was also in attendance, H/Major R.F. Sneyd, who, among his other duties overseas, had officiated at the wartime ordination of a fellow chaplain whose name, Albert E. McCreery, appears on the tablet.

The people assembled on that memorable and sunny spring day in 1951 could not help but notice another reminder of war and its effects. On an adjoining wall panel there was a companion Honour Roll tablet, this one fashioned years earlier to commemorate the McMaster dead of the Great War (or World War I), the war that was supposed to end all wars.**

For years I heard the Honour Roll names ritually read out at campus Remembrance Day services, or passed by the tablet itself in Alumni Memorial Hall. Sometimes I idly wondered, with the exception of two cases, who and what they were, these former McMaster students and fellow alumni. One of the exceptions was John W. Yost whom I had known as an older and affable neighbourhood boy growing up in the Delta district of Hamilton's east end. The other exception was Charles W. MacDonald who had been my teacher at Hamilton's Memorial School. Being the inspired mentor that he was, he had made history an exciting subject for many of his pupils in the years before the war. One day I resolved to find out more about these two people, where they had served and in what capacity, and how they had died. Before long I took the next obvious step and decided to broaden the search, as best I could, to include the thirty-three others who share an honoured space with them in Alumni Memorial Hall. Thus began the project which so far has produced the biographies that follow.

Family members willing to see their sons, fathers, husbands, uncles, brothers, cousins, and nephews remembered in this way, graciously provided the recollections and documentation that enormously helped the cause. In one productive case I was presented with the proverbial cigar box of old wartime letters, written by an air force navigator. In another, a tenderly cared-for binder was produced, containing descriptive, humorous, and astute letters from a young army officer serving in Italy. On other occasions I was loaned whole family archives or led to dining room or kitchen tables laden with such wartime memorabilia as diaries, postcards, photographs, flying logs, training notes, and newspaper scrapbooks. Soon enough I discovered that in every Honour Roll family I visited or corresponded with there was a diligent "keeper of the flame", the person designated or self-appointed to preserve what has since turned out to be so essential for a project of this kind. Equally essential were the memories shared with me by friends, classmates, and teammates of those who had served and died.

I have also benefited from the absorbing interest in World War II itself. Many surviving veterans have understandably kept the flame too and they have been joined by a younger generation of professional historians devoted to Clio's thriving branch known as military studies. The internet bears witness to this interest. There are numerous web sites concerned with individual military formations, which can readily be tapped by those seeking enlightenment. In the course of time an international network of committed researchers has grown up and created a living and accessible internet library of data and references. It has been matched in recent years by an outpouring of wartime reminiscences and memoirs in conventional print format, which along with a fresh crop of regimental and other unit histories have proved richly informative. Many of these publications draw, of course, upon the resources of those libraries and archives that abound in relevant materials.

Among those repositories that freely offered aid in my case were the National Archives of Canada, the Canadian Baptist Archives (CBA), housed in McMaster Divinity College, and Special Collections, McMaster University Library. The National Archives furnished military service records, war diaries, casualty investigation reports, and other vital documentation. The CBA, through the good offices of its congenial archivists, Kenneth Morgan and Mark Steinacher, made available McMaster student records, biographical files, and related documents, which often included informative correspondence and student assessments. The equally congenial and co-operative Kathleen Garay, Carl Spadoni, and Sheila Turcon at Special Collections provided access to student yearbooks and other helpful campus publications. In addition, a number of other university, college, and school libraries and archives opened their doors and released key information. A more specific acknowledgment of the assistance received from these and other sources and repositories is appended to each biography.

I am also indebted to Susan Welstead of the University Secretariat Office and to Karen McQuigge, Director of Alumni Advancement. Among other forms of welcome and cheerfully offered help, they were instrumental in having the Honour Roll biographies placed on the alumni web site.

Charles M. Johnston
Professor Emeritus of History

** Arguably the Great War Honour Roll should have been investigated first, if only to satisfy chronology. There are two reasons for my not doing so, though admittedly I run the risk of having them judged inadequate. In any event, first of all, in the case of World War II there are still extant, thanks to longevity and luck, eyewitnesses and people with first-hand recollections who can be interviewed for the vital information that often helps to illuminate the documentary record. Alas, given the inexorable passage of time, this does not hold true for the more remote Great War generation. Secondly (and possibly more selfishly), I had some memories of my own to bring to bear on the reconstruction of events during the fateful 1940s. Should time and the fates permit, however, once the World War II biographies are completed, the investigation, bound to be almost exclusively archival, will turn to those McMaster people who fell in the Great War.

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