Two years into the Second World War, Clair Oreal Hawn, father of Elmira resident Rob Hawn, tried to follow in the footsteps of three of his older brothers who had already enlisted. He was trained at the Barriefield Military Camp in Kingston and shipped to Debert, Nova Scotia, before being discharged when it was discovered he was just 16.
“He got there then his mother found out and she squealed and he was sent home, but when he turned 18, he re-enlisted,” said his son Robert Hawn of Elmira.
For Rob, Remembrance Day stretches back to his father’s service, but through the intervening years.
Clair, originally from Newington, Ont. was trained at Vimy Barracks after reenlisting and served in Groningen, Netherlands, among other locations in Holland.
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While Clair did not talk about his service much around his children, he did share his experience with the Memory Project, an initiative of Historica Canada to record the recollections of veterans. Quotes from Clair in this article are taken from a transcript of that interview found on The Canadian Encyclopedia website.
“Actually, I wanted to be a dispatch rider, which was really a kind of a dangerous experience. But this is what I liked at that time,” Clair said.
As dispatch rider, Clair served in the Canadian 2nd Corps. He originally road motorcycles to deliver the messages, but switched to jeeps when that became too dangers
“Our enemy put up wires across the highways so dispatch riders would get caught right around the neck and be thrown off the bike,” Clair explained.
“He lost a few friends that way. It was traumatic, as it was for many,” added Rob.
“When he got home, never touched [a motorcycle] again. You hear about the hot-rodders in California becoming pilots and whatnot coming back and bringing MGs to race in the States. He didn’t want anything to do with it,” Rob said.
Clair also shared what it was like to be a jeep dispatcher in Holland.
“I was in Nijmegen, Holland and in a Jeep. [At] Nijmegen, there was a bridge there between Nijmegen and Arnhem, and the Germans were firing on that every night. There was a sign, if you went over there to deliver messages, there was a sign that [said] “No speed limit – rush like hell,” he explained.
Clair’s brother Donald Brooks Hawn was killed in Italy in 1944 when he was in a transport on a bridge that was blown up. He is buried at the Caserta war cemetery.
Rob highlighted how young his dad and many others who served in the war were.
“People that were most involved in the war were anywhere between 18 and 25 – hardly any of them were over 30. So it was really a testament to their skill and spirit to stick it out and survive that.”
There may have been an element of naivety involved, Rob said.
“If you recall, back when you were in high school, most of us felt like we’re pretty much bulletproof. ‘What could possibly happen? I can take on just about anything. What are you worried about?’ And then get to something like that and your eyes are opened and your butt is kicked,” Rob said.
Clair recalled the exact moment he learned the war ended.
“I was in the ticket booth of a theatre… and that’s when the war ended. We heard the war was over and we didn’t believe it because, you know, it just didn’t come from a very good source, I didn’t think. But the next day we found out it was true,” he explained.
Following the war, Clair moved with his family to Streetsville where he met and married his wife Gwen in 1950. The couple later had four children.
Clair had multiple jobs throughout his working career, including at Orenda Engines working on the Iroquois engine for the Avro Arrow plane. Clair worked hard to support and show love for his family, Rob said.
“I guess the thing that really impressed me the most was hard work. He didn’t shy away from it at all….When he got home [from work], he was always on a project or something. The instance of doing your own work and doing it well,” Rob added.
“He was a ’20s-30s-40s type male. He was the kind of guy that figured the man of the house had to do the man’s work and the women’s work was the women’s work, which is a bit misguided today,” Rob explained
It was the care for his family that has stuck with Rob through the years.
“He was concerned about family. He worked hard for it [and did] a lot of stuff himself, put additions on the house we lived in in Mississauga and built the garage. He used to buy cars, fix them up and sell them to make a little bit of profit,” Rob explained.
“He was a good person. He was very concerned about family and making a home for his family. He was one of six kids, and he was the only one to go to high school. Because of that, his siblings insisted that he be the one that kind of manoeuvred everything that needed to be done to take care of his mother when she went into a nursing home.”
Clair, who died in April 2019 at the age of 94, left one important lesson even those who did not know him can take away from his life.
“Without being too specific about my dad – because he was not special in any given way, except to us – it’s just that family is really the thing that everybody needs. And it’s made a difference to us as kids to have the trust in him. It took away any concerns we had about what’s next. It means a lot that he was a foundation for the family,” Rob said.