“I was two when he went overseas,” said Doug Kirker, sitting quietly in his living room in Prescott. “I don’t remember him. What I do remember, even though I was so very young, was seeing that old phone on the wall of our house. And seeing my grandmother and my mother crying and crying. I can still see that.”
The official word had arrived in Brinston, Ontario. Lorne Kirker, small town boy, graduate of Iroquois High School, proud member of the Governor-General’s Foot Guards – and Doug’s father – had been killed in action near a town called Moerstraten, in Holland.
The Foot Guards, part of the First Canadian Army, had been sent shortly after D-Day, to try and force the Germans, deeply embedded in Holland, to either pull completely out of Dutch territory, or to surrender. Holland had been under Nazi occupation for nearly four years. As part of a master defence strategy, the Germans around Moerstraten opened the region’s dikes, deeply flooding the fields south of the town. The tank Lorne Kirker was driving was attempting to plow through the water-logged, flat farmland on the morning of October 29,1944. His heavy tank could not travel quickly under the difficult conditions and its maneuverability would have been compromised.
Suddenly, the Canadian tank was raked by repeated devastating machine gun fire.
When it was silent again, four of the crew were dead.
Lorne Kirker, Doug’s father, was 24 years old.
In battle, men were often hastily buried where they fell, so originally Lorne Kirker was buried at Moerstraten. But in the months after the war ended, his body was moved to Bergen Op Zoom, to be re-interred in a big Canadian War Cemetery created not far from the town.
May 5, 1945, is the day the people of Holland call their Liberation Day. That was the day the German forces in Holland formally surrendered to the Canadians after nine months of vicious fighting. It is a day the Dutch never forget.
This year, in May of 2015, the 70th anniversary of the liberation, the Dutch government and people brought surviving Canadian veterans of that campaign, and descendents of the 7,600 Canadian soldiers killed in the fight, to join them in the national celebration of liberation.
Although he had gone to Holland once to find his father’s grave, Doug had never been back. Thirty-five years later, he decided that, accompanied by his daughter, Lesley, he should make the memorial trip in one of the special planes chartered through KLM.
“The plane we travelled on from Toronto was packed,” Doug said. “There was even a pipe band, the Mariposa Pipe & Drums, along. And also with us were nine actual veterans of the Holland campaign. They ranged in age from 87-97, and there was a great pride and energy in those men.”
The Canadians got a taste of the welcome which lay ahead on their landing in Amsterdam. “Our plane was taxiing up to the terminal when it suddenly stopped. These fire trucks came out along side it. They saluted the veterans with a water display. When we got off the plane, the whole crew was lined up to wish us well. It was really something.”
Again and again, the Canadian visitors discovered the deep and enduring appreciation of the Dutch for their liberators. They do not forget. Streets and towns and buildings carry the names of Canadian soldiers. The War cemeteries are immaculate, each grave carefully tended, often by the school children of Holland. “I was really tense going on this trip,” said Doug Kirker. “But I found a meaningful sense of closure in this journey. It was an honour to go to my dad’s grave. The Dutch people really care, even after 70 years. And every time I said to Lesley, it can’t get any better than this, the Dutch showed us something else that was fantastic.”
His host family, Gerrit and Hanneke Brillman, made their Canadian guests very welcome. They drove them to many of the Canadian cemeteries, took them to memorial services and to the great celebrations. The Brillmans also took them to the Memory International War Museum where “we saw artifacts from the War, actual rifles and bombs, original uniforms, the stars Dutch Jews had to wear, tanks and machine guns and jeeps.”
“We went to Moerstraten to see the monument which marks where soldiers like my dad died. It is wooded around the monument now, but in 1945, the pictures show a barren field. We joined the children of the local school and their teachers for a ceremony of remembrance. Lesley passed out poppy quarters and pins of Canadian flags.
And then we went to Bergen Op Zoom, to finally stand beside a grave marked Guardsman L. R. Kirker. Lesley and I placed a wreath with the word, Canada, on it against Dad’s stone. We also placed banners from the Prescott and Iroquois Legions there. And then we put some private personal mementos with him as well. It was sad to see that on one side of him was another 24-year-old and on the other side, an 18-year-old.”
In Wageningen, the Kirkers joined thousands at the parade which honoured veterans and Canadian soldiers. They heard ‘Canadees Volkslied’, the Canadian national anthem played: the streets were lined with people. “They even waved at our bus,” Doug recalled. “It was all deeply touching.”
Doug shared a side bar story. “On the very day we arrived at Bergen Op Zoom cemetery, authorities were digging a new grave in the Canadian cemetery. We found out later that excavations along a canal had revealed an unmarked Canadian soldier’s grave. With the help of the Canadian military and government, the Dutch were able to identify this soldier, even after 70 years. He was Pt. Albert Laubenstein from Saskatoon. The Dutch held a ceremony and finally buried him among his comrades.”
The Kirker family continues a tradition of service to this nation. “My grandfather, George Dunn, served in World War One. Lesley is a Corrections Officer, as is my other daughter,” Doug explained. “One son is OPP, and the other is a retired fire fighter.”
Doug Kirker believes that this 2015 journey to Holland was, for him, “the trip of a life time.” At age 72, he is unlikely to get back to Europe, to see again his father’s grave. But a new generation of Kirkers has come to care about the grandfather and great-grandfather they never knew. “My daughter said this was a trip which changed her view of family, and gave her, for the first time, an understanding of how deeply the Dutch felt about their liberation. She couldn’t get over the nation’s gratitude to Canada. In 2020, I think she is planning to take her children to Holland to make the connections.”
And to visit that special grave in a quiet Dutch cemetery.