A Chaplain’s Gift

A Chaplain’s Gift

From A 2nd Helping of Chicken Soup for the Soul

A Chaplain’s Gift

When World War II was declared in 1939, I was seven years old; my brother was five. For the next four years we paid little attention to world affairs and felt childishly safe on our parents’ farm, just west of the Alberta town of Rocky Mountain House. War bond drives and ration coupons only slightly affected our young lives. Even the enlistment of our two older brothers—one in the Army, the other in the Navy—meant little. We were much too young to understand the anxieties the adults experienced every time they read the newspapers or heard the nightly news broadcasts.

Neither of us heeded media reports of the devastation taking place on the various battlefields in Europe. However, the death of our older brother on an Italian battlefield and the events that occurred on our farm that day have made a lasting impression on both of us.

That winter day—December 7, 1943—began no differently than any other. My brother and I ate breakfast in silence while our mother listened to the 7 A.M. news on our old battery radio. “Today marks the second anniversary of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor,” the announcer reminded us. Then he went on to update the progress the Canadian Army was making. Tears filled Mother’s eyes as she thought of her son, who was undoubtedly in the midst of it. Angrily she exclaimed: “Leonard should have been sent home after he was wounded in Sicily. I hope he is strong enough to withstand the stress of combat so soon after being injured.” Then, hoping to block out anything further that would intensify her fears, she reached up and turned off the radio.

We finished breakfast and completed last-minute preparations for school. After donning warm clothes we stepped outside, only to be greeted with a dreary day. There were ice crystals in the air and hoarfrost hung on the trees. Patches of fog drifted over the low-lying areas, making our one-and-a-half-mile walk unpleasant. School was even more depressing in the dimly lit one-room schoolhouse we attended. We were both relieved when the teacher dismissed us for the day.

We hurried home that afternoon, hunching our shoulders against the chill in the air. Along the way, we noticed our mother coming to meet us. That was unusual, and she explained: “I couldn’t stay alone any longer. Something has happened that has upset me. After you left this morning, the dog began to howl. He has been howling all day.” When she went out to water the horses at noon, she added, a white dove flew over her head. “I hope this is not a sign that something has happened to Leonard.”

As we walked on, Mother continued to talk about my brother. She smiled a bit when she spoke of his love of music. Then she talked about his quiet ways, and the times he had been hurt because he had trusted the wrong people. “I have such an uneasy feeling about him.”

Mother had been uneasy ever since Leonard’s last leave before going overseas, when he had given away all his worldly possessions. I got the things he prized most—some pictures, his camera and a pair of leather chaps. He handed my mother his one good suit of clothes, instructing her to make it over for my younger brother. With tear-filled eyes he kissed us good-bye and said: “This is the last time you will see me. I’m not coming home.”

By the time we got home we were all uneasy. The dog followed us to the house and continued to howl. We did the chores early, ate supper and settled down for the usual quiet evening, avoiding discussion of the day’s events. Mother turned up the volume on the radio, hoping to muffle any unexpected noise. My brother and I dawdled over homework, trying to delay bedtime as long as possible. When we did retire we had trouble sleeping, for the memory of our mother’s experience kept recurring.

After a restless night we rose the next morning to discover the fog had lifted, making the previous day’s events seem less eerie. As the days wore on and no telegram arrived with bad news, Mother began to relax. When two weeks had gone by, she appeared convinced that the events of December 7 were just a coincidence. Soon Christmas was four days away. Our brother Russell was home on leave from the Navy, his last before sailing overseas. We had planned a party for him and invited friends to come for the day. After our father had left to pick them up, we hurried with dinner preparations. In our haste to make sure everything was just right, we failed to notice Father returning sooner than expected.

Father’s face was ashen and tears filled his eyes. Everyone knew he had bad news. The telegram the local station agent had handed him just a short distance from our home was unopened. Mother took the envelope from his hand and tore it open. It read: Regret deeply M102186 Private Walter Leonard Brierley officially killed in action 7th of December, 1943. Stop. Further information when received.

Silence fell. Only Mother’s quiet sobbing could be heard. My brother disappeared to his room; I hid behind the dining-room door so no one could see my tears. It was some time before Mother regained her composure. When she did, she told the rest of the family the puzzling events of that date. She sighed as she added, “I knew something terrible had happened. I believe God was preparing me for it.”

On Christmas morning Mother was the first to rise. She lit the fire in the cookstove and prepared the bird for the oven. When breakfast was ready, the rest of us straggled to the table. Everyone tried to make the day special for Russell’s sake, but we lacked enthusiasm. We opened our gifts quickly, trying not to think of the items so carefully chosen for Leonard’s parcels.

Mother seemed to be in a trance as she prepared dinner. She made the usual generous portions—even though she knew little would be eaten. Knowing there would always be someone missing from her table in the future devastated her. Tears filled her eyes as she decorated the Christmas cake with tiny silver balls. Usually she had lots of help with the decorating, but that day she did it alone.

A subdued group gathered around the dining-room table for dinner. Everyone was trying to come to grips with what had happened. The usual non-stop exchange of noisy conversation gave way to periods of uncomfortable stillness. Father sat silent at the head of the table, no doubt remembering the many disagreements he and Leonard had had. My sister and older brothers recalled all the fun times they had had with Leonard. Then, with downcast eyes, they expressed regret for the times they had made his life uncomfortable. For the first time, everyone admitted that, when it came to a showdown, no one had ever gotten the better of Leonard. My younger brother ate quickly, pretending he was grown-up enough to understand why everyone was so quiet.

I sat beside Mother and picked at the food on my plate, tormented by what had happened. My mind raced with memories; the days my brother drove me to school in our old horse-drawn cutter, him waiting for me outside when classes were dismissed. Then I recalled warmer days when he had pulled me up behind him on his saddle horse. I remembered how Leonard had helped care for me when I became ill with scarlet fever and had to spend two months in bed. Then, when I developed rheumatic fever, he rode for the doctor and held me on his lap when the doctor sent me to the hospital.

Soon feelings of anger began crowding out my memories. I wanted to cry out and ask why we had wars, why Leonard had to die. But the words stuck in my throat like a foreign object. It’s not fair, I thought. Leonard was my hero. We shared secrets. We played Bluebird records on the gramophone and sang Wilf Carter songs together. He promised that one day he would teach me to yodel. Now it’s too late. He’s gone and we never said good-bye.

My mother broke down and wept. “Poor Leonard. He always seemed so alone. He was too young to die. If only I could have been there to hold him and tell him one more time how much I loved him.”

On Boxing Day we exchanged tearful good-byes with Russell as he boarded the bus to return to his ship. Unlike Leonard, he assured us the war would be over soon and he would be coming home unharmed.

Mother then began the double task of trying to come to grips with one son’s death and another’s leaving. Just when she was beginning to make progress, Leonard’s letters written just days before his death arrived. They opened wounds just beginning to heal, but the assurance of his love for us and his wishes for a Merry Christmas made them a special bonus. The days that followed failed to lessen my mother’s grief. She sewed a black ribbon on our coat sleeves and wore black when she went out. Neighbors came to visit. Friends wrote letters of sympathy and sent cards. The letters of condolence that arrived from the Department of National Defence, the prime minister and King George VI only seemed to deepen her sorrow. Then, one day, a letter arrived that brought a measure of peace.

The envelope bore the familiar “Passed by Censor” stamp and contained a neatly written letter from the chaplain of the Loyal Edmonton Regiment. Its contents assured her that her twenty-seven-year-old son had not died alone but was surrounded by caring, compassionate people. Dated December 12, 1943, it read:

Dear Mrs. Brierley,

It is with deep regret that I confirm the news of the death of your son, Pte. W. L. Brierley, M102186, who was killed in action on Dec. 7th, 1943, and was buried the same day. He was waiting to go over the top when a long-range shell burst near and he was mortally wounded in the abdomen. Nothing could have saved him although medical attention was near at hand, and he soon passed away. Pte. W. Barnett of the Edmontons was hit at the same time.

We buried him at a cemetery near (San) Leonardo with his comrades there to pay their last respects. It was a brief service conducted by myself as a unit chaplain. We were still under shell fire, but he was given a decent burial, and we put a cross at his head and some flowers for you.

He died so that others may live and peace come more quickly to a war-weary world. At the graveside we prayed that God might strengthen you in the days of your sorrow. All is well with him now, but you must bear the burden of his passing as part of the world’s sacrifice for the evil that has been brought upon us.

May God bless you until the day of reunion.
Yours sincerely,
Edgar J. Bailey, Chaplain

My mother read and reread that letter, each time thanking God for the courage and compassion of the chaplain who, under shell fire, was able to write such words of comfort. After many months, Mother decided to let go of the past. She placed the letter with my brothers’, tied them neatly, and stored them in her cedar chest. But she never forgot the chaplain’s words or the events of December 7, 1943. She rarely spoke of it, except to those close to her, but insisted until her death in 1973 that what had happened on our farm that day was no figment of her imagination.

My mother’s grief was most evident on special occasions: December 7, Christmas, my brother’s birthday, and especially Remembrance Day. Every November 11 she took the Silver Cross from her jewelry box and pinned it on her lapel. Then, with heavy heart, she joined other Silver Cross mothers at the cenotaph to pay tribute to all who had given their lives for their country.

I, too, continued to grieve. While walking to school on cold winter days I would close my eyes and imagine Leonard was driving me. I longed to feel the warmth of his body beneath our mother’s old patchwork quilt. And every time I rode horseback in the rain, I felt dry and protected in his worn leather chaps. I still miss him. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about him, about how handsome he was and how I would have enjoyed having him around as I was growing up. I think about how wonderful it would have been for my children to have known their uncle.

In early 1991 I read a newspaper article about chaplains at war. It contained interviews with three army chaplains, two of them then leaving for the Persian Gulf War. The third was Rev. Edgar Bailey, the World War II chaplain of the Loyal Eddies. After reading the article I contacted him and expressed as well as I could my thanks for the letter he had written my mother. The eighty-seven-year-old remembered my brother and related various events that had preceded his death. We talked and cried, then arranged to meet at the lodge in Edmonton where he now resided.

A month later, my husband and I visited the old gentleman. It was incredible! When we entered his room he immediately drew our attention to family pictures and war medals hanging on the wall. We chatted briefly about ourselves, then he handed us a scrapbook filled with notes and clippings covering nearly sixty years of his life. I could have spent the afternoon poring over its contents, but time was running short. Reluctantly, I put the scrapbook aside and started my tape recorder as he began to talk.

“Some people have asked what chaplains do in the war and why they are there. I think the best way to explain it is to tell you what General (Bernard) Montgomery said to me one time. He said, ‘I would as soon go into battle without my artillery as without my chaplains.’ Guns are of no use without the men behind them. The chaplains show the men that someone cares about them and is concerned about their loved ones back home.”

When it was time for us to leave, he put his arms around me and kissed me tenderly on the cheek. His voice broke as he whispered, “That’s from your brother.” It was a time of sadness but also of joy. After forty-seven years I had finally been given an opportunity to properly say good-bye to Leonard. I thanked God for Edgar Bailey because He had provided that opportunity.

Dawn Philips

More stories from our partners