There is a woman in the veterans’ wing of High-Crest Springhill Nursing Home who no longer can tell her own story. At 103, Vera (Carter) Kellegrew’s memories of serving in World War Two, and her reason for signing up in the first place, are fading along with her voice and her strength.
But her nephew-by-marriage, Jim Halliday, and his wife Eva know enough of Vera’s story to put it in writing.
|Jim Halliday with the medals of his aunt and uncle.|
According to Jim, who was born and raised in Amherst but now lives in Trenton, when Vera graduated from high school, she went to work for Canada Public Works and was working on the Alaska Highway when World War Two began.
“Her brothers joined the service and went overseas,” Jim says. “One of them was a pilot and was captured in Germany as a prisoner of war. Dennis was being released so she decided to join the air force and go to England so she could find him.”
They had an aunt living outside of London who was a nurse so Vera took her brother to their aunt who nursed him back to health.
At the same time, Vera was posted to London where she worked as a stenographer until she became the private secretary to the commanding officer based in London.
“When she first landed in London, she had to find a place to live. She had to walk, carry her bags and everything,” says Jim. “Somebody told her about this room to be shared with another air force woman. Vera went to see her, this woman called ‘Mac’.”
(In one of those mysterious twists of fate, “Mac”, a nickname based on her last name, resides in the same nursing home as Vera in Springhill.)
“Vera said her mother would send her Red Cross bundles and she’d share her food,” Jim’s wife Eva recounts from her conversations with her aunt-by-marriage. “Toilet paper was very short, stuff like that. She could maybe get an egg at a grocery store. They weren’t allowed to use too much coal or too much water in their room.”
Like any war veteran, Vera didn’t talk much about the bad parts of her experience.
“There was a house in back of where they lived that was bombed and a person died in that. But that’s the only one she ever talked about. She did talk about going to the air raid shelters. You could hear the buzz bombs going over.”
Jim explains that a buzz bomb coming from Germany made a buzzing sound until it ran out of fuel. When it ran out of fuel, it dropped.
“When you stopped hearing the buzz…”
He trails off into a moment of silence.
Vera’s official rank was Leading Airman Carter and she refused any promotions.
“She was doing the work of a sergeant but just getting a private’s pay,” Jim explains. “They wanted to give her a promotion but she wouldn’t take it because she’s quite religious and if you get a promotion in the service, you have to go to the mess and buy a round of drinks for everybody. She wouldn’t take the promotion because she didn’t want to buy the drinks.”
It would be a tall, handsome soldier from Nova Scotia who would change her marital status, however.
Ray Kellegrew, 35 years old and six-foot-one, had returned from a posting in Naples, Italy, near the end of the war and joined a group of friends ice skating at a rink in London.
Vera was skating there, too.
Meanwhile, back home in Amherst, 10-year-old Jim Halliday was doing his part for the war effort.
“Airplanes were made in Amherst during the war,” he says, “and during the war, airmen used to come to Amherst from Scotland, England, Wales to pick up the planes. They’d be wandering downtown with their backpacks and at the time, I was only ten years old. I’d go down the street and see these airmen walking around and I’d say, ‘Where are you staying?’ and if they had no place to stay, I used to take them home to my mother. My mother would put them up for the weekend. It got so bad near the end, I’d have eight or nine of them so Mum would have to call up the neighbours to see if they could take them.”
Back in England, Jim’s uncle and Vera Carter were making plans to marry.
Because of rations, “Their wedding breakfast was two eggs and some bacon the meat cutter saved for them,” Jim says.
While brother Dennis recovered and was released from the service to return home to British Columbia, the now Leading Airman Kellegrew remained in London after the war ended to help with the paperwork that went with getting everyone back to Canada.
Vera returned to BC and Ray fetched her back to Amherst where he returned to his job as a mail carrier and Vera worked off and on as a secretary.
Married for 58 years, Ray and Vera did not have any children. Ray died in 2004 at the age of 93 and Vera moved to the veterans’ wing of High-Crest just two years ago.
According to Eva, Vera “found it very exciting [in London]. She says it was difficult times but it was exciting. She never talked about the bad parts of the war.”
When asked how she coped, Vera would answer, ‘The good Lord will take care of it’.
“Her faith was her strength and she was a strong woman,” says Eva. “If she set her mind to do it, she did it. She seemed to be able to endure a lot. I think it’s her faith that saw her through everything.”
|Vera and Ray Kellegrew are the couple on the right. This is their wedding day in London.|