- Memory may be what you hold, but remembrance is what you
do - the past dusted clean, made to breathe again.
is a Dutch woman, blond, soft-eyed, visiting the cemetery
where her parents are buried in western Holland and seeing
a single headstone for a Canadian soldier, strangely separated
from the military graveyard, and wondering: Who and how? And
not just wondering, but asking, acting, warming the story
on a cold headstone.
2002, this launched Alice van Bekkum on a mission. She, indeed,
found out who the soldier was, this Harold Magnusson, even
visited his family in New Brunswick in 2011. She also dove
into the story of eight other members of his unit, the 23rd
Field Company of the Royal Canadian Engineers, who had died
close to where she lived, almost all on the same night.
perished in September 1944 in the aftermath of Operation Market
Garden, a failed effort that forced a frantic evacuation of
Allied soldiers caught behind German lines. She had even met
a pair of local men who, as 11-year-olds, had hauled Magnusson's
body out of the river. But one name, one mystery from the
23rd FC, stood out. Lance Cpl. Antonio Barbaro, only 22, who
died in February 1945, months later than his fallen mates.
Why? How? She just had to know. "If we never mention
their names," she wrote this week, "they have died
in vain. We'll remember them here. I hope you'll remember
him in his hometown."She enlisted a Canadian accomplice
or two. Soon, she had Lance Cpl. Barbaro's military records,
pulled from archives. There was an appeal to the Citizen.
The pieces began to come together.
he is not. He has a niece and nephew in town and the odd Village
old-timer remembers the Barbaro family, which included brother
Dominic, or "Lefty", a once famous southpaw on the
city's ball diamonds.
Barbaro, who wanted to be called Tony or Anthony, was the
youngest of eight children, born in July 1923. His father,
Pasquale, was a street-sweeper for the city, mother Catherine
was short and stout, and ran the roost, a boxy house on Norman
Street, only steps off Preston, with a giant kitchen. She
barely spoke a word of English. They were, of course, Roman
attended about three years of high school at Ottawa Tech,
enlisted when he was 19. He played trumpet in a youth band
that practised at St. Anthony's, liked to draw and paint,
often had a smile on his round face. He had trained to be
According to his war records, he was not a big man: 5-7, about
155 pounds at sign-up, with brown hair and eyes. He had 20/20
vision, was in good health, was missing his tonsils. When
he died, he owned a wrist watch, a Ronson lighter, a few other
effects. He never married.
He was among a group of Canadians who helped evacuate about
2,500 British paratroopers by ferrying them across the Rhine
River, near Arnhem, under heavy shelling. Some of the rescuers
made up to 15 trips in the dark, during a night of terrible
weather, in so-called storm boats equipped with 50-horsepower
was mentioned in dispatches. "Also outstanding in this
operation were Tony Barbaro of Ottawa and Sapper Raymond Lebouthillier
of Ste. Bernadette, Que.," reads a 1944 story from The
Canadian Press correspondent travelling with the army in Holland.
It was dangerous work, some of the boats being blown right
out of the water. Operation Market Garden was a daring idea,
and the failure and rescue were dramatic enough to be adapted
for screen in the movie A Bridge Too Far. It was a boat, ironically,
and a river that led to Barbaro's demise.
February 1945, he and two other members of the 23rd field
company launched a small boat into the Maas River near a strategic
bridge in Mook, in mid-eastern Holland. As they attempted
to attach a rope to a boom that needed work, the bow of the
boat struck something sharp on the boom, slicing the hull
were only two life-jackets. Barbaro insisted the two non-swimmers
take them and he would fend for himself. At least 60 yards
from shore and dealing with a heavy current, he tried to swim.
One can only imagine the temperature of the water in February
and the weight of his boots and uniform. A witness saw him
sink; the other two were rescued.
followed a touching letter to his mother from the unit's padre.
"You see, dear Madame," he wrote to Catherine, "you
have many reasons to be proud of your son. He sacrificed his
life to give to his companions a better chance to live."
he added, had been to mass and confession the Sunday before
he died. "The war seems to take the best among us
I dare say that he was one of the best of my flock."
Sad, too, that the war was nearly over. Barbaro would not
see his 23rd birthday. He is buried in the Canadian Military
Cemetery just outside Nijmegen in Holland.
of Anthony's siblings are dead, but he has a nephew, named
for him, a Tony Barbaro, now 65, who lives in Richmond, retired
after a 31-year career in the RCMP. (His father, Sam, also
served in the forces.)
spent many hours at his grandparents' house on Norman and
remembers big, raucous meals with 30 at the table. But the
subject of Anthony, the baby of the family who left at 19
and never came home, was off limits.
didn't talk about it," he said this week. "If you
brought it up with my Dad, he'd walk out of the room."
grandparents were very big on their children becoming wholly
Canadian, not hyphenated ones with one foot in the home country,
he said. So Antonio became Tony, Salvatore became Sam, Pasquale
has not been to his uncle's grave but is touched to know that
someone like Alice is doing her best to keep the story alive.
think it's wonderful," he said. "It's nice to know
that they appreciate it. Because it was a big deal for my
family. You have to know them, and if you knew them, you'd
family has so little information about Anthony, in fact, that
they couldn't track down a photo. But the irrepressible Sal
Pantalone, an amateur historian close to 90, was able to find
one in his files. He remembers the Barbaros fondly and was
a band-mate of Anthony's in the 1930s.)
Barbaro's name is etched in granite in a little square below
St. Anthony's Church, among six Italian Canadians from Ottawa
who died in service during the Second World War. Next to it
are six names of local Italians who were interned, for suspicion
of treason - these were complicated times.
Bekkum, meanwhile, attends Remembrance Day ceremonies every
year. She has placed a New Brunswick flag and a painted stone
at Magnusson's grave. She would like, possibly, to lay a wreath
from Ottawa in Barbaro's name at the 70th anniversary of Operation
Market Garden, subsequent Operation Berlin, in 2014.
Allied soldiers did not 'give' their lives, like so many say,"
she wrote. "But, far away from home and family, it was
taken from them by the enemy."
Alice van Bekkum, faraway stranger, it was.
rest falls to us, the lucky ones, to make real this thing
called "honour" - by what we say, but mostly by
what we do.
contact Kelly Egan, please call 613-726-5896, or email [email protected]
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