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Veteran Mervin Fisher: From guilt and silence to disclosure and inspiration

BELWOOD - Mervin Fisher laid perfectly still in a Dutch ditch as a German tiger tank roared overhead.

It was February 1945 and German forces were carrying out a counter attack near Groesbeek, Netherlands after a major Allied offensive in the Second World War.

“I was scared stiff. I didn’t move for a while,” said Fisher, a Private in the Essex Scottish infantry regiment of the Canadian Army who was always warned not to be taken prisoner.

After the Germans had passed and things calmed down in the immediate area - he estimates it was a couple of hours - he crawled out of the ditch to find he was alone.

“I didn’t know which way to turn,” Fisher said, noting it was completely dark.

He roamed alone for several hours before deciding to take cover in a dark house. He was shocked to learn the building was actually the local headquarters for German forces.

Fisher, now 85 and living in Pine Meadows near Belwood, was taken prisoner and shortly thereafter discovered the Germans had also captured two others from his unit.

“One German who spoke English said to me, ‘If we didn’t find your two buddies, we probably wouldn’t have taken you with us.’ You know what that means,” Fisher said, recalling the encounter with remarkable detail.

The three Canadian prisoners walked for over a day to a train, then travelled in a boxcar for three days to the Stalag 11b prisoner-of-war camp. Fisher says he was treated pretty well by his captors before being repatriated on May 7.

“But I was still glad to get out of there,” he said with a smile.

Conditions at the camp left him ill and requiring a hospital stay in England, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise because he was deemed unfit for transfer to the Pacific theatre, unlike other less fortunate Allied soldiers.

He was back in Ontario  by August and officially discharged on Oct. 2.

His story, while fascinating, is one he felt guilty about for much of his adult life.

“I did feel guilty for getting caught. I felt sort of stupid,” Fisher said. But as his late friend and fellow veteran George Pike once told him, Fisher did the best he could.

That has now become a motto of sorts for Fisher, one of 20 veterans featured in a book written by Jean Miso entitled We’ll Never Forget.

The book, published last year, is aimed at encouraging remembrance among children and youths by telling - through words, illustrations and a song  - the stories of veterans (from the First World War to Korea to Afghanistan and recent peace keeping missions).

“It’s a Canadian story,” Fisher said of Miso’s book. “There’s everything in there. She’s got pretty near everybody represented.”

Fisher said some veterans did not want to be a part of the book, but for him, it was an easy decision to get involved.

“I was just very interested in her story ... about children not being taught about remembrance,” he said.

“Once she tells you the story, it’s pretty hard to turn her down.”

Miso, a teacher in Toronto, dedicated the book to her late grandfather, Elmer McKenzie, a Great War veteran who fought in three major WWI battles: the Somme, Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele.

A portion of the proceeds from the sale of the books will support the Royal Canadian Legion Dominion Command Poppy Trust Fund. A portion will also go towards purchasing a WWI memorial at Hill 70 in France, the location of a successful 1917 battle for Canadian forces that is often overlooked because it fell between Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele.

Miso stressed while the target audience for her book was primary school children, it has become a hit with young and old alike.

“It’s really gone a lot further ... it really has opened up to everybody,” she said. “It’s brought out the best in everybody.”

The idea, of course, is to promote remembrance, and Miso said she felt personal stories of veterans like her grandfather are the perfect way to do it.

She went to various Legions asking for veterans and the president of the Etobicoke branch suggested Fisher, whose story captured her from the start.

“Merv’s virtually lived at the prisoner of war camp his whole life. He’s felt guilty about it for years ... he’s lived it over and over,” she said.

She added it’s nice Fisher is finally getting some recognition, because, “He’s a real hero.”

She noted Fisher told her she was one of the only people he’s talked to about his experience in the war.

“He has a special place for me,” Miso said. “It was really difficult for him to express in words how he felt.”

But she is glad Fisher agreed to participate and was able to tell a portion of his “amazing” life story.

Born and raised on a farm near Collingwood, Fisher first joined the militia at age 16. One year later he lied about his age in order to get into the army, but it wasn’t long before a superior called Fisher into his office to discuss the deception.

“I think somebody ratted on me,” Fisher said with a laugh.

He was allowed to finish his training as a tank driver and mechanic, but he was eventually drafted into the infantry and shipped to England for more training at age 18.

“That’s when you learn about the seriousness of war,” Fisher said.

He explained his mother was not very happy with his newfound dedication to the army - he jokes it may have been her that relayed his true age to his superiors - but he  realized money was tight and he always sent half his military pay back home.

“Mom didn’t mind it too much after that,” Fisher said with a laugh.

He added many of his friends also joined the army at a young age and that was all the incentive he needed.

“I can’t say I’m sorry I joined,” he said. “I’m just lucky I came back alive.”

Fisher said he received great training and he suggested a brief stint in the military would  serve some of today’s youths well.

“You learn to live by the rules,” he said with a smile.

After his training Fisher was sent to a holding unit in Belgium - he spent Christmas of 1944 in “the bush” - before taking a role as a guard and scout. While scouting he would occasionally come close to German scouts.

“I’ll tell you, that’ll send shivers up your back,” he said. “I didn’t like that too well, but it was a good initiation.”

Shortly thereafter, Fisher was sent to Holland and captured. He spent several months in the prisoner of war camp before returning to Ontario “and life went on from there.”

After several months of “readjusting” to life back home, Fisher took a job in the railroad industry, moved to Etobicoke, married and had two kids.

He retired almost three decades ago after working for Toronto Hydro for 35 years. He lost his first wife Bess (after 60 years of marriage) in 2008 and remarried Doreen Flockhart two years ago. The couple now resides in Pine Meadows and they are members of the Fergus Legion.

Fisher prefers to keep busy during Veterans Week, and particularly on Nov. 11.

“Remembrance Day for me has always been a very sad time,” he said.

“It’s not bad when you are participating (in parades and services), but when you sit there and watch and have time to recollect things that went on and the ones that didn’t make it, you visualize things ...

“I don’t like to reflect on that side of it.”

Fisher acknowledged the silence of most Second World War veterans, while understandable if not admirable, may have exacerbated what some see as the declining importance of remembrance among younger generations.

“We were a very quiet bunch,” he admitted. “I’ve never wanted to talk about it ... It is tough.”

But Fisher is trying to change his ways - and he credits Miso and her book for that transformation.

On Remembrance Day he will be visiting St. Joseph’s Catholic school in Fergus to talk to students about his experience.

Miso was pleased when informed about Fisher’s plan to speak at the school.

“If we don’t pass on our memories - and for veterans they’re living memories - they will be lost,” she said.

“The only way we’ll never forget is by talking about it.”

Understandably, Fisher is nervous about the discussion with students, during which he hopes to relay a message of both remembrance and inspiration.

“I would like to tell them that if they do the best they can, that’s all you can expect,” he said.

He will refuse to get into the “gory details of war,” but hopes through anecdotes and answering questions he can somehow impart on the students the importance of remembering and honouring the sacrifices of those who died in service of their country.

“The idea is to remember those that lost their lives,” he said.

“Their lives were snuffed out a very early age; they never had a chance in life ... and for that, they should always be remembered.”

He pauses momentarily before continuing.

“If that’s the message you can give to them, you’ve done okay,” he said.


November 4, 2011


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