Lest we Forget – A Ladysmith Native Son

hugh-mercer
Hugh Mercer Jr. member of the Seaforth Highlanders, a casualty of Operation Husky, the Invasion of Sicily, WWII. image courtesy of his daughter, Irene Telford.

Hugh Mercer was the son of Hugh Mercer Sr. and Jane Parker who were married on June 24th, 1904 in Kilmarnock, Scotland and immigrated to Canada that same year arriving in Ladysmith. The elder Hugh Mercer, who had worked as a coal miner in Scotland, signed on with the Wellington Coal Company and began work in the Extension Field.

The Mercers lived in a small house at 614 Third Avenue  – directly across from the Presbyterian (now United) Church. The house is still there today. Hugh Mercer Jr. who was born on July 15, 1907  had two sisters and three brothers: Agnes, Andrew Parker, Jackie (John Brown), Covan (who died in early childhood) and Jennie (Janet) Mercer. The children attended Ladysmith Elementary School at Market Square, less than a block away.

We have very little information about Hugh’s boyhood. We know the family was not well off, so there would be no money available for music lessons, club fees or organized sports. Instead, the boys, when not in school or doing chores, would roam the streets in packs accompanied by mongrel dogs and sometimes younger siblings. Stumps were strewn all over town and became castles or forts that needed defending.  Games of tag could last all day (including school hours!)  Cops and Robbers or Cowboys and Indians with wooden guns and bracken fern spears were likely played by most of the boys(and a few ex-tom boys).  A lot of their play was also down at the ‘beach’ involving rocks or lumps of coal thrown at sea birds and – when no adults were around – each other. Pick up games of stickball and football (soccer) were popular, but few of their friends had a real baseball and fewer still had ‘pocket money’. Around pay day, when Mom paid off the store account, the children might receive a packet of candy from the storekeeper, and lucky boys could sometimes earn a nickel by running chores. Those fortunate enough to possess a dime would happily splurge it on a Tom Mix 3-reel western at the Opera House or Lyceum Saturday matinee.

Such was life for young Mercer until, at a very early age, he would join his father in the mines at Extension. Jane Mercer would pack lunches for her two Hugh’s and off they would go to catch the miners train. Other than an occasional apple, there was rarely fruit or soup included in the lunch pail.

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Hugh Mercer’s first job at Extension was like this image of a trapper in W. Virginia . Photo from the U.S. Library of Congress

Life in the mines was difficult, dark and dangerous. According to Canadian Collieries records in the Ladysmith Archives, the first job held by Hugh Mercer Jr. was as a “door boy.” The door boys or ‘trappers’ were usually young boys employed in the mines whose job was to open the doors placed there to control the direction of ventilation in the mine. These young boys remained in the mine alone for more than seven hours every shift in almost total darkness. The only break in the monotony would occur when a driver with a string of trams would come through requiring the door boy to open the  door to allow them to pass through and then ensure that it was shut properly and quickly. Heaven help them if they should fall asleep on the job. There were times during the fall and winter when Hugh would scarcely see daylight at all. For this he would receive a pittance in wages which would faithfully  be turned over to his mother to help with the families living expenses.

In 1924, Hugh was now in his late teens and working at the Granby mine as a “rope rider”. This was one of the most dangerous jobs in the mines, where you rode on the couplings between coal cars as they wound through darkened tunnels from the coalface to the shaft. When the cars were full, the rope rider would signal that it was time to return to the surface. All the while, he would balance himself between two of the cars, each carrying a ton and a half of coal.

But Granby had one big advantage over the other mines – a washhouse. It was the first one in the district and had hot showers, individual lockers for clean clothes and a drying room for wet ones.  Lynne Bowen in Boss Whistle tells us, “A man could go home leaving his dirty clothes behind, at least until the end of the week when he crammed them into a forty-nine pound flower sack and brought them home for a woman to wash.” (p. 174)

However, this ‘life of luxury’ at Granby didn’t last long. Canadian Collieries pay record indicates Hugh was laid off work at Granby after six years and began work for them in 1927 as a ‘pusher’. The pusher’s job was to move trams and coal around the mine. It was also an extremely dangerous job, as you were constantly interacting with trams, explosions and falling rock.

Returning veterans from the Great War, labour unrest and a general economic depression in North America resulted in fewer local jobs in the coal industry. Hydroelectric and fuel oil were replacing coal as power sources on land and at sea. By the beginning of the 1930’s there was no work in the coal mines for Hugh Mercer Jr.

Hugh was now nearly 5 feet 9 inches tall and weighed around 150 pounds. With his fair skin, blonde hair, hazel eyes and infectious grin he was popular with his peers of both sexes. However, he also had a mischievous nature and a quick Scottish temper, which later gave him difficulty during his years in the military. Canada was on the edge of the Great Depression and as Hugh’s mother later told his daughter Irene, “There was nothing here, and your Dad was too restless to stay with the family.  So he decided to ‘ride the rails’ across Canada looking for work.”

Knowledge of this period in Hugh’s life can only be reconstructed through family anecdotes and a few post cards. We know that he worked at various jobs in Eastern Canada, including a three-year stint in the gold mining town of Kirkland Lake, Ontario. The winters were bitterly cold and the summers hot and humid where, according to one hard rock miner, “the skeeters thought you were some kind of galdarned smorgasbord!” Here Hugh met – and promptly married – a blonde Finnish beauty named Impi Ukkola. The wedding took place on May 5th, 1932. Hugh was 24 and Impi just three weeks short of her 18th birthday. Like many young couples in that era, they were broke but happy.

The next stop for the Mercers was Noranda, Quebec where they remained for a year with Hugh likely working in the copper mines. Then, driven by unemployment or anxiety to be nearer to his childhood home Hugh and Impi returned to B.C.

Impi was pregnant when they left Quebec and Irene was born on August 8, 1936 – shortly after their return from Eastern Canada. “Ginger” arrived 16 months later in November of 1937. Hugh had rented a small apartment in Vancouver on lower Main Street, which was all they could afford at that time. Irene’s mother later told her that the area was so rough that Hugh insisted she “keep the two girls close and the door locked” while he was out finding work as a mechanic, fruit truck driver, swamper or occasionally as a longshoreman on the waterfront near their home.

Hugh had arrived back in BC at a very difficult time. The Depression was now in full swing and unemployment and poor working conditions were rampant. Following the infamous Battle of Ballantyne Pier during the harbour workers 1935 strike, Vancouver Mayor Gerry McGeer had ruled that striking workers would no longer be eligible for relief payments for themselves or their families. This resulted in the formation of the International Longshoreman and Warehouse Union (ILWU) which made it even harder to find regular work if you were a ‘newcomer’ like Hugh Mercer. But Hugh had picked up some electrical and mechanical skills during his time in the East, and somehow they struggled on in Vancouver. Finally, in 1939 Hugh gave up and returned to the Island where he was able to find work in Chemainus.

Times were hard right across Canada after years of R.B. “Iron Heels” Bennet’s Conservative Government. Men involved in labor unrest were denied support. However, there was work in the small mill town and a much safer environment for raising children. Irene was now three and Ginger two. Irene remembers “We rented a little cabin behind the Green Lantern Hotel and then later moved to a small house on Pine Street.” The 1921 Canadian census indicates Grandpa Hugh and Grandma Jane Mercer were already living on Needham St. in Nanaimo. This made it possible for them to have regular contact with their eldest son’s young family. However, they were only in Chemainus for three months before Hugh decided to enlist in the army. He signed up in Vancouver on September 14 1939 – only four days after Canada declared war on Germany!

We cannot be certain what prompted Hugh to enlist so quickly. Perhaps it was done in a burst of patriotism or peer pressure. Or, it may have simply been a matter of trying to find a reliable way to support his young family. However, we must also remember that Hugh came from fierce Celtic warrior stock and never ran from a good fight. It is also worth mentioning that as a native son of Ladysmith he had experienced in quick succession the 1909 Extension Mine explosion, the 1913 Coal Strike, the onset of WW I, the 1918 Flu Epidemic, continuous labour unrest and the economic chaos caused by the Great Depression. War was certainly a way to release some of the pent up frustration, uncertainty and anger he must have felt. It is unlikely we will ever know for certain. Hugh never had the opportunity to share his story with his two children, and neither Irene nor her sister Ginger can recall their mother ever talking to them about her early-married life or their father’s experience in the war. The silence about the past lasted right up until the day in 1995 when Impi passed away in Duncan at the age of 81.

Hugh became part of the Canadian Active Service Force and was assigned to the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada Regiment (Service Number K/55278) with the rank of Private. He embarked from Halifax to England aboard the HMT Andes on December 20, 1939 – just four days before Christmas.

One can’t help wondering if either Hugh or his father appreciated the irony of war that saw his son serving in the same Canadian regiment sent to Vancouver Island during the 1913 coal strike. Hugh Jr. had no doubt driven by the Seaforth Armoury on Burrard Street while working in Vancouver. Certainly, to wear the kilt into battle defending Canada would be a great honour, but a famous Seaforth Officer Captain Eric Hamber, had been in charge of protecting the strikebreakers and guarding the mine facilities at Extension in August of 1913.

After arriving in South Essex, the Seaforths became part of the First Canadian Infantry Division (identifiable by its red shoulder patch) attached to the British 8th Army.  At first, the Seaforths spent most of their time in England and Scotland learning the specialized skills of war. But after the British withdrawal from Dunkirk, they focused more on supporting the Home Guard. During the Battle of Britain they filled a variety of roles including manning anti-air batteries, as well as providing anti-parachute and frontline coastal defence.

Irene was able to obtain a complete record of her father’s time in service to his country, and it is touching to read through the files and note the efforts of Hugh to ensure that his wife and infant daughters were cared for.  Family medical care, survivor benefits, life insurance, and even funeral expenses were all detailed in his military file. (This included a ‘recommendation’ that soldiers write home to their families on a regular basis!) However, we must remember that Hugh had only three years of formal education; thus his communication with family consisted mainly of army issue post cards.

Despite being away from home, many returning WWII veterans have characterized their time in Britain as one of the best parts of their lives. We know from these same records that Hugh saw a fair bit of England and Scotland during his training –especially the coastal areas where they prepared for an amphibious assault on Fortress Europe. Despite the intensive training, there were opportunities for “R and R”, and Hugh’s army record reveals that his rebellious nature and pursuit of a good time with his mates landed him in trouble with both civilian and military authorities. Although he obtained the rank of Corporal before leaving England for Sicily, he was disciplined a number of times for going AWOL, fighting in bars after football matches and insubordination involving his superior officers. The incidents resulted in loss of pay, loss of rank and several brief stays in military prison.

As the years went by, the Canadian First Division and their supporters back home became frustrated with the lack of action. The Seaforths and other units had not been involved in the disastrous Dieppe raid or been sent to North Africa or Hong Kong, and pressure increased on the Allied command to utilize this well trained and equipped force in a more active role. Prime Minister Mackenzie King eventually asked the British Prime Minister in March 1943 if Canada might contribute to the upcoming battles in the Mediterranean.

Finally, in the summer of 1943, the Seaforth Highlanders were given the opportunity to prove themselves as part of “Operation Husky”. The invasion of Sicily was the first step in a strategy to force Italy out of the war and end Nazi dominance in the Mediterranean. The overall plan called for the Canadians, operating on the left flank of the British 8th Army, to advance towards Enna and then turn east to outflank the German defences concentrated around Mount Etna.

The Seaforth Highlanders were led by Lieutenant Colonel Bert Hoffmeister and were part of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade under the command of Brigadier Chris Vokes. His regiment eagerly prepared for “real fighting”, and were then loaded on to troop transports that would depart from a number of different ports to conceal the assembly of the convoy. Hugh’s rank was restored to Corporal just prior to embarkation, and his war record appears to indicate he shipped out from Greenoch, near Glasgow in Scotland. The men were now equipped with ‘summer battle dress’ which included rope soled shoes, tinted glasses and khaki shorts. July temperatures in Sicily could exceed 40 degrees Celsius, and the sun shone for 11 hours each day. This lighter attire would prove necessary:  while en route, enemy submarines sank three ships of the assault convoy. Five hundred vehicles and forty guns were lost as well as the majority of the regiment’s motorized vehicles. Thus the Canadians were destined to do a lot of marching on dry, dusty (and steep) Sicilian roads!

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Operation Husky, Sicily July 1943. Map courtesy of the Royal Canadian Regiment http://thercr.ca/main/index.php

At 13:00 hrs. on July 10, 1943 the Seaforth Highlanders went ashore at Costa dell’Ambra (the Amber Coast) near the town of Pachino close to the southern tip of Sicily. The Canadian area was code-named “Bark West” and the Seaforths landed at “Sugar” Beach along with the Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI). [Among the Princess Pats was Private Alphonse  “Don” Poulain who has previously been honoured by Ladysmith RCL at an Empty Chair Ceremony.] The Canadians were flanked on their immediate right by other units of the British Eighth Army under General Bernard Montgomery, and 60 miles to their left by American troops led by General George Patton.  To their surprise, the invasion forces were met by only light resistance from Italian soldiers. By 15:00 hours the Seaforths were ordered to advance off the beach and head North on the road to Enna. Operation Husky was underway.

During the first four days of travel, their luck held. The Allied Forces were pleasantly surprised by the lack of resistance and few casualties. However, there was a problem with prisoners. The Italians were surrendering in droves, and many of them were shoeless, hungry and had little or no military equipment. Choking dust and blistering heat were the worst enemies. Although the Seaforths were able to scrounge a few trucks, Italian pack mules and donkey carts became prized possessions. Ironically, the men marched at about the same speed as Caesar and Napoleon’s armies had travelled on these same roads before them. Nevertheless spirits were high, and bagpipes accompanied the Highlanders. (Despite orders, they had refused to leave their pipes with the luggage.)

By July 14th, they had reached Modica, and from there they pushed on to Ragusa, then Vizzini after a rest at ‘Happy Valley’ near Giaratana. The scenery reminded many men of the Okanagan Valley of BC. On July 15, Vancouver’s Highland regiment pushed 50 miles northward to the town of Grammichele.  By July 16, at 04:30 hours, they had reached Piazza Armerina. Here, their good fortune ended. The Germans were dug in. The German defenders were part of the Wehrmacht, the 15th Panzergrenadier Division, many of whom were veterans of the Eastern Front in Russia. The road was heavily mined and the Germans held a commanding position on the ridge above them. The Seaforth regiment suffered 25 casualties before they could move on – aided by a strategic withdrawal of the German defenders.

By June 18th, Lt Col. Hoffmeister and the 2nd Brigade were approaching the hill town of Leonforte. Just north of the town, the Seaforths came under heavy machine gun, artillery and mortar fire. It appears that the Germans were waiting to spring an ambush against the whole battalion while the Canadians were on the open plain. Luckily, Hoffmeister became suspicious and sent “A” Company up to a high feature to cover the regiment. This move saved a lot of lives. Nevertheless, the battle lasted most of the morning and the Seaforths suffered 18 additional casualties.

Though called a “town”, Leonforte had more than 22,000 occupants and was critical to both Allied and Axis forces. It sat astride Highway 117, the main road to the north coast of Sicily. The prospect of taking it was not inviting, as it could only be entered along a “twisty switchback road that crossed a deep ravine on the southern outskirts of the built-up area. The approach to the bridge, which had been destroyed, was on a reverse curve. This gave the enemy a clear field of fire. As one soldier described it, “The town itself – built on a steep hillside and extending over its crest – was so well protected that nothing but plunging fire could reach its garrison. Its narrow twisty streets afforded every facility for street fighting and dispersed defence.”

Intelligence reports had suggested the Germans were withdrawing to positions closer to Mount Etna (further to the east) and that Leonforte was “lightly held.” On 20 July, a Seaforth scout force of two platoons pushed into the town. At dawn, the force was detected and withdrew under heavy fire. During the withdrawal of the scout force, near the Dittaino Train Station, either a mine or mortar shell exploded taking the lives of two men, both non-commissioned officers. One of them was Irene’s father.

Let us move forward to July 10, 2013. Under the leadership of Rob Hoffmeister, Honorary Lieutenant Colonel of the Seaforth Highlanders and son of Bert Hoffmeister, the Regiment’s Commander in Sicily, a group walked from the beach in Pachino, Sicily, where the regiment had landed in 1943, north to Assoro where hostilities ended for the First Canadian Division. Operation Husky 2013 was a March of Remembrance across Sicily to honour those Canadian soldiers who fought and those who died liberating the island seventy years earlier.

During the march, markers were placed to honour each of the Canadian soldiers who died during the Sicilian campaign. The markers were placed by the group on the exact date that the soldier was killed and as near as possible to the place where he fell.

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Agira Canadian War Cemetery
image from Veterans Affairs Canada website

On July 20th, the group entered Leonforte They paused at the old Dittaino train station and left two markers – for Corporal William Stanley Beads and Corporal Hugh Mercer. On July 22, Don Poulain was killed when the PPCLI launched a frontal attack on Leonforte. Private Poulain had only experienced 12 days of combat action after three years and nine months of waiting in Britain, but that was two days longer that Corporal Mercer .

Two years ago, a special ceremony was held at the Agira Canadian War Cemetery on July 30, 2013  to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of Operation Husky. A roll call of the 484 soldiers who lost their lives in the Sicily Campaign, including the names of 58 members of the Seaforth Highlanders was taken, with one person stationed at the foot of each grave. When the name of “Mercer, Hugh” was called, the man standing alongside Grave 206, Plot B Row F answered : “Here!”

The inscription on the grave at his feet read:

In loving memory of a dear husband and daddy. Ever in our thoughts.

contributed by Ed Nicholson with special thanks to Irene Telford for sharing her memories of her father.

Ladysmith Historical Society