Emerson Barden has a photo album filled with memories of his four years in the army during the Second World War.
From the remote western edge of Alaska to the liberation of German-occupied Europe, Barden’s years in the army took him across the globe: Heady stuff for a kid who grew up on farms in Saskatchewan and Surrey, his hometown from the age of 10.
On Remembrance Day, he won’t be on parade from the Cloverdale Legion to the Cenotaph – he turns 92 on Nov. 23 – but he’ll be thinking of his army days, and the job the Canadians did.
He signed up at 19. After training in Victoria, he was sent to Kiska, a windswept, volcanic island in Alaska’s
Aleutians, 600 miles from Japan.
His photos show a snow-capped volcano, sod-covered canvas army tents bracing against the wind, men getting haircuts on the tundra – or posing in deep shell craters.
A Japanese postcard is preserved in its pages, along with poems written by fellow servicemen – their creativity sparked by the harsh conditions. Kiska was invaded in 1942. When 34,400 U.S. and Canadian forces landed in August, 1943, they were expecting to meet resistance, but soon realized the island had been abandoned. A booby trap killed one of the commanding officers.
From Alaska, he was sent to Liverpool, then to Normandy, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany, as the Allies pushed the Germans back.
His pictures show Dutch homes and bridges reduced to rubble, a downed German plane in a field.
Barden was a medic, a job that brought him close to danger – but never more so than the day the Germans blew a hole in a dyke.
“When they hollered, you went,” he says. “It didn’t matter if there were bullets flying or not.”
Carrying out his duties, he’d paused without knowing exactly why, and felt two bullets shoot past his forehead.
He remembers his first impression of Holland as a soldier – a woman wearing wooden shoes who was using a rope to pull a barge down a canal. Other, darker memories linger as well.
“Well, it never leaves you.”
He has returned to the Netherlands since then, as a tourist and as a veteran, and is touched by the depth of feeling shown for the Canadians who helped end the occupation.
In 2005, he went back for the 50th anniversary of the liberation, forging new memories of cemeteries filled with foreign dead that are tended with devotion by Dutch school children – and of grateful citizens. One man picked up a bar tab for a huge assembly of Canadian veterans, exclaiming their money was no good.
A friend in the Netherlands mailed him news clippings from the 70th anniversary celebrations in June. “Liberators from a distant land,” reads one headline. “We follow the Canadian veterans during what is possibly their last visit to the Netherlands.”
He and his wife Pat, an air force veteran, had four children. He lives in Cloverdale and is a member of Branch 6.