When he used to teach high school history at St. Mary, Dennis Ogrodnick made a promise to Ed Laird.
Laird, a Second World War veteran, was one of many veterans who came to Ogrodnick’s History classroom to talk with students about their experiences.
“Mr. Laird and I go back a long way. When he brought veterans, they always said, ‘we’re really scared that we’re going to be forgotten,’” Ogrodnick said.
“I made a promise that they won’t. I’ll make that they’re never forgotten.”
Ogrodnick joined the Prince Albert Legions’ Brenda Cripps this weekend laying hundreds of Canada flags at the feet of graves of Prince Albert veterans who served with the armed forces. The two of them laid about 900 flags at the South Hill and St. Mary cemeteries, with Cripps set to lay about 209 more at additional city cemeteries throughout the week.
It’s a longstanding tradition in Prince Albert, and usually celebrated with a Decoration Day ceremony at the cemetery, where the city band and bagpipes play hymns, members of the clergy say prayers and cadets, row by row, lay the flags to remember the fallen.
With COVID-19 still restricting gatherings, the event wasn’t held this year. Instead, Cripps headed up the endeavour of placing one flag in front of the grave of each veteran.
“It’s something a lot of us are going to continue to do, because it’s recognizing our veterans and honouring them, letting them know that we’re not going to forget,” Cripps said.
“We go to every grave that we can find at every cemetery. I’ve been doing them for 30 years. It’s something that means something. We don’t want to forget.”
The history of Decoration Day goes back further than Remembrance Day. It originally began in 1890 as a form of protest for veterans of the Battle of Ridgeway who felt their contributions during the Fenian Raids were overlooked.
It’s still celebrated today, used as an opportunity to thank all who ever took up the mantle for Canada. One Prince Albert veteran, buried at the St. Mary cemetery by Saskatchewan Penitentiary, fought in the War of 1812.
Christopher Frederick Merkley died in 1888. He served as a lieutenant with the First Regiment Dundas Militia.
As Cripps and Ogrodnick placed their flags, they came across names they knew — Names like TRUSTY and SETTEE.
“I’ve known most of them because of the Legion,” Cripps said. “It’s kind of hard … to see people that you’ve known most of your life.”
It won’t stop them, though, even as they remember their friends who served, and lived, as well as those they didn’t know who served and died.
As Ogrodnick passed through the cemetery, he remembered the stories the veterans told him and his students in his History 20 classroom at St. Mary.
“My students cried,” he said. “I had Grade 12 boys cry when they listed to … what (the veterans) went through. It brought back all those interviews we had with veterans. It was emotional.”
Ogrodnick and his students collected about 150 essays over the years written about the veterans and their experiences. He hopes to one day publish them into one book about veterans from Prince Albert.
Until then, he will keep doing his part, and Cripps will keep doing hers, to ensure those stories aren’t forgotten.
PA. veteran’s story honoured by Canadian Forces
One Prince Albert veteran — a man Ogrodnick and Cripps both knew well — recently had his story honoured by the Canadian Armed Forces on their Twitter Page.
Tom Settee — who was also a championship and hall-of-fame boxer in addition to a veteran and a residential school survivor — was in the first wave of men when the allies stormed Normandy on D-Day 1944.
“He said, ‘it’s a miracle that he survived,’” Ogrodnick recalled.
Settee’s story was highlighted by the verified Twitter account belonging to the Canadian Forces in the US.
“He survived the Elkhorn Residential School. He sighed up to fight the Nazis and stormed up Juno Beach that June morning,” they wrote.
“He had a greater chance of surviving the war than he did Elkhorn. Tom Settee survived both. He fought for Canada. Canada fought against him. Hall of Fame boxing champion. Soldier. Survivor.
“Please remember Tom Settee.”
Settee was born in Cumberland House in 1914. He was born with a lung disorder but used boxing to help improve his lung capacity. He went to the Elkhorn Industrial School in Manitoba before his family moved to Prince Albert.
Settee continued boxing in the army, winning the Canadian Army overseas boxing championship in 1944.
While he survived the assault on Normandy, he was injured near Caen while running between slit trenches, he sustained shrapnel to the hip that was never removed.
That didn’t stop him. He returned home following the war and won the Western Canadian welterweight and middleweight championships. He opened a barbershop following his retirement, but continued mentoring young boxers and teaching them the values he had learned. The Prince Albert boxing club bears his name today. He was inducted into the Canadian Boxing Hall of Fame in 1991 and the Prince Albert Sports Hall of Fame in 1992.
He passed away in April 2012, aged 97.
The Canadian D-Day landings were remembered Sunday, as the Juno Beach Centre commemorated the key event’s 77th anniversary with a wreath-laying on the beach where Canadians came ashore as part of the largest combined military operation in history.
“Over one million Canadians (from a country of only 11 million at the time) served in the armed forces during the Second World War,” said Alex Fitzgerald-Black, historian and author as well as Manager of Operations for the Juno Beach Centre Association (JBCA), the charity in Canada that owns the JBC. “They returned home, raised families, and built the Canada we have inherited today. Nearly eight decades later, only about 25,000 of these veterans remain, and their average age approaches 100”.
While the Canadians did not capture all their objectives on D-Day, they did advance the furthers, spending the next three days holding off repeated German counter-attacks that threatened the entire Allied frontline in France. After 76 days of intense combat, in Normandy, the remnants of two defeated German armies headed into a retreat across France. Canadians chased them, pursuing the forces through Belgium and the Netherlands before striking into Germany, which surrendered on May 8, 1945.