A hero’s welcome

In Uncategorized by Lea

Return of 23rd Anti-Tank Battery, 91st Field Regiment, and The Calgary Highlanders, 25 November 1945.
Return of 23rd Anti-Tank Battery, 91st Field Regiment, and The Calgary Highlanders, 25 Nov. 1945. Source: Calgary Highlanders archival photo, uploaded by webmaster www.calgaryhighlanders.com

I’ve been working on a memoir for a family whose father was a Calgary Highlander in the Second World War. I knew a bit about the Highlanders before this project as I had covered Remembrance Day ceremonies while I was a Calgary newspaper reporter. The past few months, I’ve been immersed in the war, following the Highlanders’ journey from Calgary, to training, to the battlefields and, for some soldiers, their return to Calgary. This month, November, is the seventy-third anniversary of the city welcoming them home.         

            One the Highlander resources I’m working from is a cassette tape of the welcome home ceremony broadcasted on the afternoon of Nov. 25, 1945. The radio station CFAC (today it’s SN960 The Fan, a sports network) is right in the middle of the cheers and applause of the homecoming festivities. Although the tape is a bit scratchy, it’s almost like I’m in the middle of the action. Announcers Don Oaks and Jack Stewart (known as the voice of the wartime big-band broadcasts from the Palliser Hotel) are the commentators for the event.

The recording starts with crowds waiting for the Highlanders, who will come into the city in a special troop train and then march to Mewata Armoury. 

Waiting at the Canadian Pacific Railway station on 9th Avenue (near today’s Fairmont Palliser Hotel), are Highlanders who have already returned home. A bus filled with wounded Highlanders from the Colonel Belcher Hospital is there too along with thousands of people. Don and Jack note the hum of excitement as the train chugs closer.

As the whistling train pulls up to the platform, the announcers see happy faces leaning out the carriage windows and many arms waving at familiar faces. It’s a hero’s welcome as 476 Calgary Highlanders are greeted by Albertans. The Highlanders don’t wait for the order to get off the train and pour out of the cars “like water out of a glass”with their full equipment. There are cheers and shouts and smiles for these boys, says the announcer.

The mayor of Calgary, Andrew Davison, addresses the Highlanders. He keeps his message short, as he believes the men shouldn’t be wearied with long speeches but rather spend the time being reunited with family and friends.

We have gloried in your accomplishments and are justly proud of your record. 

We welcome you home in all sincerity. We thank you for a difficult job splendidly done. 

The soldiers who have just returned start their march up Centre Street, going west on 8th Avenue and onto Mewata Armoury. Stewart says it’s a great day in the history of Calgary. There’s a large crowd of 13,000 to 20,000 people gathered to greet the Highlanders on the clear, blue-sky day. There are what he calls “bobby socksey” teens, young children waving the Red Ensign and the Union Jack, and men and women of all ages shoulder-to-shoulder on rooftops, balconies, hanging out of windows and covering the streets of downtown. The Highlanders are marching with the Highlander pipes and drums leading them. Following behind are the other men who have been home for awhile. The bus of wounded is at the rear.

Stewart talks about how some of these soldiers have been away for five years and two months – a long time to be away from loved ones. These men are stalwart looking, says Stewart. They’re seasoned veterans. There are short men and tall men, thin men and heavyset men but they are all outstanding men.

The shouts and clapping in appreciation of the Highlanders are so loud that you can barely hear Stewart over the noise. He says confetti and strips of coloured paper float “gently down” on the men.

At Mewata, the 1st Battalion, Calgary Highlanders are dismissed and released from duty. They are no longer active soldiers. They’re given donuts and coffee and then they’re taken home in “Welcome Home Cars,” driven by Calgarians who have volunteered their vehicles and time to take the men home. The next month, the Highlanders are disbanded (stop operating as a single unit) on Dec. 15, 1945.

Lest we forget what they and many other service people have done for Canada over the years.