Gratitude and remembrance on Nov. 11
By Jenn Watt
Published Nov. 10, 2015
(Update: Billy Pickard died Feb. 5, 2018 in her 97th year. Friends are invited to call at the Legion in Haliburton on Saturday, Feb. 24, 2018 for a celebration of Billy's life at 1 o'clock.)
“We are so lucky,” Billy Pickard says several times during an interview in her Haliburton Village home a week before Remembrance Day.
“We are lucky the fighting isn’t here. We are so lucky.”
Billy is 94 years old, a Second World War veteran and an active member of the local Legion.
On this unseasonably warm November morning, she and her husband Ed sit side by side in their cozy living room overlooking a forested ridge, reminiscing about life and war.
Billy’s sight isn’t good anymore and Ed helps her fetch photo albums and articles written about her service as a CWAC – Canadian Women Army Corps – sorting mail behind the front lines across continental Europe.
There are old pictures of Billy and her 19 fellow postal workers. You can tell which one she is by her height. Five-foot-nine with sharp eyes and high cheekbones, Billy stands out. In one she is laughing with fellow soldiers between army tents in Normandy. In another, she leans up against a sculpture at Vimy Ridge.
Billy used to dream about the war, but she says she doesn’t anymore.
Ask her about the sights and sounds, however, and it quickly comes back.
In Lot, Belgium, the postal workers were housed in a steel hut, sleeping on fold-up cots – 10 down one side, 10 down the other. At night when they went to bed, each would take a turn saying what she wished she had from home.
“Mine was always chocolate cake,” she chuckles.
Mostly they had mashed potatoes. Billy is pretty sure they weren’t fresh.
“A lot of horse meat. It just tasted like beef to me,” she says.
Ed knows Billy’s story off by heart. When she forgets a date, he steps in.
They met after the war, marrying in 1959. Together they raised four children.
Ed was an RCMP officer and Billy worked at the post office in Scarborough until they retired to the Haliburton Highlands in 1983.
They have both been active members of the Haliburton Legion and the institution reflects their long service. (The Legion crest seen at the front of the hall was a rug-hooking project Billy took on, drawing the pattern by hand and pulling loops of coloured yarn through the burlap backing.)
Although Billy can’t see very well, she still went out to sell poppies this year with a cadet by her side and she intends to participate in the Remembrance Day ceremony as she always does.
“I always felt, after I signed up, I should have signed up sooner,” Billy says, remembering the work she did with the other soldiers.
Sorting mail was dangerous so close to the action, but a crucial duty in the days before email, cellphones and 24-hour news. Families had no way of getting in touch beyond letters and Billy and the other 19 in her unit made sure the messages got through.
“It’s the only way the boys had of getting any communication,” Billy says.
The postal tracing unit followed the soldiers in Montgomery’s 21st Army Group across Europe, with Billy’s particular unit travelling from Normandy to France, Holland and Belgium. She arrived five weeks after D-Day.
“We didn’t feel very secure,” she says, explaining they were in Antwerp as the city was being bombed in 1944.
“Antwerp was a port city,” Ed explains, “so the Germans were bombing it trying to stop the supplies coming in.”
Billy had several close calls during her time there.
“My girlfriend and I were off duty once and went into a little store that sold everything made of wood. I remember I bought a wooden belt and we crossed the street to another building and while we were over there the building we’d just been in was hit,” Billy says.
“Two or three minutes earlier, you’d have been in there,” Ed says to her.
That December, they were so unsure of their fate, the unit decided to have an early Christmas, in case they died before it arrived.
“We all gathered together in a room and sat on the floor with anything we’d received from home for Christmas and pooled all our stuff and had an early Christmas because we weren’t sure if we’d be there at Christmas.”
The women became close over their time together and stayed in touch once they returned to Canada after the war.
Seventy years have passed since then and Billy is the only remaining soldier from her unit.
On Remembrance Day, when she lays a wreath, she always thinks of them.
“I lay a wreath for my 19 girlfriends,” she says.
She was in England with one of her friends on a 10-day leave when the war ended.
“I danced with everybody else. … Everybody was just cheering and dancing,” she says.
Ed has been the Legion branch president four times and was once the zone commander. The pair says they see strong support for Remembrance Day and respect for those who went to war.
Still, Ed says, those who haven’t experienced it first-hand like his wife has cannot imagine just how horrible war is.
“I don’t think you’ll understand until you’ve experienced it. Even the people who didn’t get overseas really wouldn’t understand. Like Billy said, they go on truck convoys from one place to another and they’d stop for lunch and throw their stuff in the garbage and the refugees were fighting over their garbage so they had something to eat. I guess that kind of touches you,” Ed says.
People would line up – women with baby buggies or wheelbarrows filled with all of their worldly possessions – walking nowhere in particular, just away from war.
Billy marvels at our luck in Canada at being so far from conflict for such a long time.
“We have so much,” she says, holding her hands on her lap. “We are so lucky.”