12 November 2011

A horse, hope and humanity

Remembering: Adopted mascot returned to N.B. with 8th Hussars Regiment

Two Members of the 8th Hussars Regiment with Princess
Louise after helping to rescue the wounded filly in Italy
during the Second World War.

SUSSEX - Princess Louise - the horse, not Queen Victoria's daughter - is buried beside a war memorial in a pretty little park outside the community centre in Hampton.

Rescued in 1944 from a battlefield in Italy by a battalion full of New Brunswick farm boys, Princess Louise was as sweet-tempered as a sugar cube and able to count out her age with her hoof. Adopted as a mascot by the 8th Hussars Regiment and named after the fourth daughter of Queen Victoria, she was secreted around Europe by soldiers as they fought the Germans, and smuggled into Canada following the Second World War.

Gordon and Mary Bickerton, who took
care of the Hussars' mascot horse Princess
Louise, stand in front of a mural on the side
of a building in Sussex.

"She loved the troops and the troops loved her," says Gordon Bickerton, 91, sitting at his kitchen table in Sussex, a rural town east of Saint John where an equestrian centre and sports park carries the horse's name, and a mural of her is painted on the side of a building just off its main thoroughfare. "She was very kind and easy to look after."

Assigned to take care of Princess Louise after she was brought to Sussex to be reunited with the 8th Princess Louise's Hussars, Bickerton drove her to military parades across the Maritimes, where she marched at the front and was saluted by soldiers.

"Sometimes, during the parades, she fell asleep," says Bickerton, who joined the Royal Canadian Army Service Corps in 1941 and in 1948 joined the Hussars as a tank and truck mechanic, a position he held for 25 years. "Eventually, I'd have to tug on her ear and say, 'Princess Louise, wake up!'?

On a day for remembering fallen soldiers, aged veterans will gather around the cenotaph in Hampton today and think of their comrades and, undoubtedly, Princess Louise. They have never forgotten the horse who brought a touch of humanity to the killing fields of Europe.

Amidst all that bloodshed and chaos and agony, she reminded them of New Brunswick's rolling countryside and the things they cherished back home.

"At the time, we were soldiers doing a difficult job and mostly thankful that we were still alive," Frank Gaunce, 99, says as he sits beside his hospital bed in Sussex, where he is recovering from a broken hip. A member of the 8th Hussars Regiment, he was on the battlefield on the sweltering night of Sept. 16, 1944, when Princess Louise was discovered, months old and crying with a belly wound and walking circles around her dead mother. "Having that horse around helped raise our morale."

A battle unit based in Sussex with ties to Canada's oldest cavalry regiment, the Hussars retrieved Princess Louise from the front lines with artillery above their heads. They then took her to a company medic, who treated her wounds, and after that they took turns changing her bandages to prevent infection.

As the war ground on, they concealed her in a truck in which they had built her a stall and took her everywhere they went, through Italy, France and Holland.

When they war ended, they placed her in a pasture in Holland and, against orders, arranged for her to be shipped to New York aboard a Dutch liner.

A few months later after crossing the ocean, Princess Louise was met by one of the Hussars in New York, and then placed aboard a train and taken to Saint John, where she arrived on March 27, 1946 and was greeted by a military honour guard, the city's mayor and thunderous cheers.

The following day, children were let out of school to watch as she was paraded through the streets of neighbouring Rothesay, and then was taken to the courthouse steps in Hampton where she was given a bale of hay, bag of oats and a shovel, and made a naturalized citizen of Canada, a free woman of Kings County and a full-fledged member of the local Branch of the Royal Canadian Legion.

Her last pair of horseshoes are displayed at the Legion hall in Hampton, a short distance from where she lays at rest beside the cenotaph along with her daughter, Princess Louise II. Princess Louise was 29 when she died in 1973, and Princess Louise II, who assumed the role of the Hussars' mascot after her mother, died at age 27 in 1981.

Princess Louise and her daughter Princess Louise II, both of
whim served as mascots for the 8th Hussars Regiment are
buried together near the cenotaph in Hampton

A piece of history, the beloved filly was written about in a children's book by Ana Dearborn-Watts and chronicled by the Reader's Digest. A hit everywhere she went, in parades she was dressed in Hussars' regalia and, occasionally, she misbehaved.

Once, she ate a bouquet of flowers intended for the guest of honour at a ceremonial parade, another time she left a deposit at the legislature. Often, when she was supposed to be standing at attention, she was digging through the pockets of Bickerton's wife, Mary, searching for sugar cubes.

Always, she ate like a horse, favouring equine staples, as well as tobacco, whiskey and beer.`

"She ate just about anything," says Mary Bickerton, 85, who on Nov. 20 will celebrate her 68th wedding anniversary with Gordon. "The only thing she didn't eat was cheese."

On Princess Louise's 25th birthday, a party was thrown in Sussex, the home of the Hussars. The chef at a local military base baked her a cake out of oatmeal and cigarettes and layered it with icing and raw carrots.

Gordon Bickerton presented it to Princess Louise, who eyeballed it for a second.

"Then she drove her nose into the middle of it, nearly up to her eyes," he says. "She nearly knocked me down. She split the cake in two."

A native of England who moved to New Brunswick as a baby, Bickerton enlisted in the Second World War. He was in London, walking in Trafalgar Sqaure, when he and an Army buddy met Mary and a friend.

In no time the boys were chatting them up and the couples paired off. Later that night, they thought better of their choices, and switched - and now the Bickertons have been together seven decades, have three children, six grandchildren and six great-great grandkids.

A native of London, Mary moved to rural New Brunswick following the war, to Millstream, near Sussex.

"I knew there was no water in the house and I knew there was an outhouse way out back with catalogues that weren't there for reading, but hearing about it is one thing and living it is something else," she says.

Now, of course, that seems long ago, and it is. But they share a lifetime of memories, and a love for a horse that was rescued from a battlefield in Italy.

One time, while trying to apply for a military medal for Princess Louise, the Bickertons chased her around a field in Sussex trying to get her to step on an ink pad because the form required her signature.

"She looked at us like we were crazy," Mary says.

A former member of the Canadian Women's Army Corps, she helped her husband in the keeping of Princess Louise.

"The children used to call me 'the horse's mother'," she says. "They could have called me something worse."

SOURCE: The New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal (Saint John, NB) - November 11, 2011.

TRANSCRIBER'S NOTES: Princess Louise made numerous appearances at Camp Utopia during the 1950's.

07 November 2011

Services remember history, fallen

Column: Fourth of a four-part series of columns remembering those who served at Pennfield Ridge Air Station.

Since 2009, the Pennfield Parish Military Historical Society has been hosting the Pennfield Ridge War Memorial Service. The overall purpose of the service is to "Honour the seventy-eight (78) service personnel killed at these two Charlotte County bases; remember those who have since gone on to join their comrades in the sky and listen to the stories from those we still have with us."

To aid us in hosting these services, we have spent countless hours pouring through microfilms, acquiring aircraft accident reports, scouring old newspapers looking for news accounts, etc. Recording the numerous “prangs” however was just the first step and once completed we began the arduous task to seek out the families of those killed at the base.

This past July we hosted our third memorial service and held a banquet dinner at the St. George Legion to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Pennfield Ridge Air Station. Next year we will celebrate the 70th anniversary of A-30 Canadian Infantry Training Centre (Camp Utopia) and the 80th anniversary of the landing of Capt. James Mollison.

On 2 December 2010, as we continued our on-going research for locating families members and preparations for the pending memorial service, we received a phone call from Frank V Burnham from Sidmouth, England. We had previously contacted Frank’s cousin Michael Burnham who had visited here in September 2008. With the encouragement of his cousin Michael and with an invitation from our society to attend the upcoming memorial service, Frank made plans to make his first trip to Canada.

On Friday 22 July Frank flew into the Greater Moncton International Airport where a welcoming committee of four met him. Shortly before his arrival Everett McQuinn, a Second World War Veteran and a member of the Turnbull Chapter (CAHS), turned to me and asked me if I knew what Mr. Burnham looked like. I told him I did not and with the words still lingering in the air I said: “Here he comes now” which received a puzzled look from McQuinn. Although I did not know what he looked like, I had seen 2 photographs of his brother Hugh, and coming down the ramp was an older gentleman who bore a strong striking resemblance to Hugh.
Brenda Ferguson, Mayor George LeBlanc, Frank Burnham,
Christian Larsen & Everett McQuinn
Moncton Mayor George LeBlanc, who officially welcomed Mr. Burnham to the city, soon joined us and presented Mr. Burnham with a gift from Mayor and council. From the airport we ventured off to Elmwood Cemetery where Mr. Burnham knelt before the grave of his long-lost brother, whispered a final prayer and said farewell 68 years later. He also paid his final respects to P/O P.L. Edmond (RAAF) who is buried next to Hugh. The third crewmember, Sgt. J.E. Hogan, lies buried at St. Bernard’s Roman Catholic Cemetery, our last stop before leaving Moncton.

Frank Burnham visits the grave of his brother for the first time.

We then headed off to St. Andrews where he spent the weekend at a lovely bed and breakfast within the historic seaside resort community. F/L James A. (Jim) Stewart, DFC, ONB (Ret.) was gracious enough to provide Mr. Burnham a tour of the area on Saturday and brought him to the memorial service on Sunday.

Jim Stewart has been accommodating enough to lay the RAF wreath every year since we began hosting these services. Although never stationed at Pennfield Ridge. he did receive a portion of his training in Canada at No. 39 Flying Service Training School, Swift Current, SK in 1942. The closest he came to Pennfield Ridge, during the Second World War, was when the train he was aboard rolled through Moncton on the way to No.1 “Y” Depot in Halifax, NS.

At the conclusion of the banquet dinner, where both Frank and Jim were guest of honour, we took Frank on a brief tour of the base to see where Hugh spent some of his final days and then back to St. Andrews for the night.

The following day we returned Frank to Moncton so he could begin the journey back to England. Upon his return home Frank wrote, in part, “I did appreciate the memorial service and all that you are doing to keep alive the need to remember those who gave their lives in the doing of their duty to the security of our country.”

We look forward to the next memorial service and hopefully being joined by yet more family members. The memories of long ago are still very much present in all those who remember the base – Veterans, family members who have heard the stories or the older members of our community who were a part of the greatest generation.

The purpose of these columns is to awaken the general public interest and in addition, to bring forth more of the unrecorded history of this “Forgotten Base”.

The base had a major economic impact on the communities surrounding it from St. Stephen to Saint John and all points in between. However, 70 years later, there is nothing to suggest the significant role those blueberry fields played in the allies winning the war. Recording this history (still on-going) makes us realize that one should not be able to drive by this base without knowing its existence. Provincial Historic Designation is currently being sought so this location can be properly marked and perhaps a place created where people can read some of the stories and see photographs of what took place here. We need to remember all those who served and make sure the forgotten heroes, those who died in the preparation of war before their finest hour such as Sgt. H.J. (Hugh) Burnham, are honoured.

Per Ardua Ad Astra.

SOURCE: The Saint Croix Courier (St. Stephen, NB) - November 8, 2011.