(First published in the Trail Times Oct. 23, 2013 edition)
Emily Dawson was bestowed the honour of pinning the first poppy of the local Royal Canadian Legion’s 2013 campaign on her hero, WWII veteran Cliff Dawson, the Trail princess’s grandfather.
“This year, my grandpa’s experiences are especially poignant to me,” said Dawson. “Because he decided to enlist at the age of 17 and I turned that age this summer.
“I don’t know if that is something I would have the courage to do. It reminds me just how lucky I am today.”
The elder Dawson is a spry 88-year-old with gracious spirit and a sense of humour that belies his history as a prisoner of war at the tender age of 19.
Dawson was sent overseas in the fall of 1944, landing by boat in Belgium and from there, ensconced in battle on the Leopold Canal in the northern region of the country.
In October of that year, Dawson’s entire platoon, led by a young Trail man raised in the Gulch, Sergeant Armando Gri, was captured by the Germans and imprisoned in a stalag under harrowing conditions very few could endure.
The platoon was taken via train boxcars to the camp, and although Gri and a handful of prisoners escaped by cutting an opening in the side of the boxcar, Dawson remained behind.
During this time, it was mid-winter, and the only reprieve the young soldiers had from the unrelenting cold was a thin blanket and wooden bunk with straw.
Lice was rampant and food was scarce, leading to emaciation, dysentery and frost bite.
After six months of starvation and forced labour in the German stalag, Dawson was released on April 16, 1945 and transferred to a Canadian hospital in London.
“The loss in weight was so dramatic that while he was in the hospital his own brother didn’t’ recognize him,” said Emily.
“My siblings and I have always been very close, so the idea of being so ill that they wouldn’t recognize me is something I can’t fathom.”
The first poppy pinning starts the annual fundraising campaign with veterans, cadets and volunteers distributing the scarlet pins Friday and Saturday in downtown Trail, Walmart, Canadian Tire, Waneta Mall and Main Street in Fruitvale.
Donations to the annual poppy campaign are the Legion’s major fundraiser, with a majority of the proceeds staying in Greater Trail.
Last year, the Trail branch raised more than $20,000 that in part, was dispersed locally into seven bursaries to grandchildren of veterans and a donation made to the Trail air cadet program.
“The money paves the way for activities that further help in the development of making our cadets grow into more confident adults,” said Jim Hossack, air cadet commander. “Some of these areas are an effective speaking program, first aid, range, and scuba
diving,” said Hossack, adding, “and many more activities that the DND (Department of National Defence) does not fully financially support.”
Hossack’s son Cameron was a bursary recipient, and said the funds will help his son succeed in a carpentry program.
“The money received helped provide a post secondary education and is an incentive to stay on course because of the backing and vote of confidence he received from the people in his community,” added Hossack, on behalf of Cameron, currently living in Calgary.
Poppy donations were also used to provide comfort to veterans and seniors in local care facilities and provided emergency services to three local veterans.
In addition, the Legion donated proceeds to a the veterans transition program, the commonwealth ex-servicemen league, a veteran’s recertification program, and to assist with the purchase of an exoskeleton machine for a veteran severely injured in Afghanistan.
“For me, pinning the first poppy is an honour,” said the Trail princess. “I believe the act of remembering is a small price to pay in comparison to what others have given.”