“My darling dearest Jeanie.” That’s how Joseph Gaetz began every one of the more than 530 letters he wrote to his fiancée, Jean McRae, during the Second World War. Stationed in England, France, Belgium, Holland and Germany during and after the Second World War, Joseph was, at times, desperately homesick. His deepest desire was for the war to be over so that he could return to Canada and marry his sweetheart. Between July 1943 and November 1945, Joseph wrote to Jean whenever he could, sometimes sending both an airmail and a regular letter in the same day. He also collected a number of souvenirs from German prisoners that he sent to Jean with his letters. In 2017, his three daughters, Cathy Gaetz-Brothen, Bonnie Gaetz-Simpson and Linda Gaetz-Roberts donated his letters and souvenirs to Library and Archives Canada.
Joseph Gaetz was from the small community of Faith, Alberta. His parents were Russian immigrants and he grew up speaking English and German. On 13 May 1942, he attested in the Calgary Highlanders; five months later, he became engaged to Jean McRae of Turner Valley, Alberta. In early 1943, he shipped out to England with the Canadian Infantry Reinforcement Unit.
In August 1944, Joe was sent into action in France with the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry; he would soon move into Belgium and Holland. When his superiors realized that he spoke German, Joe became an interpreter with their scout platoon, going on a number of expeditions behind enemy lines to bring back German prisoners. In one letter to Jean from late 1944, he wrote, “My officer and I went a mile into the Jerry lines one night and took 52 prisoners to a barn…That was quite an experience.” In another letter, he told Jean how odd it felt to be capturing Germans who had lived in Canada before the war. In still other letters, he talks about picking up a pistol (one of several he acquired during the war) from No Man’s Land. Joe also told Jean how he got nervous before every patrol but learned to walk silently to avoid detection. He attributed his ability to avoid injury or capture to the photo of Jean that he kept in his breast pocket. He called it his “lucky charm” and said that all the other men had some sort of talisman.
Joe’s ability to speak German allowed him to converse with the men they captured. Although Joe had no particular fondness for Germans, he did recognize their humanity and common plight. While guarding captured prisoners, or bringing them back to camp, Joe often talked with them. Sometimes he challenged their convictions—in one instance, he asked a group of prisoners if they thought Hitler was still a god. One young soldier, who surrendered, told Joe he was afraid he was going to be sent back to Germany after the war and shot for being a deserter. Joe told the young man not to worry; there wasn’t going to be a Germany after the war.
Like many other soldiers, Joe kept a photo of his sweetheart tucked in the front of his Service Book, accompanied by a patriotic and moralistic poem entitled For Service and for Her! After inquiring about Jean’s health, he would reassure her that he was fine, tell her whether he had received her most recent letters, and then discuss the weather or some other inconsequential details. He followed these pleasantries with observations on military life—the routine chores he had to perform, what his accommodations were like, the food, who he’d met from back home, and so on.
Conditions at the front were often harsh, but Joe rarely complained. In fact, he joked about sleeping in trenches he’d dug himself and constructing makeshift chimneys from empty tin cans. Joe had a strong sense of personal duty; he refused to send anyone else in to do his job, and he went for seven months without a single day of leave. In one letter, he stoically told Jean about spending Christmas Day 1944 on duty in No Man’s Land.
Sometimes Joe and his fellow scouts were billeted with local families. Joe quickly picked up enough Flemish to be able to communicate with the people he came into contact with, and he writes how the locals would often invite the soldiers to dinner or offer to do their laundry. In his letters, he describes the little children he met, and he occasionally included photos of them in his letters home.
He came back to Canada on November 1945 and was discharged in Calgary, Alberta, on January 18, 1946, at the rank of Sergeant. He worked his way up to manager of the Fort Macleod lumberyard and he and Jean were finally married on June 21, 1948. They had three daughters before he died at the age of 41 of chronic hypertension. Cathy Gaetz-Brothen, the youngest of the girls was only one-year-old when her father died. The letters he wrote to her mother are especially important to her because they allowed her to get to know a father she had no memory of.
Joseph Gaetz didn’t have a particularly heroic war. He wasn’t a high-ranking commissioned officer leading a battalion; he didn’t singlehandedly storm any nests of German snipers. Instead he did what thousands of other Canadian soldiers did. He joined the army and fought alongside his fellow soldiers in the hope that he would one day come home to his sweetheart. Joe was one of the lucky ones.
Visit the exhibition Premiere: New acquisitions at Library and Archives Canada at 395 Wellington Street in Ottawa. The exhibition, which runs until December 3, 2018, features our most recent acquisitions and celebrates the expertise of Library and Archives Canada’s acquisition specialists. A librarian or an archivist thoughtfully selected every one of the items in the exhibition and wrote the caption for the item that they chose. Admission is free.
Katie Cholette is an archivist in the Specialized Media section of Library and Archives Canada.