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WWII soldier's tale is finally told decades after his death

COLUMN ONE

A Belgian's curiosity and a town's gratitude help the descendants of a Canadian soldier get to know the man behind the family legend.

January 01, 2013|By David Wharton, Los Angeles Times
  • Lyle Wharton of Canada unveils a monument for his father, Clifford, in Vorselaar, Belgium, in November. Clifford, at right, a soldier who helped liberate the country during World War II, died in an explosion at a nearby castle.
Lyle Wharton of Canada unveils a monument for his father, Clifford, in Vorselaar,… (Jon Wharton )

VORSELAAR, Belgium — A brass band waited outside the church, the musicians bundled in overcoats and scarves against a gray morning. Someone hoisted a ceremonial flag as we proceeded down cobblestone streets in this small town.

The air had turned cold enough to show our breath by the time we passed through an iron gate to the cemetery, following a path that led to a headstone draped in a Canadian flag.

The mayor of Vorselaar said a few words in Flemish that my brothers and I did not understand, after which another man read from a prepared text. Soon enough, it was my father's turn.

PHOTOS: A war hero's untold tale

In a quavering voice, he said, "Our gratitude goes beyond words."

His speech lasted less than four minutes and, before it ended, several of the townsfolk had tears in their eyes.

My family had traveled across the Atlantic to be with these people, complete strangers. We had assembled on a Sunday in late autumn to honor a man whom none of us had ever met.

My grandfather.

***

My middle brother, Jon, says that Clifford Wharton was like some kind of legend or myth, but I think he's overstating things.

To me, Clifford was simply a black-and-white photograph of a young man in soldier's garb with his garrison cap tilted at what they used to call a jaunty angle. Our family rarely talked about him and, for the better part of 50 years, I knew only the basic facts.

In the late 1920s, he left his seaport home in England — the shipyards were struggling — to start a new life. Settling in western Canada, he found work as an auto mechanic and met my grandmother, Leona. They had been married only a few years and she was pregnant with their first child when Canada joined World War II.

Much later, I was told that Clifford shipped off to England, where he trained as a demolitions expert and attained the rank of company sergeant major in the Royal Canadian Engineers. Somewhere in Belgium in the fall of 1944 — we never knew exactly where — he came across a German antitank mine.

The explosive detonated when he attempted to defuse it. He was buried with other Commonwealth soldiers in Antwerp, half an hour to the west.

There was nothing sinister or particularly unusual about his story, and there was no reason to keep it a secret.

By the time I came along, my grandmother had long since been remarried to a kind man who had survived a stint in the Devil's Brigade, one of the war's most daring commando units. Clifford's name hardly ever came up.

"It probably wasn't a subject that was appropriate," my father, Lyle, said. "And his story did not run deep in our family. His presence was so brief."

***

An ocean away, Marc Op de Beeck had reasons for digging into our personal history.

He is also the descendant of a Canadian soldier. His grandfather met a Belgian woman during the war and brought her back to Prince Edward Island. They had a daughter who, years later, on summer vacation, fell for a man in Vorselaar and moved there to be with him. Op de Beeck is their son.

This circular family history made him curious about World War II and Canada's role in liberating Belgium from hard years of Nazi occupation. Soft-spoken and precise, the 39-year-old auto parts salesman said: "I'm always searching the Internet. Looking for things."

For years, Vorselaar had maintained the grave site of a Canadian pilot who had crashed in a nearby field. Lt. J.W. Cowling was thought to be the only Commonwealth fighter to die in the town, though he was only in the town for a split second.

In the local archives, Op de Beeck found mention of a wartime explosion at the Borrekens castle, a nearby medieval fortress with proud towers and battlements made of sandstone. The baron who lived there seemed to recall that a Canadian soldier had been killed.

This discovery started Op de Beeck on a two-year search. He found an old photograph that showed code numbers for all the Canadian forces deployed in the region. Further research helped him translate those numbers into actual units.

Corresponding with officials in Ottawa, he obtained the military diaries for several likely units, scanning hundreds of pages for an entry about the explosion.

"All of sudden, hey, there it was, your grandfather's name," he recalled. "It was a little bit of luck."

Further requests got him copies of Clifford's personnel file and an official inquiry into his death. Still, Op de Beeck wanted more.

The documents showed that, after the war, the government had sent monthly checks to Clifford's widow in San Francisco. Leona had long since died, but an Internet search turned up the name Lyle Wharton, who had graduated from USC in the 1960s.

"That was also in California," Op de Beeck said. "I decided to give it a try."

Through a series of emails in 2011, he found Lyle in Vancouver, Canada, asking him: Are you the son of Clifford Wharton?

***

Quite suddenly, my family was talking about Clifford.

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