The VE-Day parade is pictured from the south side of the bridge. The building in the background was Young’s Restaurant which was two stories at that time. Fire Chief Mac McIntyre, left, is seen talking to Howard Berry. The fourth vehicle in the parade was Blake Berry’s truck.

By Frank Prothero

It was a day like no other. Seventy-five years after the most important day in the entire 20th century, what memories are engraved in the mind of someone who was a child of seven on that eventual day? What images persist after the passing of a lifetime?

Smoke and sirens. Josie Pope. She provided the most vivid memory of that long-ago day. The fire hall played an important role in the celebration of the end of the war in Europe. At that time, the Fire Hall was a small garage attached to the west side of the Town Hall, in the present-day foyer of the library.

At that time, there was a switch beside the front door of the fire hall, which activated the alarm on the roof of the Town Hall, a siren that could be heard throughout the village. It was an over-powering sound that struck fear in the hearts of everyone for it invariably warned of disaster of one kind or another.

The wailing of that siren on the afternoon of VE Day is the dominant memory of that event. Josephine Pope was originally from Port Maitland, but she had met and married George Pope, an engineer on the steam tugs of the 1920s and 1930s and they made their home in Port Stanley. George had gone off to war, an engineer on a Canadian destroyer. Her son, Clarence, had gone off to war. Her son Ernest had gone off to war, but he would never return, killed in action in France shortly after D-Day.

Josephine Pope had good reason to celebrate the end of the Second World War on May 8, 1945. She was at the centre of a small drama that played out on that day at the fire hall.]

Josephine Pope took possession of that switch on the afternoon of VE Day and for nearly an hour the sound of that siren echoed up and down the valley. The town police officer attempted to stop her. A crowd of several hundred people had congregated on Bridge Street. They shouted their disapproval as the policeman approached her.

“Leave her alone,” the crowd shouted. Even a seven-year-old child could sense the displeasure of the crowd.

Wisely, the policeman withdrew, and the siren continued its mournful alarm. Eventually, two senior students from the public school, Jack Prothero and Bruce Hill, approached Josephine, each one gently grasping her elbows. Quietly, they backed away and the undulating moan of the siren ceased. Or did it? Perhaps it never has. Seventy-five years later, it echoes in the memory – a melancholy reminder that the joy of victory was not without its price.

And the smoke? A pall of smoke lingered over the downtown of the village through much of the afternoon. One might have wished for fireworks on a day such as this, but the celebration was too sudden, too spontaneous for such arrangements. But the students of the Port Stanley Public School were prepared. That is Shirley Gifford and a few of her friends were. They had fashioned a life-size effigy of Hitler which they erected in front of Young’s Restaurant (yes, the restaurant is still there) and they proceeded to light their effigy on fire. The blaze was cheered by everyone present but the combustion was somehow incomplete, and the smoke lingered in the downtown area for the rest of the afternoon. The smoke added the second most memorable feature of that day.

The children had been excused from school that day and they were another outstanding impression of VE Day. Do not think that those children, including myself, a child of seven, could not grasp the importance of what was taking place. We had been raised on war. It was our daily bread. Our parents and relatives were all involved in one way or another. The government of Canada had even recruited its most junior citizens to be part of the war effort. Every Friday, at school, we were expected to produce five cents to support the war effort. Each nickel earned a stamp. Two lucky students were chosen to go to the bank and buy the savings stamps which were kept in books, one for each recruit, to be redeemed at the end of the war.

We knew the lexicography as well as our parents did: D-Day, Spitfires and Lancasters, the Bismarck, Battle of the Atlantic, U-Boats, Stalingrad, Pearl Harbour. At breakfast, we studied the silhouettes of fighter planes printed on the cereal boxes. We were no strangers to the conflict.

The VE-Day parade is pictured from the south side of the bridge. The building in the background was Young’s Restaurant which was two stories at that time. Fire Chief Mac McIntyre, left, is seen talking to Howard Berry. The fourth vehicle in the parade was Blake Berry’s truck.

A makeshift parade had been organized that day consisting of a few cars, Blake Berry’s truck and the fire engine. School children were allowed to ride on the fire truck as it made its way through the village streets. That was an incomparable delight, a privilege and an adventure beyond belief.

And there we were:

  • Pat Taylor, son of Selborn (Sob) Taylor, a boat builder who owned and operated the only marina in town. The family lived in an apartment above Young’s Restaurant. Sob was a veteran of the First World War and a cadre of his nieces and nephews served in the Second World War;
  • Morley Robinson, 13, who later served in the Canadian Navy;
  • And there was Bev Baker, daughter of Doug Baker, who had signed up for service, but later returned to entertain the troops and summer crowds with his big dance band at the L&PA Pavilion. Her uncle was killed in action in Germany a few short weeks before the armistice;
  • Donny Ward, who lived in a house down on Main Street that is now a restaurant. Don’s father was with the RCAF at the base just south of St. Thomas. Don would go on to serve his country as a fighter pilot and instructor. He now lives in Alberta;
  • Marvin Berry, whose father and uncles were responsible for much of the celebrations that day;
  • Norma Cook (Murray) who kept the memory of that day alive;
  • Marg Smith and Marg Williamson;
  • George Prothero who became a teacher at the RCAF base in Metz, France, before settling in British Columbia;
  • Jerry Hough, our neighbour across the street on the hill above the railroad station;
  • Janet Peterson, and her brothers, Jim and Wally. There would have been no Port Stanley story without them; 
  • and The Berry brothers were prominent that day. Howard Berry, who subsequently became the manager of the villager PUC, drove one vehicle in the parade. Blake Berry’s truck was used to transport the overflow from the fire truck. Bill Berry, who operated a taxi service in the village was also on hand.

… and so the list went on. Most of the students in the village were there. In the following days, months and years they would be the leaders of the village. Many of them would leave Port Stanley to find their fortunes in other parts of Canada and abroad. They would not forget the village of their youth nor that special day in May 1945.

The mixed emotions of that day were evident in the faces of the adults in the crowd on Bridge Street – pride in the fact that we had won and that Canada had played an important part in that victory, relief that the six long years of war were over and that those who had served would soon be coming home; sorrow for six Port Stanley boys who would never return … and a certain haunting fear that we had passed from one era to another with no assurance that we would not face greater horrors in the future, but … of course we had won the war and that was all that really mattered.

The celebrations in New York, London and Paris were certainly more extensive than those in our village. We saw the huge crowds in the pictures in the newspaper and the news reels at the movie theatre, but nowhere did I see that the children in those cities had been paraded through the community in a fire truck. It was left to the children of Port Stanley to treasure that memory for another 75 years.

Frank Prothero is a retired history teacher. With his wife, Nancy, as co-author, he has published 21 books on Great Lakes, regional and local history. Their seven children were raised in Port Stanley.