Heroes remember

Behind the program that captures vets' reminiscences

Belle Hatfield belle.hatfield@thevanguard.ca
Published on November 7, 2012

Loran Fevens opens his laptop to the Heroes Remember web page.

 

 
Belle Hatfield photo

Loran Fevens is a veteran broadcaster, beginning his career in the 1960s. Later, while working in Charlottetown with the Department of Veterans Affairs, he interviewed hundreds of veterans as a producer for the Heroes Remember project. He was inspired to produce Sentimental Journey, a weekly radio show featuring music from the big band era in response to a common complaint veterans of the world wars shared. When they heard he was a radio broadcaster, they complained that they didn’t hear their music on the radio anymore. The show continues to air on stations throughout Canada and south of the border.

By Belle Hatfield

The VANGUARD

NovaNewsNow

 

“We lost a lot of men, but we took it and held it and they never tried to come back.”

Philip Downey reaches out through the computer screen and takes the viewer back with him to 1917. He is talking about Vimy Ridge, the piece of land in northern France that was the scene of one of Canada’s greatest military triumphs in the First World War.

The battle has become almost synonymous with Canada’s nationhood. Brigadier-General A. E. Ross, commander of the 6th Canadian Brigade, famously said in describing the battle, “In those few minutes I witnessed the birth of a nation.”

For Downey, there were no thoughts of nation-building on that day and in the days that followed. Instead, he remembers how the bombs were constructed and why they were so deadly. He recalls in the aftermath of the battle, clearing out German positions, separating the dead (of which there were many) from the living. The former to be buried en masse, the latter to be taken as prisoners.

Downey has been dead for more than a decade, but his story – and those of nearly a thousand other Canadian service men and women – has been preserved for eternity. His was recorded in 1996 when he was 105.  It was one of hundreds of videotaped interviews conducted by Veterans Affairs Canada. According to the website where excerpts of these interviews are now available, it was an effort to highlight “the events that helped to shape Canada as a nation, events which contributed to the formation of Canadian values …”

It can be found by typing Heroes Remember into a search engine. (Find it at www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/collections/hrp.) The web page has been acknowledged by the federal government with a gold medal for Information Management Excellence in the Public Sector. It contains a cross-connected, easily-searchable archive of videotaped interviews with nearly a thousand Canadian service men and women, the majority of whom saw action in the world wars. There are a variety of search options. You can search by name, by campaign, by geography, by occupation.

Downey, like the rest of Canada’s First World War veterans, is dead, but thanks to this program, which began conducting interviews in 1995, their memories live on.

Yarmouth resident Loran Fevens played a key role. In the 1980s, he was working for the Department of Veterans Affairs as a public relations officer in Charlottetown. The department decided to develop an in-house video unit instead of contracting out for film services. A veteran radio producer and broadcaster, the job fell to him to oversee the new video unit.

The son of a father whose military service had impacted his family, Fevens had from childhood felt a connection to the men and women who had served and were honoured on Remembrance Day every year.

“I would always get very emotional,” he recalled of those moments in front of the cenotaph in Yarmouth. Later, as a broadcaster, he often interviewed veterans for broadcasts around the Remembrance Day observances.

With a full video unit at his disposal, it was perhaps inevitable that the idea would take root to record veterans’ recollections of wartime experiences.

 

By late 1994, with ministerial approval in hand, an ad was booked for two issues in a national veterans’ journal. Two weeks after the first publication date, he called to cancel the second ad.

“I had 850 responses to that little ad in two weeks. And they were from all over the country,” said Fevens during an interview at his home last week.

As the producer, his job was to make the first contact and organize the interviews.

“We made the First World War vets our first priority,” he recalls. “It was urgent and still we lost some before we could get the interviews.”

But the recollections of 75 First World War veterans are preserved forever, as well as hundreds from more recent campaigns. The original program concluded its five-year mandate in 1999.

After a hiatus, the program has again begun collecting stories from Afghanistan vets and vets of the first Gulf War. The program has also expanded to include stories from peacekeeping missions in which Canada has played significant roles around the globe.

On the website you can search through 71 campaigns in which Canadian military personnel have served, or search by the 61 countries in which the Canadian military has seen action. Want to hear a bugler describe his wartime experience? You can find that by searching occupations.

Fevens describes the material contained in the nearly 1,800 hours on tape as “a huge well of both personal pain and happiness.”

Veterans often shared their stories first with Fevens. That’s why the telephone calls, which technically should have only taken a couple of minutes, often stretched for hours.

One of the stories that had the biggest impact on him was never captured on tape. It involves a veteran of the Hong Kong campaign, a particularly brutal and futile chapter in Canadian military history. When Fevens called to set up the interview, he was surprised to realize that the veteran had not filled in the application and didn’t know what he was calling about. The mystery was soon solved. His wife had filled it in on his behalf, in the hopes that talking about his experiences might relieve some of the anxieties that still haunted his dreams. It had been 50 years, and still this veteran was struggling to cope with what he had witnessed. The man decided to go ahead with the interview.

Fevens remembers the day the interview had been scheduled, feeling on edge. Neil Robinson, a lawyer with a keen knowledge of Canadian military history, had been given the job of conducting the interviews and Fevens had told him to call as soon as the taping concluded.

The taping never took place. Fevens learned that at the first question, the battle-hardened, former prisoner of war had broken down in tears and was unable to carry on with the taping.

Fevens says that man’s story, like so many confidences that others have shared, stands as an ever-present reminder of the burdens carried by service men and women.

“Not one of those fine kids came back unchanged,” he says, adding, “I don’t know how many times [as he was preparing for the interviews] people said they had never talked about their war experiences before.”

Fevens says the repository that he has had a hand in collecting stands as a testament to a moment in time that will never be repeated.

“It’s so important that kids today have access to this. They need to understand the sacrifices and heroism. They need to know what it was like. It’s been captured and now it will be here for them. It will still be here a hundred years from now.”