Larry Evans: The seven who didn't return

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When you visit the Royal Canadian Legion in Fort St. John, you see a memorial plaque on the wall with a list of seven men that had served their country during the Second World War. 

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These men were brothers, husbands, and uncles of citizens of the North Peace, dearly loved and sadly lost. Some of the men, as children in the early 1930s, went to the same schools, played on the Baldonnel hockey team, and attended scout meetings at May Birley’s farm. They, and their families, knew each other in some way or another. 

This column is dedicated to these men, the others who didn’t return, and the ones that did. More than ever, we owe our deepest gratitude to these men and women so we can enjoy the freedom we have today.

• • •

The first man from the North Peace to go down was Flight Sergeant Owen Fraser Pickell. 

Sgt. Pickell was a pilot for the R.C.A.F. and flew a Spitfire in the Battle of Britain. On October 25, there was great excitement in the 412 Squadron over his return from the Rolls-Royce works at Hucknall. One of the Spit 5B’s had been outfitted with a novel negative “G” carburetor and, as well as flying it back for them, Pickell —who had been an engineering student at the University of British Columbia before the war — was able to explain its mysteries to the squadron. 

The device prevented the engine from cutting out when the control column was jerked sharply forward. The Spitfires previously had some difficulty in maneuvering because of this against the German planes, whose injection carburetion obliviated this difficulty. 

No. 412 was the first squadron in Britain to be fitted with this gift from the “boffins.” During a patrol of the French coast, Sgt. Pickell was lost in action and his last report was: “Have used up all my ammunition. Am going home. Have got one.” 

His plane went down on November 8, 1941. His memorial is at Runnymeade Memorial in Surrey, England. 

• • •

Not much is known about Donald Hunter except that he was in Scouts with Owen Pickell in 1929, so we assume they were pretty good friends and may have even joined the R.C.A.F. together. 

Don Hunter was just 22 and an Officer Class I when he went down someplace over Europe. The date was February 26, 1943, and he also has a memorial at Runnymeade in England. Don was a brother to Les Hunter, who served as alderman for the City of Fort St. John, and, at one time, the land east of Kin Park was known as Hunter’s Subdivision. 

• • •

Harold Braathen, had also attended the University of British Columbia and may have met Owen Pickell there. He came to teach in the Peace. He was one of eight children and one of three brothers enlisted in the war. 

Braathen was a teacher at Cecil Lake when he met Audrey Framst. In order to do his part with the war effort, he enlisted with the R.C.A.F. as a Flying Officer when he was 28 years old. He and Audrey were married during his Embarkment Leave before he was sent to Europe. 

A few days following the wedding found him with the No. 44 Squadron, stationed at Dunholme Lodge in Lincolnshire. The squadron flew a Lancaster Mark 1, with missions to France. Usually with seven men on board, Braathen had signed on as the eighth person and Navigator 2, and was flying just for the experience that night. 

The Lancaster was shot down at 1:49 a.m. on July 5, 1944, during a “night fight” with a German ME 110. After the fatal hit, the pilot ordered the crew to abandon the aircraft. The hatch opened but only two of the eight crew members were able to bail out before the plane crashed into a field. 

The six crew members that did not survive, including Braathen, were buried in a single grave in the Marissel French National Cemetery in Beauvais, France. 

Audrey Framst Braathen later remarried and is the mother of Terry Seguin, who is an Air Force veteran himself. Terry is proud to safely preserve the medals presented to his mother in honour of Braathen’s contribution to the end of the Second World War. 

• • •

Rifleman Harold Derek Birley enlisted in the Army at age 20. He was assigned to the Regina Rifles Regiment R.C.I.C. and was killed in action in Normandy on July 8, 1944. He is buried at Beny-Sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery, Reviers, France. 

There is a photo of Birley taken with the Baldonnel School children in 1932. Birley was related to the pioneer family of that name and has many relatives still living in the Fort St. John area. His death would have been a great loss to that family and to the area.

• • •

Orville Edison Babcock, from Rose Prairie, was 27 when he joined the Army. He signed on with the Canadian Scottish Regiment, R.C.I.C. and fought in Normandy. He was killed in action also on July 8, 1944 and is also buried at Beny-Sur-Mer in France. 

Babcock and his family arrived at Rose Prairie around 1932 and traveled in with Mrs. Babcock’s brother, Arthur Lusk, and his family, which still have a presence in the Peace. 

On March 2, 1961, a creek that flows northeast into Flatbed Creek, east of Tumbler Ridge, was named Babcock Creek in honour of the fallen soldier from Rose Prairie.

• • •

Trooper Harold Johnson joined the Army when he was 19 years old. He signed on with the Calgary Highlanders, R.C.I.C. and fought in Normandy. 

Little is known about Johnson and he may have been related to the Johnsons of Cherry Point. Nonetheless, he lived in the North Peace area when he enlisted. 

He was killed in active duty in Normandy on August 1, 1944. He is buried at Bretteville-Sur-Laize Canadian War Cemetery in Calvados, France.

• • •

At last we have the seventh soldier who didn’t return. His name is Robert Bruce Groger and was a Sergeant in the Army. He was assigned to the Edmonton Fusiliers. He was 30 years old and had enlisted in 1939. 

Groger came to the Cecil Lake area with his family. One of his sisters was Ethel Groger Thompson, who married Newton Thompson. Robert’s father, Bruce Groger, was a builder and constructed many houses, including the Robert Ogilvie home that still stands across from Robert Ogilvie School. Needless to say, Groger still has many relatives living in the area.

After fighting during the conflict in Europe, Groger was killed in a training accident in Vernon just a few weeks before he was to be discharged from the Army. His date of death was September 18, 1945, and he is buried at the Cecil Lake Cemetery.

• • •

On a personal note my brother in law, Don Strang, his older brother Gerald Strang, sister Barbara Strang Schultz, and parents settled in Fort St. John. They owned a lumber yard for many years, with the elder Mr. Strang also working as a barber. 

Gerald most likely enlisted while in Grande Prairie. He was a tail gunner, and his plane was shot down over the English Channel and was killed.

Larry Evans is a former fire chief, city councillor, and lifelong historian living in Fort St. John.

© Copyright Alaska Highway News

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