Sunday, December 25, 2011

Inspiration and my Opa during the battle of Ortona on Christmas day, 1943

I sit here in the comfort of my home next to my amazing sister and parents and am extra thankful. I am thankful for many things but after taking an interest in my Opa’s war stories, I am grateful for his bravery, character and selflessness. 

My grandfather fought in World War II as a Seaforth in the 4th infantry division of signals and later as a Battle Adjudant in the Royal Infactra Corps, Canadian Infantry Corps. He was involved in the Hitler line battle, Savio River battle, Issel River battle and the San Leonardo battle but it was in the battle of Ortona that he left his mark.

It was on Christmas day in 1943 that the quarter master, Captain Cameron, decided to serve the Canadian men Christmas dinner in the church, which was one of the first and most important objectives in Ortona.

Here is my Opa, Wilfred Gildersleeve sharing his day as he played the Organ for the troops – “We had a couple of fellows able to pump the organ on a couple of planks. They stood on the plank, you know, and one, two, three, alternately. And I still had my little book with some music in it, of carols and hymns and what not. And I used to get stuck for church parades playing for them all, in England. And so we were able to sing some carols, led by Roy Durnford, padre. That was very heavy, very heavy, to see those men come in, have their dinner, which consisted of roast pork, potatoes, carrots, all scrounged from the countryside and Christmas pudding a couple of chocolate bars, a bottle of beer and an orange. And for many of those men, it was the last meal they ever had on this earth because it was company after company.”

I imagine my grandfather, 68 years ago singing hymns and playing the organ filling men with what may have been their last peaceful and joyous moments. Sitting here writing from the comfort of my home, I do my best to fathom their appreciation for life and thank them from the bottom of my heart for the sacrifices they made for you and me; for our nation.

I send my love and gratitude to my Opa Wilfred as well as his lovely bride Marguerite who met in Amsterdam on May 8th !945 in celebration of World War II ending. You have both created a wonderful legacy and your spirits are shining in your children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. Your family is strong and we will lift you up tomorrow as we all gather to celebrate Dutch Christmas in your honor.

To my Opa, your spirit, fearlessness, integrity and height live on. You were a standout man and your grandchildren may not have had much time with you but we fondly remember your chivalry, high moral standard and sense of humor. In fact I am frequently reminded of you when Matt, myself and Jordan grow our moustaches in Movember and I am confident we all have your funny bone.

I leave you with my Opa’s final message to future generations in the family interview conducted by my uncle Steve.

“Hold in your heart a love of Canada, your home land, maybe your adopted home land, and serve Canada as best you can in whatever way the country needs you. Be it business or in the services or in the government, bearing in mind the fact Canada’s forces now are a peace-keeping force and we will never be an offensive nation and we should certainly honor our service men in today’s forces because they act as aid to the civil power. And try to lead our lives in ways that will never again lead to war. Maybe the simplest message is that we need to learn to love and respect our fellow man and to work together for the common good.”


  1. Hello Martin,
    I was moved to tears when I read your story about Opa Gildersleeve. I have heard the story may times directly from Opa, because, as you might know, I have been a "member" of the family since 1950 when your uncle Mike was born in Amsterdam and I went with your Oma Marguerite(my direct cousin - her mother and my father were brother and sister) and the three children (Steve, Rod and Mike) to West Vancouver to assist your Oma with the children, etc. A lasting love and admiration grew especially for your Oma. We became each other's best friends that felt as if we were sisters, always confiding in each other. The eight children accepted me as a second mother. Uncle Steve made two remarks when he was about four years old: I have two Mommies, Mommy Marguerite and Mommy Eta; and when he asked me something I told him to ask his mother, whereupon he said: aren't you my Mommy too?
    I am in awe, Martin, about your thoughts, how you discus those thoughts on paper and share them with Jordan, your parents and sister and actually, the whole Gildersleeve gang.
    Keep going, Martin, I pray for the whole gang every day and I sincerely hope that you will make it to the Olympics.
    I would have loved to share with you all the Dutch Christmas celebration today, second Christmas Day, but I just could not make it. Perhaps next year at which time I hope to meet you again.
    Much love, big hug, your other "Oma" Eta

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