HAMILTON’S WAR: THE CONTRIBUTION OF OUR LEGAL COMMUNITY TO THE SECOND WORLD WAR
By: Amanda Jordan McInnis
As I am writing this article, we are approaching the 77th anniversary of D-Day and the invasion of Normandy which turned the course of the Second World War, leading to the victory of the Allies over the Germans and the other Axis powers. As I remember the sacrifices given by so many during this pivotal time in history, I have also been thinking particularly about how the war may have affected members of our own legal community. How were they called to serve and contribute? Did their war experience influence their subsequent legal careers and how they practiced? And I realized that I didn’t really know many of their stories, even though there are at least two published accounts.
There are very few WWII veterans left to bear witness and as we get farther and farther away from this history, a conscious effort is required to remember their stories and their sacrifices. So, I wanted to spend some time highlighting some of these accounts.
This is by no means meant to be a definitive list, (not least of which as I am only concerning this article with WWII), and I have included some individuals with ties to Hamilton, even if they are not strictly of Hamilton. I also recognize that though everyone would have been impacted by the war and therefore have their own story to tell, many individuals, for many different reasons, did not, or did not have an opportunity, to share their experiences.
The Honourable Lincoln Alexander
Before his legal career and political life, Hamilton’s own the Honourable Lincoln Alexander served in the Royal Canadian Air Force (the “RCAF”). He chose the RCAF as, out of the three services at the time (army, navy and air force), the RCAF was the most interested in accepting people of colour. (Also, and as he recounts in his memoirs, he looked best in their uniform.)
Because of his poor eyesight, he was not able to serve oversees, but instead was shipped out to Portage la Prairie where the British Commonwealth Air Training Program prepared airmen to serve oversees as navigators and bombardiers; he describes “flying in Anson aircraft with young men from the Commonwealth who would eventually be navigators”. He continued his service in Quebec until the spring of 1945 when he was transferred to Vancouver, as a result of the assured victory in Europe shifting the focus of the war to the Pacific.
In his memoir, he focuses not on the work that he performed, though he certainly speaks with pride of his assistance to the war effort, but of the people that he met along the way. He says that one of the greatest rewards of his wartime service was the close and lifelong friendship he formed with three members in his training unit and the great memories they shared. They met during their initial training in wireless operation at Westdale High School and Hon. Alexander describes going out in the evenings with them to see the big bands playing at The Brant Inn in Burlington. While serving in Portage la Prairie, he recounts “one of the greatest events of [his] wartime experiences – if not the greatest – occurred when the jazz great Lionel Hampton came for a concert”.
Unfortunately, he also describes the racism he had to face and the particular incident which resulted in his honourable discharge. When he was refused service at a tavern while stationed in British Columbia, Hon. Alexander told his flight lieutenant that it was his duty to stick up for him, and “if the air force couldn’t represent [his] interests, it could very well release [him] from duty.” The RCAF ultimately did nothing and Alexander was subsequently honourably discharged.
Though these events and the failure of his commanding officers to defend him was painful and disappointing, Hon. Alexander also speaks in his memoir with great respect for those in military service, willing to sacrifice their lives so we can live “in a country rich in freedom and democracy”. His discharge came with a small grant to be used for housing or education with which Hon. Alexander headed straight back to Hamilton and used that grant to complete his legal education and start his legal and political career. The focus in his memoirs about building community and friendship during his military service and his personal sense of integrity and pride in being able to serve, even when he was met with injustice, accords with his later legal and political career where he continued to serve and inspire his community.
Capt. Mac Smith
Captain Malcolm Smith, affectionately known in his battalion as “Mac” or “Smitty”, who before he enlisted, was only months away from completing his PhD in history as well as a practicing young lawyer.
In Black Yesterdays, many of Mac’s letters to his wife and other military are reprinted, showing his wit and humour. Indeed, these traits in the face of the horror of war made him beloved by his unit. As Capt. Claude Bissell remembers “In the midst of action, when nerves were taut and spirits were flagging, he would recite his latest limerick, in which the subject hailed from the town of the action”.
In the final days of the war, on April 8, 1945, Mac took a single bullet while attempting to cross the Ems River in Germany, killing him instantly.
Other families in the legal community, like the Wigle family, gave the ultimate sacrifice of one of their sons. Lieutenant Colonel Fred Wigle left Hamilton to pursue a Bachelor of Commerce at McGill University. When war broke out, he joined the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada Infantry Regiment, which to this day, has an active presence in Hamilton. Wigle was shipped overseas in November of 1941.
Under his command, Wigle and his troops advanced into German territory and fought a series of battles in the Hochwald forest. Though they took on significant casualties, the Canadians held their position and Wigle was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. However, this good fortune would not last. Wigle was subsequently shot and killed by a German paratrooper on April 12, 1945, less than a month before the end of WWII in Europe. According to his brother, “Fred had won the hearts of everyone wherever he had gone. His battalion worshipped him and to every man in his battalion, his death was considered a personal loss”. He died at only 31 years of age.
Justice John Pringle
Justice John Pringle, who passed away in 2019, served in the RCAF in one of the most dangerous positions; as a tail gunner in the bomber command.
Justice Pringle flew in 28 bombing missions, an incredible feat given the very low survival rate for bombing missions and especially for tail gunners. It would take incredible bravery to fly multiple missions in the bomber’s claustrophobic, metal tube, with the deafening sound of the engine roaring and guns blasting. But nothing would have felt so exposed as the glass globe in which the tail gunner sits, being not only incredibly visible but also an immediate target for the enemy.
Justice Pringle missed death by mere circumstance when he was not flying on the mission that killed his entire crew after the bomber was shot down. Flying in such tight quarters with the constant risk of catastrophe, your life depends on your crew working together as a tight-knit unit; the grief in losing all of your crew must have been devastating.
Finally, there is David Goldberg, whose wartime experiences are recounted in “An Ordinary Hero: Story of David Goldberg, WWII Canadian Spitfire” and are so incredible, they sound like a Hollywood movie. Goldberg, who was in Boston when war broke out in Europe, returned to his hometown of Hamilton and joined the RCAF.
He was deployed to France in 1943 and over the next 8 months, he flew 79 successful missions with the 416th but on March 8, 1944, during his 80th mission, his plane was hit and he was forced to either bail out or try to land it. He managed to land it and get out, but the plane burst into flames, making his position visible to the Germans who would have seen his plane go down. Being Jewish, he knew the fate that would await him if he was caught, so he buried his dog tags and ran into the Lille countryside to hide. Eventually, David approached a farmer for help, risking certain death if the farmer was a collaborator with the Germans or Vichy French. Luckily, the farmer was not, and to the contrary, had connections with the French Resistance.
Travelling at night, the Maquis, a rural guerilla band of the Resistance, moved David all around the country. At one point, he ended up in Paris sat beside two German officers, where he had to stay calm and act normal or risk raising their suspicions. Eventually, after weeks of clandestine movement around France, the Underground organized groups of escapees to climb over 2,400 metres across the French Pyrenees Mountains with the target of northern Spain. Unfortunately, their French guide deserted them, leaving the group in rough terrain and bad weather, but they were able to enlist the help of a young boy, finally crossing out of occupied France.
Though even then, David wasn’t safe as the fascist Spanish government had close ties with Germany. However, the Resistance had been able to alert British Intelligence of David’s survival and, two months after he was shot down, a mysteries Miss Collins who ran the entire intelligence operation in Northern Spain, met him at the British Consulate and moved him to Gibraltar.
But even after all of this, David’s war story wasn’t finished. In late 1944, he accepted a posting in Italy where he transformed the 417th Squadron into a top performing unit in the final months of the war.
Remarkably, he had personally flown 155 missions in Italy, for a total of 235 throughout the war and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his bravery and gallantry.
After the war, he obtained his law degree from Osgoode Hall and spent the last 20 years of his legal career at Ross & McBride before retiring in 1999. Brian Duxbury says, of working with David, that he would sometimes come into a particularly difficult hearing or meeting and announce with quiet confidence “everyone stay calm; no one is going to die here today”. Knowing what David went through during the war, these words have significant import.
In this season of remembrance, I wanted to honour our veterans by sharing some of their stories. Though it is impossible to know how the war may have changed the ultimate trajectory of people’s lives, I would like to think that even out of the horror of war, for some came a yearning for or a renewed sense of justice that they continued into their legal careers after the war. As Hon. Alexander stated during a Remembrance Day ceremony in 2001, just weeks after the September 11th attacks “[d]espite history’s searing lessons, our world is still torn by strife and anguish…. Out of the horror of war can come peace, and it is for peace that we must strive. We shall not forget”. n
Amanda McInnis is a commercial litigation lawyer with Inch Hammond Professional Corporation and a member of the Hamilton Law Association’s History Committee.
She can be reached at:
500-1 King Street West
Email: [email protected]
1 Alexander, Lincoln, 2006, Go to School, You’re A Little Black Boy, Dundurn Press, Toronto, Ontario (“Go to School”) at pp. 39-45
2 Fraser, Robert, 1996, Black Yesterdays: The Argyll’s War, Seldon Printing Limited, Hamilton, Ontario at p. 143 and (hereinafter “Black Yesterdays”)
3 Black Yesterdays, ibid at p. 551
4 Hatfield, Lawrence Key Note Speaker for the Opening of Court / Red Mass https://www.flashlaw.ca/articles/2010/08/16/lawrence-hatfield-key-note-speaker-for-the-opening-of-court-the-red-mass/
6 Burr, Gorden, A soldier’s story: to remember him is to honour him, https://reporter.mcgill.ca/a-soldiers-story-to-remember-him-is-to-honour-him/ (“A soldier’s story)
7 Hawthorn, Tom “A Remembrance Day Story: 1938 McGill football champs: Never to be forgotten”, https://mcgillathletics.ca/news/2020/11/11/212860.aspx and Burr, Gordon “A soldier’s story: to remember him is to honour him” https/reporter.mcgill.ca/a-soliders-story-to-remember-him-is-to-honour-him/
8 A soldier’s story, supra note 6
9 Brock Steven, Every Stone Has a Story, https://hamiltonjewishnews.com/community/every-stone-has-a-story and New, David, 2014, An Ordinary Hero: Story of David Goldberg, WWII Spitfire Pilot, Nimbus Publishing, Halifax, Nova Scotia
10 Go to School, supra note 1 at p. 44