The Montreal Gazette:
Brothers Served With Valour
Verdun's war effort was extraordinary, but no one outdid the Hill family on Woodland Ave.
Sunday, November 06, 2005
No place in Canada sent more young men to the Second World War than Verdun. And no other family in Verdun sent more young men to battle than the Hills on Woodland Ave.
Clarence, Robert, Harold, James and Thomas Hill - five brothers in a working-class family - all enlisted and all came home alive.
Today, four of the five are still alive and living in the Montreal area.
"We didn't go around boasting," said James Hill, now 82 and living in Chateauguay. "We felt it was our duty, an obligation to the country."
This week, he and his brothers will quietly mark the 60th anniversary of the war's end.
Together, the Hill brothers, who are now age 80 to 88, covered the Canadian army, navy and air force. They participated in most of the major campaigns in Europe and brought home almost two dozen medals.
The one brother who is no longer alive, Robert, who died in 1995 at age 77, also brought home an English war bride.
"I was so very proud of them," said Mary Hill, the brothers' older sister and oldest of nine children in the family. Unlike her brothers, she never married and remains the family sweetheart today.
"Clarie (Clarence) was gone for the whole six years," she recalled.
"You could tell by his letters he was homesick. He asked me to play the piano and think of him."
She said she did - often the wartime favourite I'll Be Seeing You - and, invariably, she would weep on the keys.
With five boys in the war, there was plenty to worry about.
"It was hard," she said, now 90 and close to tears when she talks about those days. "I tried to think positively, but the odds. ..."
Robert was sent home for medical reasons in 1943. And just before the end of the war, Clarence went missing in action.
James, who was aboard the HMCS Malpeque with the 31st Canadian Minesweeper Flotilla, was hit with shrapnel at Omaha Beach on D-Day.
Mary Hill remembers it all and how she was the one to open the letters that arrived from Ottawa. "My mom and dad couldn't do it," she said, especially "when Clarie went missing."
He had landed with the Royal Canadian Engineers 3rd Division at Juno Beach on D-Day, but had disappeared. "I went to a party," is all Clarence, 88, will say about it. He has suffered from post-traumatic stress over the years.
"It took two weeks to find out he was in hospital," said Thomas Hill, now 80.
The youngest of the Hill brothers to serve, Thomas bleached his birth certificate and changed the date to enlist with the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve in 1943. He was 17.
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According to Serge Durflinger, a historian and professor at the University of Ottawa, close to 7,000 of Verdun's 67,000 residents saw active service during the Second World War.
While other Canadian cities saw greater numbers serve, Durflinger notes, the wartime municipality of Verdun was far and away the leader in per capita participation. And less than 10 per cent of the Verdun residents who served were conscripted.
Durflinger has just finished writing Fighting From Home, The Second World War in Verdun, Quebec (UBC Press). The book is due out in April.
He says many Verdun families sent three and four members to war but only two families sent more: "The Hills and the Tremblays ... both sent five brothers."
The Hill family's story of the war years is all there. If one brother forgets, another remembers. And if all the brothers forget, sister Mary seems able to fill in the missing detail right up to VE Day, May 8, 1945.
Thomas was on the HMCS Quesnel that day, docking in New York harbour. "That was wild," is how he describes the celebrations in Times Square.
How many girls did he kiss? "I didn't know you were supposed to count."
Vignette after vignette, both happy and sad, they remember:
How after four years of not seeing each other, James and Clarence connected up in one of the "mouths" of England. "There was Portsmouth, Weymouth, Falmouth, Bournemouth," they joked.
How Robert - the best looker of the bunch - got engaged three times while he was overseas.
How explosions in the Halifax harbour in 1943 forced James into midwifery action. He was on leave when "all the excitement put a woman into labour in a park."
And how the five brothers ended up in a brawl the first time they saw one another back in Canada after the war had ended.
They were all trained in boxing by their father, Clarence Thomas Barnett Hill. Originally from Leicester, England, he had trained during the First World War. Son Harold was the quickest study with the gloves, and later was quick to use his skills.
A guy insulted one of the brothers, and Harold retaliated with a fist that set off a brawl in a Bishop St. bar.
"When you take on a Hill, you better be ready to take on all the Hills," said Harold, now 85, repeating the phrase he and his brothers often used while growing up.
In those days, Verdun was a tight, working-class community. And no family, Harold said, was tighter than the Hills.
Their father worked for 42 years at Dow Breweries, so they had a little money even during the Depression.
Then the brothers would take pillow slips on their mother's instructions to the Inter City Bakery on Gordon St. and for 25 cents bring them back filled with leftovers.
They learned early on to take care of one another, and they continued after they went to war. They sent home home their pay - 75 cents a day - knowing, as James said, "There wasn't going to be anything left when you got back. It was going to be used."
"Clarie used to send me $10 a month," Mary recounted. "Mother used to get it."
She saw each of her brothers off at the Viger train station on St. Antoine St. and followed the war in the Verdun Messenger and on a radio that sat atop the fridge in the family's kitchen.
She knitted balaclavas, gloves and scarves to keep her brothers warm and sent cigarettes to them overseas.
As letters arrived, she read them aloud to her mother, who was almost blind. She updated each brother on the latest news in her replies.
"We couldn't tell them much, and what we did write was often censored," James Hill said. "To Mom, we were just 'over there.' "
For her part, their mom, Margaret Ann O'Brien Hill, had posted five stars on the front door of the family's modest Verdun home while they were "over there," and she took them down only once they were "over here" again.