This grey month of remembrance will no doubt have special meaning this year for the family of one young man from Ottawa's Italian community who lost his life nearly 70 years ago and who was recently honoured with a special ceremony in Holland.
Antonio Barbaro grew up on Norman Street, the youngest of eight children. He became a lance corporal with the 23rd Canadian Field Company and died while attempting to repair a temporary bridge across the Maas River in Holland. He and two others were in a small boat when the force of the current swept it against a boom, cutting a hole in the bottom of the boat which quickly filled with water. The boat was equipped with only two life jackets and Tony, assuring the others that he was a strong swimmer, refused to wear one. Sadly, Tony drowned having given up his life so his fellow soldiers could be saved. Later the company's padre wrote to his parents: "You have many reasons to be proud of your son. He sacrificed his life to give his companions a better chance to live ... (the war) seems to take the best among us."
Ottawa resident Lorne Richardson was contacted a few years ago by Alice Van Bekkum, of Holland, who wanted background about a few of the soldiers of the 23rd Canadian Field Company, some of whom were killed during the storm boat rescue of British paratroopers, an action in which Tony was also involved. She asked him to research six or seven of the soldiers, one of whom was Antonio, who caught Lorne's interest because he was from Ottawa.
Eventually, Lorne gave the information to the Ottawa Citizen and columnist Kelly Egan was able to contact members of the Barbaro family who decided to make a trip to visit the grave.
Through the efforts of Alice and others in Holland, a memorial service was planned, which took place on September 18 this year near the spot where Tony drowned in February, 1945. Under brilliant sunshine, a few hundred people gathered to honour this young man from Ottawa. The speakers included the mayor of Mook en Middelaar as well as the military attache from the Canadian embassy and Win Mackenzie, Tony's niece.
The invitation to the memorial service says, in part: "The community of Mook en Middelaar has declared the Canadian L/CPl. Tony Barbaro to be an icon of the soldiers and inhabitants who fell in and around this village on the Maas during WWII."
Honoured guests included Win's sister Deb Robinson and Deb's daughter Cassie, all from Ottawa, as well as Donald Somerville, a member of the 23rd Canadian Field Company, who served with Tony. Children also played a big part in the service, including those who held red roses, which were later presented to the various dignitaries and a young boy who read a memorial poem. There was an honour guard and wreaths were laid by representatives of the town, the Barbaro family members, the Canadian embassy official and a member of the Dutch branch of the Royal Canadian Legion. Music was provided by a men's choir and a piper. Perhaps the most moving part of the ceremony was when the family and Mr. Somerville were taken on a World War II boat near the spot where Tony lost his life and cast a wreath (containing 22 red roses, once for each year of Tony's life) into the water.
The physical memorial has two parts: a portion of a bailey bridge, the type of temporary bridge used by the engineers, as well as a plaque with Tony's picture. The plaque, draped in a Canadian flag, was later unveiled by Tony's nieces and grandniece as well as Mr. Somerville. This permanent memorial, which will commemorate the Engineers' heroic actions during Operation Berlin, also ensures that a young man from Ottawa, long gone but not forgotten, will be forever remembered in the land he died helping to liberate.
Following is the memorial poem read at the service:
It seems he was too young to die
Yet had he lived a normal span
Could he have left a finer record?
Would he have died a better man?
He has gone out to meet his Maker,
Full of the Charity of Youth,
Serving his fellows boldly, bravely,
Fighting a battle for the Truth.
Many an old and hardened heart
Would envy him, his youthful fame
His dear, brief life, his ardent soul,
His noble end, his honoured name.
By Lorne Richardson