The last living soldier on Veteran’s Drive chuckles sheepishly when asked about a fib he told 70 years ago.
Bert Hillier had already been denied entry into the Royal Newfoundland Regiment for being too young when finally, still not 18, he was enlisted to serve in the Second World War.
“I wouldn’t do that,” Hillier said recently from his home in Cormack when asked if he, like many eager young men, had fudged his age. “Actually, I was a little bit too young, a few months short of 18, when I joined.”
The 89-year-old was recently honoured as part of Cormack’s volunteer appreciation night, a ceremony which paid tribute to the town’s fighting men for decades.
A native of Taylor’s Bay near Lamaline on the Burin Peninsula, Hillier was one of nearly 170 veterans who settled in Cormack as part of a government initiative at the end of the conflict. Most lived along the town’s main road named to honour the veterans.
Veterans were offered 50 acres of land and training in farming practices in exchange for clearing and settling what was then mainly wilderness.
Hillier heard about the program while stationed in St. John’s and eventually cleared his land and settled with his late wife, Mary.
The couple raised six boys and two girls in Cormack and eventually had a farm which boasted vegetables, cattle and about 150 chickens at its peak.
Not all veterans were able to endure the rugged lifestyle but those like Hillier, who stayed, found solace in the tight-knit town full of fellow soldiers and their wives, many of them war brides from overseas.
“There was no settlement here at all,” he said of the town, which went without electricity or telephones until the mid-1960s.
“I knew quite a few of them and there were a lot of veterans from the 59th battalion.”
The hard times seemed to bring the families close together, and Hillier volunteered his time to helping his neighbours tend to their cattle and chores, something he learned as a boy from his father.
Although the war ended before Hillier could be deployed overseas, he said he was prepared to fight and is still filled with pride whenever he wears his old uniforms from the famed regiment.
“I guess I was proud to put it on,” he said.
Narrowly avoiding the wave of war which swept Europe wasn’t the first brush with death for Hillier.
As a toddler, he and his family survived the Newfoundland tsunami of Nov. 18, 1929, an event which killed 28 people on the Burin Peninsula and forced the family to move up the shore to Lamaline.
To those who survived the war fell the burden of ensuring the sacrifice of fallen comrades would never be forgotten.
Hillier and his fellow soldiers in Cormack took this role seriously and were regular fixtures at the local legion, standing proudly with their suits and their medals at Remembrance Day ceremonies through the years.
He said to be the last of these old soldiers, in a town built by soldiers, is a sombre thing to think about, although he’s pleased to still have his health.
“It’s not a good feeling to sit and know the rest are gone,” he said. “You’ve just got to chug along with it and myself, I’m feeling pretty good. We used to have some pretty good times here on the weekends. We were all young people, many of us just getting back from overseas.”
Local historian and volunteer Marie Morris, who’s late father Samarez Duffney served in the same regiment as Hillier, admits it’s been painful to see the soldiers who built the town slowly fade away. With this in mind, she said the town is enhancing its heritage centre to include both inside and outside elements meant to keep the memory of all fallen soldiers alive.
“They really didn’t want anyone to forget and sadly enough, many people are forgetting,” Morris said. “We’d like to inject a little of the uniqueness of how this community was built. We want it to be very visible.”