The Italian Campaign during the Second World War happened 80 years ago, and this past weekend 55 regional soldiers who were killed in the battles during the liberation of Italy were honoured.
The Veterans Memorial Gardens & Interpretive Centre hosted a ceremony on Saturday honouring all who fought and died in the Italian campaign, including the Battle of Ortona.
“In the Italian campaign, our region lost 55 soldiers that we're honouring,” said Marie Renee Charbonneau, executive director of Canadian Motorcycle Tourism, which operates the gardens and centre.
“The Italian campaign started in July 1943 with the invasion of Sicily and went on until 1945.
“The Battle of Ortona took place in December of 1943, and it was a very bloody battle, and a lot of Eddie's, the Loyal Edmonton Regiment members, lost their lives in that battle.”
The weekend event brought the Loyal Edmonton Regiment to the city, which participated in Saturday’s ceremony.
“In front of you is our regimental colours, and we do not parade them unless they are on special occasions, and this is one of them,” said Lt.-Col. Christopher Barr, commanding officer of the Loyal Edmonton Regiment, at Saturday’s ceremony.
Over the weekend, the Veterans Memorial Garden had military vehicles on display, and on Saturday, after the ceremony honouring soldiers, a dinner was held at the Bowes Centre at Bonnetts Energy Centre.
The dinner tables displayed the stories of the 55 regional soldiers killed in the Italian campaign.
“Our local heroes fought and gave up their lives so that their families and future generations of Canadians could live in peace and harmony in a place that values the freedom to live, love, worship and be who we are as free people in a free country,” said Grande Prairie RCMP Officer in Charge Lee Brachmann.
“It's more important now than ever to take the time to remember and learn from the past; in doing so, we recall the sacrifices of all those who fought, were injured, and those who died fighting to protect us.”
Charbonneau said the event also welcomed Memorial Cross, or Silver Cross, families including Emery Wabisca’s daughter, who was three when her father died in the Italian Campaign.
“She's completely honoured because, for her, this is the first time her dad's really truly being recognized, other than in a group ceremony.”
The event also brought Memorial Cross family members of more recent wars, such as the Afghanistan War.
Darcia Arndt’s husband Ray was killed while in Afghanistan at the age of 32, and a plaque at the memorial gardens honours him.
Ray was part of the Loyal Edmonton Regiment, and Darcia came to Grande Prairie to honour him and his memory.
“If you don't have places like these, people tend to forget,” she said.
Darcia volunteers at the Loyal Edmonton Regiment Military Museum, where she works on soldiers' files, researching them and sharing their stories.
“They're real people,” she said.
“In my volunteer work, doing up a soldier file, I feel like I know them,” she said, noting her research reveals much of their lives, where they were born, what they did for a living, who their family is, who they went overseas with, who their friends are, and where they died and are honoured.
Col. James Stone
Col. Vanessa Hanrahan spoke about Col. James Riley Stone and his legacy of community work. Stone created the Military Police Fund for Blind Children, which now produces $200,000 every year in support of visually impaired children across Canada.
“It is because of his dedication to a community like yours that I get to stand in front of you and tell you what an awesome hero and human being this individual was,” said Hanrahan.
Stone enlisted in Grande Prairie at the start of the Second World War, riding on horseback for nealry 50 kilometres, according to the Military Museum biography.
Stone won the Military Cross at the Battle of Ortona when he single-handedly assaulted a German anti-tank gun that was blocking his company's advance. He defeated it with a grenade.
Local leaders shared the importance of events honouring the past.
“Events like these are a reminder of the dedication and sacrifice made so we can live our lives with our rights and freedoms here in Canada and experience the excellent quality we do today,” said City of Grande Prairie Mayor Jackie Clayton.
“I would like to give a heartfelt thank you to the families, our current serving members, and the organizers that are keeping this important part of our history alive for future generations,” said County of Grande Prairie Coun. Karen Rosvold.
Charbonneau said research on the 55 soldiers killed in action has been ongoing since 2015, researching the South Peace Regional Archives, Canadian Fallen Heros, and the National War Memorial.
“We're piecing together all of the different killed-in-action soldiers from our region, finding a lot of the different veteran stories so that once we're done with killed-in-action, we can start with the veterans and hopefully feature some of those wonderful stories that are out there,” she said.
“Every day should be Remembrance Day; it is for our Silver Cross families even 80 years later,” said Charbonneau.