Last month as we paused on Remembrance Day, someone reported that roughly 500 Canadians who served in Canada’s armed forces in World War Two are dieing each month. By the end of this decade there will only be a relative handful left.
Among those with Winnipeg connections who passed away this year were Brigadier General Hugh Comack of the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders who I’ve written about more than once on this website. Now comes Cliff Chadderton who died at the age of 94.
It’s hard to know where to begin in describing the importance of Cliff to our country, and to me personally. Until a very few years ago when his health became very shaky, Cliff was known as Mr. Veteran to many Canadians, but that doesn’t tell his whole story.
Like me, he was a journalist. We also attended the same high school, Kelvin in Winnipeg. Cliff graduated 30 years before me, in the mid-1930’s. While studying at the University of Manitoba, he worked at Canadian Press and the Winnipeg Free Press. That understanding of the media world serve him well in later life after the War.
Cliff was a pretty good hockey player, wearing the uniform of the Winnipeg Rangers. As he was fond of telling the story, had it not been for the life-changing events that began in 1939, he might have had a shot at playing for the other Rangers at Madison Square Garden in the Big Apple, along with the Hextall boys who were also from Manitoba.
All of that was put on hold on Labour Day weekend in 1939 when Nazi Germany invaded Poland. Cliff Chadderton joined the Royal Winnipeg Rifles as a non-commissioned officer.
Four years later he was a Company Commander. The regiment saw a lot of action with many casualties, beginning with the D-Day landing on Juno Beach on June 6, 1944.
Three months after that, Cliff’s war came to an end during the battle for the Scheldt Estuary in Holland. He lost part of his right leg, and for most of the next 69 years, he was in fairly constant excruciating pain. I never once heard him complain, but I can barely imagine what some of his worst times must have been like.
He was shipped home to Winnipeg’s Deer Lodge Hospital. Doctors told him it might be the last home he would ever have.
Cliff almost immediately joined the War Amputations of Canada, the organization that would dominate the rest of his working life. With their encouragement and his own fierce determination, Cliff walked out of that hospital on crutches a few months later.
He became CEO of the War Amps in 1965, and he could see that the future was somewhat limited. Looking beyond the needs of injured veterans, Chadderton hit upon the idea of helping children who had the misfortune to lose a limb in an accident.
The result was the Champs program which Cliff started in 1975. Thousands of youngsters have benefited from Play Safe and other programs, and the Canadian public have responded with great generosity. Cliff Chadderton was by no means a ‘background’ figure. His smiling face was all over their video messages, along with kids.
I can’t remember when Cliff Chadderton and I first spoke in a telephone interview on the radio. We talked many times over the years, when I was working in Winnipeg and Regina, as well as Kenora.
The first time it happened in each place, I received a follow up letter which literally blew me away. It was a copy of a personal letter he had sent to the manager of the radio station. It said something like .. “I just wanted to tell you what a pleasure it was to be interviewed by your employee Roger Currie. What a knowledgeable professional he is…. Etc.”
Needless to say, Cliff Chadderton quickly became my ‘Go To Guy’ on any story relating to Canada’s veterans. We always spoke on or around November 11th. A couple of times he was on a cellphone, standing on a former battlefield in France or Belgium. Once he called from Hong Kong.
Little did I know that the best was yet to come. In 2004, I received the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal. The citation read ‘In recognition of his efforts to tell stories about Canada’s War Veterans’. I was nominated for the honour by Cliff Chadderton.
We only met face to face once. It was in Winnipeg a couple of years later, not long before Cliff’s 90th birthday. Other journalists, including my former colleague Larry Update, made it onto Chadderton’s ‘special list’. Cliff knew how to work media like no one else I have ever encountered. I never felt used in any way. The stories Cliff wanted to shine a light on were terrific worthwhile stories. I was pleased to help tell them, and I will continue to write about Canadian heroes in the future.
It was also during the last 20 years or so of his life that Cliff became an accomplished documentary producer. Using historic footage from a variety of sources, the War Amps produced a series called Never Again. The series included lots of stories about Manitobans who served and made the ultimate sacrifice.
One episode dealt with Jeff Nicklin, a former star with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers who was killed in March 1945, while serving as a Canadian Paratrooper.
Then there was a final acknowledgement of Cliff’s ‘Kelvin connection’. The Boys of Kelvin High: Canadians in Bomber Command, was produced in 2005. It tells the story of several graduates of the school who were killed in missions over Germany. A few of them had been Cliff’s own classmates before the war. The documentary has won several international awards, and is available at public libraries in Winnipeg, and through the War Amps organization.
Through projects like that, and the fabulous youngsters who have benefited from the Champs program, it can truly be said of Cliff Chadderton that “Old soldiers never die” … nor will their memory fade away.