96-year-old Alex Polowin recalls a life of service and sacrifice, and a teenaged boy who went to war
OTTAWA -- Each Nov. 11, Alex Polowin finds himself in two worlds; savouring the twilight of his life, and its prime.
The feisty Ottawan may be 96-years-old, but on Remembrance Day, he recalls, with youthful vigor, his 17-year-old self—a boy who joined the Canadian Navy and went to war.
"It stays with you," Polowin said. "It stays with you."
He was just a kid when he came to Canada. His Lithuanian parents had eight children, and when Alex was eight or nine, he began banging on doors, selling produce from a horse and wagon.
"The kids were very envious of me," said Polowin.
"They were used to seeing western movies and they’d see the horse and wagon and think 'we’ve got a real live one," he laughed.
When war came knocking, Alex was anxious to open the door to a new adventure, motivated by two things.
His uncles —still living in Lithuania-- were the first reason. They were being persecuted by the Nazis and Alex wanted to help.
"I felt I owed it to them to play a role in trying to save their lives."
The second was the incessant name calling. The teenager had had enough.
"Because I looked old enough to be in the military, I was being called a draft dodger at age 16 and 17. And I began to feel like one, even though I was underage."
Alex knew what he had to do. If his father agreed to sign a paper verifying his age, a lawyer he met would support his efforts to enlist.
"My father didn’t know what he was signing. I brought it to the lawyer and that’s the way it worked out. My parents were devastated. I felt so guilty and terrible that I hurt them, but it was done," he said.
"I was 18 according to Navy records, but I was only 17 in reality."
An able-bodied seaman, Alex was aboard three different ships during his time with the Canadian Navy. He would see most of his wartime action aboard the HMCS Huron. His crew’s first task was to escort merchant ships to a port in Russia.
"That was one heck of a job. It was terrible, dark for about twenty hours out of twenty-four. And you had all types of enemy threats," he said.
Alex and the members of the Huron were also part of a flotilla working to sink a Nazi battleship.
"It was called the Scharnhorst. It was the Nazi’s last battleship," Alex said.
"Every day we’d get closer and closer, and every day there was more stress. You can’t imagine how much it gave you."
Eventually, the mission was a success; however, Alex would come to understand how victory at sea was a double-edged sword.
"Down went the Scharnhorst. Wow, how wonderful that it was them rather than us," he said.
"Unfortunately, 2,200 human beings went down with that ship. Twenty-two hundred," Alex said, staring into space, as if eyeing the wreckage and smoke on the horizon.
Alex would also serve in the English Channel.
"Our job was to keep the Nazis from shipping goods in the channel because the railways and highways were bombed. They had to come by the channel. They had no other choice.”
"It was a very important job, pre-D-Day. What we did is prevent the Nazis from firing one round at our landing troops. Not one shell was fired at them from an enemy ship."
"We didn’t go in and bombard the coast of France and then leave. We hunted the enemy down and we came in contact with them. There were five (ships) of them and ten (ships) of us. And we wound up the winners,” he said.
Three days after VE Day, Alex would depart for home in Ottawa, elated the war was over, but uneasy about the future.
"Peace is wonderful, but the job we had was over. What’s life going to be like afterwards," he asked.
Alex would marry after the war and raise three children. He became an insurance broker and still holds his license.
"I spent close to sixty years in that," he said.
He would eventually remarry. Kathleen was a "librarian with two master’s degrees who looked like Doris Day," he said. Sadly, Alex would lose her to a battle with Parkinson’s.
"I can’t say enough wonderful things about her," he said. "Just the fact that we were together was enough."
The well-known veteran still speaks in classrooms in the capital, and attends ceremonies honouring servicemen and women worldwide. He’s met former U.S. President Barack Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and has shaken hands with Queen Elizabeth at a D-Day celebration several years ago. There’s a street, "Alex Polowin", named in his honour in Barrhaven. He was among the first Canadian vets to receive the French Legion of Honour.
"At first, I didn’t believe I did enough to earn that medal, but eventually I accepted it on behalf of my fellow shipmates."
More rewarding than medals, or meetings with heads of state, are the countless "thank you's" he’s received from strangers.
"A lady phoned me up. She was a survivor of a concentration camp. She said, ‘thank you for what you, other Canadians, and other nations did for me, I’ll never forget.’ She talked about how we fought for her freedom and broke down the gates of the concentration camps. At that moment, I felt so happy that I played a little bit of a role in that."
Alex’s uncles in Lithuania did not survive. They were killed before the war’s end. They did, said Alex, pay him a visit in his dreams.
"They came on board the ship, danced around me, hugged me and kissed me. They thanked me, and said people are all very proud of me. I cried. And that’s the only time I ever dreamt about the war, the only time."
Alex asks if I’d like to hear him sing one of his war-time favourites, "You’ll Never Know, by the late, great British songstress, Vera Lynn."
He reaches for the notes and belts out the last two lines.
"If there is some other way to prove that I love you, I swear, I don’t know how. You’ll never know if you don’t know now."
No proof necessary, Alex. We know. And thank you.