Commonwealth Airmen have a place of honour in Jarvis

Commonwealth Airmen have a place of honour in Jarvis
JARVIS—Commonwealth Airmen gravesite at Knox Presbyterian Cemetery in Jarvis. —Photo courtesy of Sarah Schweyer.

By Sheila Phibbs

The Haldimand Press

JARVIS—As you walk through the Knox Presbyterian Cemetery, familiar names reflect the community’s history and floral tributes and memorials honour generations of loved ones. Near the entrance stand two rows of headstones, almost identical in appearance; the plots are meticulously maintained with obvious attention to detail. These are the graves of the Commonwealth Airmen who died during training at the local bombing and gunnery school. Since they could not return home, volunteers provide perpetual care to ensure they will always be remembered.

Cindy Schweyer and her family have helped maintain the site since she and her late husband, Rob, noticed a couple tending to the graves many years ago. Upon introduction the Schweyer’s learned that Teresa and John Schofield of Dunnville looked after the planting at the Airmen’s plots in both Dunnville and Jarvis under the guidance of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC). The Schweyer’s offered to look after the graves following the planting. Their children, Sarah and Matthew, helped too and Cindy says, “It became a family routine during the summer months to go over, water, and maintain the gardens of the Airmen’s plots.”

That routine has continued for some 20 years. Teresa was no longer able to look after the Jarvis site this year due to health reasons, so Cindy agreed to take over the job, signing a six page contract with the CWGC Ottawa branch. The document states that the aim is “to maintain the graves in the Field of Honour in a manner that reflects the debt of honour owed to those who died while in service of their nation and ensure that their sacrifice is remembered, valued, and cherished.”

While Cindy’s name is on the contract, she points out that she does not do the work alone. Following the extensive guidelines in the CWGC maintenance handbook, and tips from Teresa, Cindy received assistance from Eising Greenhouses and Garden Centre in Renton to select a mix of perennials and annuals. Rob Ouwendyk and his Five Points Lawn Care crew donated materials and time to prepare the plots and take extra care while cutting and trimming the grass in the cemetery. Funding for the ongoing care of the plots is provided by the CWGC.

Cindy invited Sarah Butcher, whom she knew was an avid gardener, to help with planting and she was eager to get involved. Butcher says, “I first became aware of the Airmen graves through Mr. Milmine and his class at Jarvis Public School.  Every year, they present a Remembrance Day ceremony for the school community and we gather around these graves as part of our observance. When Cindy asked for help, I was honoured to help bring a quiet attention, dignity, and respect to this area of the cemetery.”

JARVIS—Headstone for Gordon Best, RAF. His brother Alwyn was one of the family members with whom Rob Schweyer corresponded over the years.
–Haldimand Press photo by Sheila Phibbs.

That respect included following COVID-19 guidelines and all protocols were followed as Cindy, her daughter, and Sarah Butcher worked together.

The Schweyer family developed a personal connection to the Airmen as Rob researched his book Sights on Jarvis, No. 1 Bombing and Gunnery School, 1940-1945, published in 2003. He contacted the families of the 10 Commonwealth Airmen buried in Jarvis who include: George Roland Troutbeck (RCAF – New Zealander), Gordon Cooper Best (RAF), Norman Wade (RAF), Robert Waller (RAF), John Stainer Williams (RAF), Raymond Mc-Nabb (RAAF), Kenneth Slater (RAAF), Charles Taggart (RAAF), John Bradford Watts (RAAF), and John William Whitehead (RNZAF). Over the years, letters, Christmas cards, and photos have been exchanged. Cindy says it was especially meaningful for families living in Australia and New Zealand to receive photos of the cemetery that they have never seen in person.

With its proximity to Jarvis Public School, the Airmen’s plots hold an educational purpose for students and have been part of the school’s Remembrance since 1998. A photo of the first ceremony is featured in the CWGC 1998-99 Annual Report. In the epilogue of Sights on Jarvis, Schweyer describes the tradition of students laying flowers beneath small national flags at the base of each headstone, which was started by Neil Bell, himself a lieutenant commander with the Naval Reserve, Canadian Forces teaching at Jarvis Public School. Schweyer wrote, “It is the intention of Neil and others like him to make such ceremonies annual events at the school in honour of those who eagerly joined the air force seeking adventure, but who met death in farmers’ fields in southern Ontario instead.”

For the past 15 years, Jeff Milmine has coordinated the school’s ceremony at the grave site. In his classroom, a unit of study is devoted to the bases in the area that trained bombers and gunners from the commonwealth. Unfortunately, the usual assembly cannot be held this year but he says, “We are discussing as a staff what we can do for Remembrance Day with each class.”

This year’s Remembrance Day observance will be different as the usual parades, ceremonies, and gatherings will not take place. But the care given to war grave sites such as the Airmen’s plot in Jarvis allow the community to honour veterans throughout the year. For the Schweyer family it has been a labour of love and Cindy is grateful for the support of others as she carries on the responsibility. She says, “Together our care will continue to bring respect to our war dead and ensure that their sacrifice is never forgotten.”

Sights on Jarvis, No. 1 Bombing and Gunnery School, 1940-1945 is available for loan at the Jarvis branch of the Haldimand Public Library. For more information on war cemeteries: cwgc.org.

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