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This VE-Day, remember the sacrifices of Ukrainian-Canadians

May 12, 2020 | Featured

The Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Foundation.

Private Nicholas Osadchuk was serving with the Winnipeg Grenadiers when he was killed in action defending Hong Kong, 23 December 1941. Infantryman Michael Zhdan was captured. He perished as a POW in Japanese captivity.

Flight Sergeant Steven Lucyk served with the RCAF’s 76 Squadron, as a wireless-air gunner. On 3 November 1943 his heavy bomber, a Handley Page Halifax V, took off from Holme-on-Spalding-Moor, one of 589 aircraft raiding Dusseldorf. He went into battle with Flight Lieutenant D. E. Hicks, Sgt. T. W. Davis, Sgt. R. W. Elder and Sgt. G. Morrison. A German night fighter shot them down. He was buried in the Rheinberg War Cemetery. Aged 25, he left behind parents in Krydor, Saskatchewan, along with three brothers and five sisters. Before going to war he was a schoolteacher. My friend, Reverend Dr. Stan Lucyk, remembers being taught by his cousin Steve in Whitkow’s one-room school house.

Corporal R. I. Firman was serving with the Royal Winnipeg Rifles when he fell in battle in Normandy, 8 June 1944. He was 21. He left behind his wife, Vera Jean.

RCAF Warrant Officer Peter Wynnyk was a navigator on an Avro Lancaster with the 166 Squadron. His plane took off from Kirmington, North Lincolnshire, on a night raid over Karlsruhe, 4 December 1944. He almost made it back. While attempting to land they crashed at Brocklesby Park. He was buried in Harrogate (Stonefall) Cemetery, aged 30. He left behind his parents in Stry, Alberta. Walter, his brother, survived the war. His son, Paul, another friend, would become a Lieutenant-General, serving as Commander of the Army and, before resigning in 2019, Vice-Chief of Canada’s Defence Staff.

What do the fallen have in common? They were young. They volunteered. They fought for this country. They left behind grieving parents, brothers, sisters, wives, and children. And they were all Ukrainian Canadians.

An admittedly incomplete list records 3,830 Ukrainian Canadians wounded or killed during the Second World War. This Almanac of the Ukrainian Canadian Servicemen also heralds more than 200 mentioned in the despatches or otherwise distinguished with medals for heroism and valour – during the Dieppe Raid, at the breaching of the Gothic Line in Italy or during the bombing campaign against Nazi Germany. One of the latter, another RCAF navigator, was Joseph Kohut, aged 29. He enlisted in Yorkton. Flying with an elite Pathfinder squadron, Kohut completed 38 missions over enemy territory. Despite being severely wounded by shrapnel he stayed at his post, making sure the bombload fell on target. Then he fell unconscious from a loss of blood. Kohut received a Distinguished Flying Cross for gallantry under fire.

Having faced more than a little prejudice in Canada before the war, many Ukrainians in uniform felt they needed to stick together overseas. By 1943, they had set up the Ukrainian Canadian Servicemen’s Association with its own “London Club” in the vicarage of St. James’s church, Sussex Gardens, London. While most of the 35,000 who served abroad went home when the war ended, a few elected to stay, for hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees in western Europe needed their help. Creating the Central Ukrainian Relief Bureau, they remained ‘in the field’ until 1952, rescuing thousands of Displaced Persons from forcible repatriation to the Soviet Union. Those DPs resettled throughout the Free World. My parents found asylum in Kingston, Ontario.

Walter Wynnyk at his brother Peter’s grave in Harrogate Cemetery

In 1995 we unveiled a bilingual plaque at UCSA’s former HQ. Yet that did not seem sufficient. After all, if not for the sacrifices and service of these Ukrainian Canadians in uniform, we would not be here. Eventually, we decided to commission a commemorative stained-glass window for St. James’s. Over more than 2 years we raised the funds needed, entirely through public subscription. We worked closely with the Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain and the diocese of St. James’s. Everything was ready for a service of thanksgiving, 8 May 2020, the 75th anniversary of V-E Day, Victory in Europe Day.

You don’t need me to remind you about why that didn’t happen. But rest certain that, sooner or later, this memorial will be unveiled and blessed, to evermore remind the faithful and passersby of who these Ukrainian Canadians were and what they did. A man I knew and much admired, Flight Lieutenant Bohdan Panchuk, once described his fellow Ukrainian Canadians in uniform as “the heroes of their day.” They were. We shall remember them.

Lubomyr Luciuk is a professor of political geography at The Royal Military College of Canada

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