WASHINGTON, D.C.—You don’t see a lot of poppies in Washington at this time of year. The Canadian Embassy has them available, but wearing the red flower in your lapel isn’t a November tradition for Americans (National Poppy Day here is in May).
But on the eve of Remembrance Day — observed here as Veterans Day — a few dozen teenagers and adults with red felt poppies pinned above their breasts passed together near the monuments marking the crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger inside the sprawling grounds of Arlington National Cemetery. The group from Waterloo Collegiate Institute paused briefly at the spot memorializing the astronauts, but paid more reverent attention to a nearby speckled granite cross with a sword embedded in it rising from the neat rows of white marble tombstones in the green grass.
This monument, a teacher leading the group explained, is the Canadian Cross of Sacrifice, carved from Canadian rock and erected by the government of William Lyon Mackenzie King to honour the Americans who fought — and sometimes died — in the service of the Canadian military. There are inscriptions on its base recognizing those who lost their lives in The Great War, the Second World War and the Korean campaign.
As the teacher explained, Canada entered both world wars years before the U.S. did, and many Americans crossed the border to fight on Canada’s behalf. Writing last year in the Windsor Star, Canadian veteran Bruce Moncur said an estimated 40,000 Americans — 10 per cent of Canada’s expeditionary force — fought for Canada in the First World War, while another 10,000 enlisted in the army and 1,200 served in the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War.
The “hallowed ground” of Arlington is the final resting place of more than 400,000 American soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines — including two presidents — and their family members. Its acres upon acres of white marble stones mark the graves of soldiers from every American conflict since the Revolutionary War, serving as a national tribute to military service. It also stands as a stark reminder of the vast toll taken by war in the history of this country, the size of the human effort and sacrifice across generations over hundreds of years, and the lives lost for causes noble and otherwise.
If you wander through the century-old trees, through the sounds of the three-volley gun salutes that accompany the dozens of funerals that still shape the grounds today, and the leaf blowers and weed whackers that operate to maintain those grounds, you can find among the tributes the names of a handful of those who served Canada.
In Section 3, in a line of white marble stones, there rises one carved from grey granite engraved with a Celtic cross and a maple leaf. “Lieutenant William Strong, Canadian Machine Gun Corps,” it reads. “Enlisted Canada 1915, Gassed at Vimy Ridge.”
Strong was a blue-eyed Princeton graduate from Washington, D.C. who got a law degree from George Washington University, according to information from the files of the Canadian Forces Liaison. He enlisted in Toronto in 1915 as a married 27-year-old and developed pleurisy after being gassed at Canada’s most famous military battle. He returned home, where he died 100 years ago next month.
Just a few hundred feet away, in Section 34, another granite maple leaf marks the grave of Kentucky-born Trooper Stanley Hardin, who served in the Ontario Regiment during World War II. “By all accounts, he was a very brave man,” the brief outline provided by the Canadian Forces reads. “For his courage under fire, his colleagues nicknamed him ‘The Rebel.’” In his “simple Jeep” he would follow the tanks into battle, and “go to where the wounded cried out to for him, and shuttle them to safety.” During a battle in Italy in 1944, he was killed when he drove that Jeep over a German mine.
There are a few others here from the world wars. Thomas Henry Dalton was a carpenter from D.C. who was 40 when he joined the Canadian Army at a recruiting station in Philadelphia; he died in 1923. Robert Watt was a Scottish-born American immigrant who joined the Canadian Army in 1915, and after the war went on to become a leader in the American Federation of Labor; he died in 1947 while returning from a conference in Switzerland where, according to the AFL, he “worked himself to death.”
Leading Aircraftman Franklin Rash didn’t get that opportunity. He was the son of a major — who later became a colonel — in the chief signal officer’s office in Washington, D.C., who came to Canada as a 22-year-old to join the Royal Canadian Air Force before the U.S. entered the war. He died during training in 1942 when his plane and another collided in Richmond, Ont. His grave, inscribed with his R.C.A.F. service, is not marked with a maple leaf like the others; he shares an oversized family marker with his father and mother.
The cemetery is also the resting place of six U.S. soldiers who died while serving under Canadian military command in Afghanistan. Their names are also inscribed on a Canadian monument in Ottawa — a reminder that the service and sacrifice honoured by Remembrance Day and by this place are not just a matter of history but of ongoing reality for many families.
These graves are in Section 60, where fresh flowers are more likely to be seen among the stones. It is an area where soldiers in dress uniform still stand at attention today attending new burials, where a woman — perhaps in her 50s or 60s — stands in a parka, cradling a crisply folded American flag against her chest while a crew fills a rectangle cut recently into the ground.
In that area there is a white marble tombstone inscribed to Sgt. 1st Class Carlos Santos-Silva of Clarksville, Tenn. He died at age 32 on March 22, 2010, during his fourth deployment, while serving in the 82nd Airborne under Canadian command in Kandahar, Afghanistan, when his vehicle was attacked with an improvised explosive device. His tombstone records he had previously received the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star.
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At the foot of his stone, tucked into the spot where it meets the grass, is a photograph of Santos-Silva, smiling with his wife and young son, apparently taken in a hockey arena.
His marker stands out in the stark landscape because it is decorated with fresh carnations, daffodils and roses, bright yellow and red and orange, and with two giant, shiny balloons on ribbons floating above it, coloured red and blue and yellow. The balloons have pictures of streamers and gift-wrapped boxes on them. “Happy Birthday,” one says, in festive script. On Nov. 4 of this year, Santos-Silva would have turned 42.