A lost son comes home

For three years during the Second World War, Donald Stewart zigzagged across oceans; he and his shipmates preferred invisibility. Today he’s running for president of the residents’ council at the Sunnybrook Veterans Centre.

To enlist in the Royal Canadian Navy in the spring of 1943, 16-year-old Stewart tricked the recruiting office.  He lied that he was above the legal minimum of 17.

“I then showed them a letter from my mother that allowed me to buy a 1928 Studebaker from Charlie Crainie,” he said. “They thought it was permission from my mother.” Though his parents weren’t thrilled with the gambit, they didn’t stop their son from going out to sea.

Within three months, Stewart was in the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve as a junior seaman on a coal-fired, merchant boat chugging across the Atlantic Ocean at eight knots and dodging German U-boats.

At that speed, we were sitting ducks,” he said. “On some convoys, if 80 boats left, only eight or 10 returned.” In one 1944 convoy, a boat sank with another man named Donald Stewart on board.  The navy told his family that their son had died at sea.  Since there was no mail delivery, Stewart remained unaware of the error. At war’s end in 1946, he thought he would surprise his family. He came home quickly, unannounced.

“My father just happened to be at the station meeting buses of soldiers,” Stewart said. “When he saw me, both eyes were watering … He quickly drove me home.  I knocked on the door. My mother was startled. She just stood still. So I grabbed her and hugged her.”

Today, this Donald Stewart loves the visibility of campaigning. He shakes hands and gives out brochures with a large colour photo. This Remembrance Day, he recalls memories of his parents and the invisible ones – those comrades who didn’t come home.