On April 7, 16 students from Kiilinik High School of Cambridge Bay, Nunavut were in Ponoka before heading off to Toronto to meet students from Eston and Sandis, Saskatchewan for their departure to Rome, Italy for an educational trip happening on the 65th anniversary year of the Italian Campaign. Like the students of Ponoka Composite High School, the focus of their trip was to visit battle sites and gravesites of the Second World War. They planned to spend most of their time at Monte Cassino, the famous battle site where the Polish military successfully seized the hill from the Germans after multiple failed attempts by other forces. The students also planned to stop at Ortona where many Loyal Edmonton Regiment Soldiers died.
Under the direction of trip coordinator and teacher, Patti Bligh, whose father was the late Hugh Boyd of Ponoka, the students first stop of their trip was the Ponoka Legion. They were welcomed by president, Dorothy Houghton, presented with ribbons and pins from the branch (branch No. 66), and eagerly awaited the opportunity to meet and speak with comrade Jack Hyland and John Kocyba – both veterans of the Italian Campaign of the Second World War.
“This is the first time these students from the north will meet a veteran in their lives,” said Bligh before the group was introduced to the speakers.
The students divided into two groups of eight and sat up close and personal with each speaker to listen to information about their experiences.
Hyland was with the Loyal Edmonton Regimen and went overseas in October of 1942 where he worked in the anti tank battalion. He left at the age of 18, when he was the oldest of seven children to a widowed mother. He became deaf in his left year from gunshots hitting the tank and from the sound of his groups owns guns firing off.
“You never got used to the lifestyle. There were things that you had to do, and you did them,” he told the students before mentioning what speaking to the students meant to him. “I never talked about this before because no one could understand what I’ve experienced” he told them, “Today, you got me out of my shell.”
Kocyba was with the Polish army and spoke about successfully seizing Monte Cassino – on of the main areas the students will be visiting and have been learning about in school. “Everyone tried to get there – the Americans – no, the Canadians – no – the sheer rock made it difficult. The Polish were the last ones to do it. You needed ammunition with you and plenty of it to last a while,” he said. “It’s very hard to talk about these life experiences. People did things they weren’t supposed to, but you did them because of the circumstances surrounding you,” he told them.
Each speaker generated a few laughs and a few tears during the time they spoke, and it was clear the students were intrigued. Each heartfelt presentation was thoroughly enjoyed by all who had the honour to listen to them.
“We thank them for sharing those memories of their life with us,” said Bligh. “It was nice for the kids to see how difficult something that happened 65 years ago still is to them,” she said. “The focus of the curriculum has changed from remembrance to teaching by seeing and that is what we will get to do. Our world [in the north] is so different. There will be a lot of firsts for everyone on this trip visiting places with strong Canadian connections.”