When I was growing up I would occasionally ask my father if he was in the war – meaning WWII. He was born in 1917 so he would have been a young man when the war began. Mostly I would get stories about how he ended up on kitchen duty for various bad deeds at camp, or stories about poker games, or stories about the food, and so on.
Any comments about the food?
Sir, could I get the recipe for this delicious dinner to send home to my mother?
Any comments about the food?….and that excludes you, Private Knapik
He was in the army and then changed over to the air force. Sometimes he told me it was because they needed pilots, and he trained to be a pilot, even though he did not go overseas. Other days he said he joined the air force because they had better grub than the army, or because there were better poker games. It was sometimes hard to tell when he was having me on.
It was during my father’s time in the air force that a huge forest fire broke out near Sugar Lake in Muskoka. They needed men to go up there and help get the fire under control and my father was volunteered for the job. Of course he had no idea how to fight fires. The first thing he noticed was that the rations they had were not very good. The second thing he noticed was that Sugar Lake was full of big smallmouth bass. More about that later.
One day when I asked my dad about the war, he told me about Freddie. Now I had heard many stories about Freddie by this time, all about his exploits with my dad when they were boys. They were great friends and the way my dad told the stories, they were always getting in trouble together.
There was the time they tried to make root beer in a big demi-john, but got the recipe wrong and ended up creating an explosion of root beer foam. That little disaster got bigger the more times my father told the story over the years.
Then there was the matter of Freddie’s dad’s apple tree. Try as he might, Freddie’s dad couldn’t get that tree to bear fruit. Naturally Freddie and my dad stepped in to help out. They were Junction boys and they bicycled down to the Humber to an old apple orchard and they picked all the young apples they could carry back. Those two rascals used fishing line to tie dozens of little apples onto branches of the tree in Freddie’s yard, so Freddie’s dad could finally have the pleasure of seeing his tree bear fruit.
And then my dad told me Freddie was a genuine war hero. At the time of Freddie’s heroism, my father was up at Sugar Lake. He had made a fishing pole from a long maple sapling, and he caught crayfish to use as bait. Each day, he would catch enough chunky Sugar Lake bass to feed the forest fighters. Only my father could manage to turn a war into a fishing trip. By this time, Freddie had learned to parachute and was sent overseas.
Here is what happened to Freddie. I should say at this point that Freddie was Cpl. Frederick George Toppham. He was a medic in the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion. I believe he was known as “Toppy” to many of his friends, but to my dad, he was always Freddie. I suppose that’s what my dad always called him, going way back to when they were young boys. I think the best thing to do here is simply provide Cpl. Toppham’s Citation, for he was the 2nd last Canadian to be awarded the Victoria Cross.
East of the Rhine, Germany – March 24, 1945
1st Canadian Parachute Battalion
On 24th March 1945, Corporal Topham, a medical orderly, parachuted with his battalion on to a strongly defended area east of the Rhine. At about 1100 hours, whilst treating casualties sustained in the drop, a cry for help came from a wounded man in the open. Two medical orderlies from a field ambulance went out to this man in succession, but both were killed as they knelt beside the casualty.Without hesitation and on his own initiative, Corporal Topham went forward through intense fire to replace the orderlies who had been killed before his eyes. As he worked on the wounded man he was himself shot through the nose. In spite of severe bleeding and intense pain, he never faltered in his task. Having completed immediate first aid, he carried the wounded man steadily and slowly back through continuous fire to the shelter of a wood.
During the next two hours Corporal Topham refused all offers of medical help for his own wound. He worked most devotedly throughout this period to bring in the wounded, showing complete disregard for the heavy and accurate enemy fire. It was only when all casualties had been cleared that he consented to his own wound being treated.
His immediate evacuation was ordered, but he interceded so earnestly on his own behalf that he was eventually allowed to return to duty.
On his way back to his company he came across a carrier, which had received a direct hit. Enemy mortar bombs were still dropping around, the carrier itself was burning fiercely and its own mortar ammunition was exploding. An experienced officer on the spot had warned all not to approach the carrier.
Corporal Topham, however, immediately went out alone in spite of the blasting ammunition and enemy fire, and rescued the three occupants of the carrier. He brought these men back across the open, and although one died almost immediately afterward, he arranged for the evacuation of the other two, who undoubtedly owe their lives to him.
This NCO showed sustained gallantry of the highest order. For six hours, most of the time in great pain, he performed a series of acts of outstanding bravery, and his magnificent and selfless courage inspired all those who witnessed it.
Frederick George Topham was born in Toronto, Ontario, on the 10th of August 1917. He was educated at King George Public School and Runnymede High School. Prior to his enlistment he was employed in the mines at Kirkland Lake. In November 1945 he laid the cornerstone for Sunnybrook Memorial Hospital in Toronto. After demobilization he worked at Toronto Hydro. He died on the 31st of May 1974 and is buried in Toronto.
I don’t remember Fred Topham except in my dad’s wonderful stories, and yet I think I must have met him. I was 14 when Fred passed. Curiously enough, I do remember Fred’s brother Norm very well. At some point during my dad’s later years, he became re-aquainted with Norm. I believe Norm was older than Fred. My dad knew Norm as a boy, of course, but not as well as he knew Fred, because Norm was a little older.
From time to time, Norm would come over to my dad’s house for an afternoon. My father would prepare for these occasions by calling me up and asking if I would pick up a bottle of brandy. The two of them would sit in the living room, the jazz cranked up on my dad’s old console stereo, kill the bottle of brandy, and talk about whatever crossed their minds.
Each year when Remembrance Day comes along, it inevitably brings to mind my father, telling me stories about him and Freddie getting in trouble as young lads, and my dad saying, “Freddie was a genuine war hero son, yes he was – got the Victoria Cross and everything”.