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Posted on Feb 3, 2006 in Front Page Features, Stuff We Like

The Lost Photographs of the Star of Africa

By Danny Bouchard

On the 3rd of September 1943, the 1st Division invaded mainland Italy, landing at Reggio di Calabria on the Italian “toe”, unopposed. Shortly after the landing, the Italian Government surrendered and the Italians were out of the war. Allied troops rejoiced, thinking it would be a “walk in the park” from that point, but to their disappointment they soon discovered that Italy, like Sicily, was perfect ground for defensive operations. To make matters worse, the Germans were not running back to Germany, but were instead bringing Divisions forward into Italy to occupy the country of their former ally. And so the Canadians began their longest campaign of World War 2, participating in numerous skirmishes and battles in Italy. Obscure places like Foggia, the Sangro River, the Moro River saw combat alongside the “Gully” and the battle nicknamed “the Little Stalingrad”, Ortona, where the Canadians fought crack German paratroopers for the control of this coastal town on the Adriatic Sea. The Canadians suffered tremendous casualties, but volunteers like Gunner Béland persevered, endured and overcame.

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After the fall of Ortona in December of 1943, the 1st Division paused for the winter. By May of 1944, the division went on the offensive and the battle to break the Hitler line in the Liri Valley commenced.

It is during this battle that our story really begins. During the operation, Gunner Béland and others captured several German soldiers and made them POWs. During a search of one of the prisoners, Gunner Béland found a wallet and kept it, the German soldier expressing no interest in keeping it himself. Following this operation, Gunner Béland soldiered on and remained with the 5th Light Anti-Aircraft battery until the end of the war. In October 1945, he finally returned to Canada where he was at last reunited with his wife and his almost 3-year-old daughter who didn’t know him.

It was the end of the war, and Gunner Béland promptly became Mr Béland where he started work to support his family. Like all other Veterans he had his souvenirs from the war; his uniform, an Italian military medal and, of course, the wallet. Inside the wallet there were numerous photographs of a German soldier. Mr Béland had no idea who this person was, and the wallet, along with the souvenirs, was quickly placed in a box and forgotten…for 60 years.

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One of the photographs from the wallet

Over the years, Mr Béland’s family grew and prospered. He became the proud father of four girls who had children of their own. One of these children would marry the author, Danny Bouchard. Danny, a veteran police officer and an avid amateur military historian, bonded with Mr Béland and soon discovered that they both shared the same passion; Canadian military history and especially Mr Béland’s experiences during the war.

In August of 2003, some 60 years since the wallet was obtained, while discussing his experiences over a beer at Mr Béland’s home, he suddenly remembered the wallet and gave it to Danny. The wallet was handed over with a request; if Danny were able to uncover some details about the wallet, he would like to return it to its rightful owner, or at least to the family.

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