Langley dragonboaters honour memory of fallen soldier

The connection, the unbreakable bond, between some Abreast In A Boat – FORT-itude crew members and Second World War veteran Bill Nicholson is a Langley soldier who made the ultimate sacrifice 70 years ago.

On Dec. 5, 1944, 26-year-old Cpl. Clifford Kimmel was killed in action in Italy.

Kimmel is buried near Ravenna, Italy, where FORT-itude, a Fort Langley-based dragon boat crew made up entirely of breast cancer survivors, was competing in the ninth International Club Crew World Championships from Sept 3-7.

Before leaving for Ravenna, FORT-itude team members were contacted by 92-year-old Nicholson, a Langley resident who was stationed in Italy and Sicily during the Second World War.

Looking back on his service as a craftsman during the Second World War, Nicholson followed the footsteps of his father Bill Sr., who served in the First World War and spent two-and-a-half years in a prison camp.

“My unit did all the repair jobs [on vehicles],” said Nicholson, who served overseas 1942-45.

In recognition of a fellow soldier’s service, Nicholson asked the FORT-titude women if they would place a poppy at Kimmel’s gravesite.

“Well, it didn’t take too much internet searching to not only find the Ravenna War Cemetery, but the exact location of Cpl. Kimmel’s grave,” FORT-itude member Carol Short shared.

On a beautiful Italian morning, with the help of an American man living in Ravenna, 10 of the crew visited the resting place of Second World War soldiers from Canada, New Zealand, Israel, Great Britain, and India.

They delivered what FORT-itude captain Cheryl Watson called a “very poignant letter,” and personal poppy from Nicholson to Kimmel’s gravesite.  

“It was a very emotional time and we are all so glad that we went to pay our respects and fulfill Bill’s wishes,” Short added. “Bill is trying to bring more recognition to the Canadian soldiers who were sent to Italy. Another interesting bit of this story is that Bill’s lovely wife Thelma has also been down our road with breast cancer, so we had a lot to talk about when we met with them.”

In a field of nine breast cancer teams, FORT-itude won a pair of bronze medals in the 500 and 2,000 metre races, and, just as importantly, fulfilled the wishes of a respected Langley veteran.

Her voice shaking at times with emotion, Watson reflected on the experience.

“It was a highlight of our trip,” she said. “We read the letter, we laid the poppy, and it was a very touching moment for all of us. It was our honour to be able to do that.”

The gravesite was, Watson said, “the most beautiful, serene place.”

“You’re walking down a residential street and all of a sudden, there’s this opening and a very large, large, grassy, green area, and when you get in, there’s all these Canadian gravestones. I believe at least half of the soldiers [buried] there are Canadian,” Watson said.

Each gravesite was decorated with flowers and “wonderfully kept,” Watson added.

“There was this overwhelming sadness, and gratitude,” Watson said.

“We were all blubbering,” added FORT-itude coach Juanita Peglar.

Nicholson said he’s lucky to live to tell the story about the time a Sherman tank he was riding in was partially destroyed by a land mine.

He wanted to show his appreciation to Kimmel for making the ultimate sacrifice for his country and cause.

“I found a book on the history of Langley [Nothing Without Effort: A History of Langley written by Warren F. Sommer], and in it was the names of two families that lost their sons. One lost two boys and the other one lost three boys, and four boys are buried in Normandy, but the other boy [Kimmel] was killed in Italy,” Nicholson told the Langley Advance on Saturday, Oct. 18, when he met with the FORT-itude crew members who visited the gravesite on his behalf. “I thought, I’d love to put a poppy on his grave if somebody happens to be going there.”

Through the media, Nicholson discovered the Abreast With FORT-itude crew was going to Ravenna.

He contacted them, and they were more than happy to help during a brief, emotional ceremony.

Kimmel’s gravestone reads, “He was a good son and a good soldier.”

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