Skip navigation

Wednesday April 27, 2011

War hero helped displaced Ukrainians

Saskatoon-born flying ace was the first person of Ukrainian descent to become a general in the Canadian Forces

Special to The Globe and Mail

Well-spoken, calm and respectful, Joseph Romanow did not seem like a hard man. But he was tougher than duct tape. He lived through the Depression and the Dirty Thirties, saw buddies perish on the battlefield - almost dying himself - and witnessed brutal conditions after the Second World War in displaced persons camps.

Rather than embitter him, the grim experiences, he said, "made me more laid-back, accepting [of] life ... looking at life more casually, respecting other people." As he related to a military archive a few years ago, "I think most veterans are no longer violent people. There are no violent veteran criminals. I'm not sure what the right word is, but you see life in a much [more] acceptable way. As I say, I can feel it, but I can't express it."

In Canada's Ukrainian community, Romanow was a hero. A decorated soldier, he was a leading force in the scouring of displaced persons camps after the war to locate Ukrainians and bring them to this country's safety. And he was the first Canadian of Ukrainian descent to become a general in the Canadian Forces.

He died in Ottawa of cancer on March 21 at the age of 89.

"He was one of a large group of Canadians of Ukrainian heritage who volunteered to serve overseas with our armed forces at the outbreak of the Second World War," said Lubomyr Luciuk, a professor of political geography at the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont., and an expert on Ukrainians in Canada.

"While in England, he helped organize the Ukrainian Canadian Servicemen's Association and its 'London Club' at 218 Sussex Gardens, a home away from home for thousands of Ukrainian Canadian servicemen and women." It was there that he and other Canadian-Ukrainians created the Central Ukrainian Relief Bureau, which helped thousands of Ukrainian political refugees and displaced persons find asylum in Canada, among them Luciuk's parents.

"Like his comrades-in-arms," said Luciuk, "Joe Romanow was truly one of the heroes of his day."

In the hurly-burly of Ukrainian-Canadian politics, Romanow professed neutrality. He was "most reluctant," he told Luciuk in a 1981 interview, to get involved in Ukrainian politics. He rued the postwar rift that developed in the Canadian community between newcomers for whom Ukrainian independence from Moscow was paramount, and the more-settled prewar

immigrants who were less engaged in the issue. He called the divide "an unfortunate waste of energy."

Joseph Roman Romanow was born in Saskatoon on May 3, 1921, one of five children. His parents had come to Canada from the Ukrainian village of Kitzman, his father in 1911 for "political reasons" - he had been an active resister of Polish colonization. While many Ukrainian immigrants chose to homestead, the elder Romanow worked for the Canadian National Railway. The couple married in Saskatoon and were among the founders of the city's Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of St. George, a parish that will mark its centenary this year.

Life revolved around the Ukrainian Catholic Church and Joseph was active in church youth groups. As a teenager, he helped out at the New Pathway (Novy Shliakh) newspaper print shop.

"Being paid a dollar for a 10-hour day on Saturday gave him enough to take his girlfriend to the movies that evening, buy them both a Coke and have 25 cents left for the collection plate the next morning," noted the newsletter of the Ukrainian Canadian Professional and Business Association of Ottawa.

Early on, Romanow's parents instilled certain values of multiculturalism. "It was important there were cultural activities - music, poetry, religion," said Walter Romanow, Joseph's brother. "But it was also important to appreciate that we were living in Canada. It was important for us to be Canadian."

Joseph enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1939 and was accepted in 1940. After training in a Tiger Moth biplane, he was sent to pilot anti-U-boat patrols and convoy escorts over Canada's west, then east coasts. Following a short stint in England, he was transferred to Burma, where he flew with the RCAF's 435 and 436 Squadrons. He also trained Gurkha paratroopers and dodged Japanese fighter aircraft.

In a remarkable online video archive at the Veterans Affairs Canada website, Romanow provided, in 2004, his memories of that little-known theatre of the Second World War. They alternate between light-hearted and harrowing.

"A lot of the fighting was done with Gurkha regiments, and [for] Gurkhas, I have nothing but the greatest admiration," he recalled. "They were nice, they were fierce, and sometimes I think they were crazy, you know."

How fierce? At night, roll call was never taken because there would be several Gurkhas missing. "They'd sneak into the Japanese bivouac and just lop off heads with their khukuris (15-inch curved blades). By dawn, they were all back in their bivouac." This apparently led to a dark joke among the enemy: "Well, we lived through another night," one Japanese officer would say to another, to which the reply was, "Shake your head."

Back to top