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‘Don't worry, everything will be OK'

From Wednesday's Globe and Mail

Bobby Nickerson picked up a pen on the evening of March 23, 1945, and scratched out a “small note” to his mother as his 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion packed its gear in preparation for a jump into enemy territory the following morning.

“By this time tomorrow night, I will be somewhere in Germany and always Mother, no matter where I go, you will always be foremost in my mind,” wrote the handsome 23-year-old private from Halifax.

“Only could I at this time be able to tell you how great my love for you is. But maybe you know.”

Pte. Nickerson closed the five-paragraph missive by offering reassurances that all would be well. “Take care of yourself,” he wrote, “and don't worry, everything will be OK soon and everyone home.”

In the end, he was only partly correct.

The war with Hitler was in its final days and the Allied nations, including Canada, were on the verge of an ebullient celebration of victory. But not everyone was coming home.

Bobby Nickerson died less than 24 hours after the final letter to his mother was penned — on his first jump from a plane during combat.

His 30-year-old commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Jeff Nicklin, who was named a member of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame for his brilliant play in the 1935 Grey Cup, died with him.

The two men are listed together in the book of soldiers buried in the Groesbeek Canadian War Cemetery near the town of Nijmegen in the Netherlands.

Even though the Germans had been alerted to the airborne attack and put up armed resistance, there were remarkably few casualties that day.

Pte. Nickerson was simply one of the unlucky ones.

Bobby, as his family called him, was the youngest son of a widowed mother who cleaned offices in the evenings to put dinner on the table for her five children.

He turned 18 on the day the Second World War was declared and told his family he was determined to enlist.

He wanted to follow the example of two brothers-in-law and his own brother who, for medical reasons, served his wartime duty at a Canadian army base.

Bobby's mother, Christie Nickerson, vetoed the plan. She was not about to lose her baby — the boy who used the money he earned working part time during high school to buy her a tram pass so she didn't have to walk to work — to a war.

The discussion continued for about a year before Bobby took matters into his own hands.

He enlisted and was sent to Newfoundland where he was made a sergeant and put in charge of an administrative centre.

His mother was glad he was out of harm's way, but the office job didn't last long.

“He decided that he wasn't getting enough of the war,” explains his niece, Barbara Meyers, who was 15 years younger than Bobby.

“He reverted to private to take training as a paratrooper. I think he wanted to participate. He wanted adventure but he was high-minded too.”

Bobby spent the early part of 1944 at Camp Shilo in Manitoba, where he trained as a commando fighter. He earned his wings in May of that year.

Ms. Meyers remembers the last furlough home made by her “glamorous young uncle” before he shipped overseas in August.

“I remember the putties on his uniform and the high shine to the boots,” the Ottawa resident said.

“I remember him swinging me up and telling me to be a good girl for my mother.”

And then he was gone.

On March 24, 1945, Pte. Bobbie Nickerson made his first jump from a plane into the Rhineland forest. The sky was full of planes and parachutes as he hurtled to the ground that morning.

Brigadier James Hill, who commanded the expedition, said it was only normal that a few of the men would be lost in the endeavour. Bobby was one of them.

“Someone said that his parachute got caught in a tree,” Ms. Meyers said. “But I don't think that happened. There was enemy fire coming from the ground and I think a bullet probably caught him and he drifted into a tree.”

When the telegram arrived back home in Halifax, the house was full of family.

“The doctor came and gave my grandmother sedatives and she was in her room with the blinds down and we were told to be very quiet,” Ms. Meyers recalled.

Her own mother, Jean, the sister closest in age to Bobby, said she knew what had happened before the terrible news actually arrived.

The last time she had seen her Bobby, he had given her an amethyst necklace. On the night after his jump “she woke up and the necklace was broken,” Ms. Meyers said. “She claimed she knew then that he had been killed.”

A little more than two months later, the war in Europe ended. The members of the 1st Canadian Paratrooper Battalion were among the first troops to arrive home.

“It was shortly after V-E Day that they came back and everybody was out celebrating,” Ms. Meyers said.

The Nickersons didn't join the festivities.

“Our family that was among the few who in this particular regiment had lost sons,” she explained. “It was so fresh.”

Life, of course, went on. And while Bobby's name was raised often over the years, his death was a forbidden subject in family conversation.

“My grandmother didn't want anyone speaking about it. It was just too hard for her to hear,” Ms. Myers recalled.

But for the rest of her life, Christie Nickerson kept two pictures of her youngest son on her dresser. In one he wore the cocky little hat of the Service Corps. In the other, a paratrooper's beret.

And she kept Bobby's last letter, the letter he signed Love Bob.

In conjunction with the Dominion Institute and its Memory Project, we asked readers to submit the last letters of Canadians who died in the final months of the Second World War. This week, we present three of the soldiers' stories.

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