Cancer - Your Story : My Grandad, The Real Hero

Editors note:  This has been sent in by 'Modern Dilemma'  and is the seventh in a series that I have called "Cancer - Your Story".  If you are interested in sharing your story please click on the link and contact me.

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This story originally appeared on MD's blog in March 2010

Cancer Research UK -
Photo credit: D Sharon Pruitt - Pink Sherbert Photography

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Writing this post was very emotional for me and remembering him for something more than the cancer which killed him and my grandmother at the end of their lives has been exceptionally helpful to me.  It has helped me find a way to remember all the good stuff that came before the horrible end.  When cancer steals your loved ones away forever, especially with elderly friends and family (maybe, maybe not?), its easy to only remember the pain, the suffering, the hospital trips, the inability to be more than just "sick".  I guess I'm trying to say that he was so much more than "the cancer".  That I want to remember him for everything, except the thing which took him away.

Unfortunately, all of my own grandparents have now passed away. There are so many different little stories I could write about any of them but there is one man in particular I want to talk about. My Grandad Harry, my Mother's Father.

He was a man of his generation. A hard working, stoical man of few words. When he retired his greatest pleasures were his beloved Arsenal, Woodbines, a few quid to put a bet on and a pint with his mates.

As a child I was sometimes wary of him as he said so little but I always enjoyed his company and some of my greatest early childhood memories are from my times with him. Watching him work in the orchards; going scrumping with my cousins when Grandad gave us the all clear as the strawberry farmer was off for his lunch; learning about rabbits & how they breed and playing with his giant sized dog (to my 6 year old mind) Butch who lived in an enormous kennel in the garden, worked along side Grandad but was never allowed into the house. My Mother says it used to terrified her when she saw me with Butch but he was always gentle & loving towards me, like a giant teddy-bear.

I can't remember when I first heard the story of Grandad Harry's bravery, I expect from either my Mother or my Nan but I know it wasn't from him directly.

My Grandad was a soldier in the British Army during the Second World War. He was not a career officer, he was an enlisted man like many, many others who fought alongside him, doing their bit to squash the Nazis. At some point in the War, Grandad Harry found himself in The Netherlands and was enjoying a few hours of respite with his comrades. They were in a liberated area but the fighting wasn't too far away. The local population were just beginning to enjoy their new found freedom. Adults were thanking the Allied Soldiers at every turn and the biggest sign of normality returning was the children who were starting to play again.

Grandad Harry went off for a little walk, no doubt with a woodbine to accompany his quiet moment. I can't imagine what must have been going through his mind, how he was able to compartmentalise the things he had seen, how he was able to keep calm and prepare himself for the fight ahead.

The local area was, as you'd expect, devastated. Buildings, bridges and roads destroyed. Cars burnt out from bombings and close by to Grandad Harry, the shell of an airplane which had crash-landed. As he stood alone, Grandad Harry heard some noises coming from the airplane and realised children were playing inside. He let them be, happy that the Dutch children were finally able to have some fun.

And then he heard screams. The terrified screams of small children in danger. The type of scream you hope never to hear in your life.

And plumes of black smoke coming from the crashed airplane.

Grandad Harry dropped everything and ran towards the airplane. There was no-one else around and if he ran for help the children would be burnt alive. So without thought for his own personal safety he went in to save the three small children. The flames were spreading fast and the children had moved towards the back of the plane far away from the door. Grandad Harry got one child out and went back again for the next. The flames were spreading, the smoke was black and noxious and the screams had turned to whimpers. Still, he went back in again. Unable to think of anything else but getting all three children out of that burning airplane.

The children were all safe. Terrified, tearful and covered in ash but alive. None of them or Grandad Harry sustained major injuries. The smoke and screams had finally alerted others and much hustle and bustle followed, with children returned to parents, Doctors checking everyone out and of course, Senior Officers wanting to know exactly what had happened.

I do remember asking Grandad Harry about the incident once. He told me about the smoke and the screams, how hard it was to get them out when they'd moved down inside the airplane. How he could think of nothing else but getting them out. That conversation is clear in my memory as its one of the few times where he spoke openly about the War. We asked him again on other occasions about the incident and the War in general but he would just say "Bad times. All over now." Even as a child I knew to leave well enough alone.

During our conversation I asked Grandad Harry how the fire has started. He said the airplane had crashed quite some time before and nature had started to take over. The children were playing around and it was believed the fire had started when the dried grass rubbed under their feet.

The Army decided that Grandad Harry had shown heroic courage in the face of extreme danger. A level of bravery which should be recognised and rewarded.

The highest military decoration for valour in the face of the enemy in the British Army is the Victoria Cross. At the beginning of the Second World War the King, George VI had decided it was essential to create other awards after stories of immense bravery started to circulate during the Blitz. So, he created the George Cross and the George Medal as civilian counterparts to the Victoria Cross. They are the highest gallantry medals for civilians, as well as for military personnel in actions which are not in the face of the enemy or for which purely military honours would not normally be granted.

And so Grandad Harry became one of the recipients of the King's new award. He came home from the war, put the medal away and very little was ever spoken of it.

In the early 1990's he was contacted by Royal British Legion. The children he saved had survived the last days of the war, thrived and grown to become integral parts of their local Community. They had never forgotten Grandad Harry and wanted to thank him again, as adults for saving their lives. So, with the help of the Legion, Grandad Harry and my Nan travelled to The Netherlands to meet the three children and to be honoured by their Community. They were shown an immense amount of gratitude and love during that visit. Grandad Harry was given another award by the Mayor of the Town as a sign of their gratefulness and with those children, now adults around him, Grandad Harry was finally able to talk about what happened.

In November 1945 he performed another act of bravery. A young woman he knew, also in the forces, had been in a relationship with a young soldier who, having discovered she was pregnant made it clear he was not interested and was not going to "do the right thing". The young woman found herself alone and 5 months pregnant.

Grandad Harry had always rather admired the young girl so he put a proposal to her. A marriage proposal. She accepted and my mother was born four months later.

They went on to have six more children together. They were married for 60 years. They fought like cat and dog at times, life was hard but they stuck together, supported one another and cared for each other in their final days. When my Grandmother passed away in September 2005 our family crumbled but the saddest thing of all was watching my Grandad Harry's heart quite literally, break. He simply couldn't live without her. Everyday was a misery for him. He passed away in February 2006.

When they were reunited in February 2006, Eldest Daughter was only 7 years old. She came to me just before the funeral when I was quietly crying in my bedroom. She told me not to worry, that Nanny and Grandad Harry were very happy. They were back together. Nanny was knitting and watching snooker, probably on a black & white TV and Grandad Harry was looking after Heaven's orchards.

And that is how I think of them now. Together, in Heaven.

I miss you both so much. There is never enough time is there?