A Hero's Honour

  • Downhome Magazine
  • Posted: Nov 09, 2017 11:07 AM
Jack LeGrow of Bauline received the Distinguished Service Medal for a courageous act during the Second World War.

In 1939, Jack LeGrow of Bauline, Newfoundland, packed up and went to fight in the war. Like so many other heroes at that time, he left his life and family behind for the greater good of all. During his time abroad, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for exceptional bravery when he greatly assisted troops from his landing craft, despite being exposed to enemy fire.  

Some time ago, I had the opportunity to sit with my grandfather (Pop) Harvey LeGrow and chat with him about his older brother Jack. I wanted to learn how life was during World War II in Bauline and how Uncle Jack being away impacted his family. Pop always wanted to share Uncle Jack’s heroic story as well. This is a summary of our discussion that day. 

Back then, Bauline was a fishing community in Conception Bay. There was no water and sewer, clothes were washed by hand, and many cared for their elderly parents in their own home. The work was hard and life was tough in Bauline in those days. As hard as the residents of the town worked during the week, nothing happened on a Sunday. “No matter how much fish was on the go, they would not go to their traps,” Pop explained. By the end of Saturday there had to be enough food and fish available, and everyone had to be washed, shaven and ready for church in the morning. 

At that time the church was important in the community, as a place of worship, and also a place where the community could support each other. Church was held all day on Sundays. The first service would begin at 11 a.m. Then, there was Sunday school for the children. That was followed by a prayer meeting for the older people, and at 7 p.m., there would be another service that lasted well into the evening. During the war, churches were open day and night for services. 

“That’s where people would congregate because they were scared,” Pop said. 

They would go there and pray for their families, and those overseas. During the week, church was often conducted in the schoolhouse, as it would still be warm after a day with the children. Many would gather together and share news and stories. 

“Bauline was like one big family then, and the children were raised by the community,” he recalls. “And if a roof was leaking, all hands would help.” Bauline still boasts this strong sense of community.

Pop was just 11 years old when the news came that war had broken out. He recalls shopping on Water Street with his mother, and the buzz it created. Everyone stopped. Pop recalls “that was a sad day.” 

Not long after, they started asking Newfoundland’s best to sign up as recruits and head to the front. 

“Practically everyone in Bauline had someone gone, and everyone home would huddle around a radio and listen to the war news,” Pop said. The first recruits left St. John’s in November 1939 to serve with the British Royal Navy. 

“The Americans had a big barracks on the point (in Bauline),” Pop explained. It was there to help defend Conception Bay from enemy attack. In fact there was a large American presence in the community at that time. “They had troops in Bauline all the time; every week there would be a different crew,” he said. 

There’s a location in Bauline the locals refer to as the “Point,” a piece of higher elevated land where you can sit and look out over the bay. Today, it is a quiet place of reflection. When war broke out, the Americans owned a look-out here, contributing to the local economy.

“There were four stores in Bauline back then,” Pop said. Now, there are none. 

The American presence didn’t come without frustration for the local Bauline men. Large machinery would tear up the roads and although the Americans weren’t allowed to come down into town, they frequently got after the local women. When the American troops were down in the stores some of the younger kids would yell “GI GI” to signal an officer was coming and the soldiers would run back to their barracks. 

“When the war started there was blackouts then,” Pop remembers. “Every night, troops would go around Bauline, and if they saw a glimmer of light out through a window, you would be told,” he says. The men would even cover the headlights on their cars as to not be detected.

In those days, rabbit hunting was a common way to get food for the table. Pop recalls one evening, along with his brother Charl and cousin Edgar, they headed out a little after dark to check their traps.

“We had a three cell flashlight and you weren’t supposed to be out in the woods with a light this time,” he said. One gentleman from Bauline came home with his truck and parked it on the pinch - where all vehicles parked then. While he parked his truck he saw what he thought to be a suspicious light in the woods. At the same time an American truck arrived with a load of troops. The gentleman told the troops he “saw a light across the long run.” With that, the Americans were out of their truck, guns drawn. 

Pop and the boys knew they were in trouble. Frightened “to death,” Pop says they ran. They ran through a river before troops surrounded the three young boys and yelled halt. “Thankfully, we knew what that meant and we stopped right where we were,” he said. “And we didn’t go to the traps after that; at least not with a light.” 

Bell Island was also a very busy place during the war. On the nights that the iron ore carriers were sunk off Bell Island, Pop said Bauline was filled with Bren Gunn carriers.

“Tanks had the place torn up. It was a very frightening night, we all thought we were finished,” he said. “We were as close to the war then as anyone in Canada.”

Pop’s brother Jack LeGrow, my great uncle, signed up for war shortly after it began. 

“They had a big time for all hands that were going,” Pop said. A big party was held at the community hall. “They had to walk to St. John’s from Bauline to sign up,” he said. Oddly enough, Jack was originally called back after enlisting and discharged because he had flat feet. But a Sargent Major who knew the family pulled some strings and got him back in the Navy.

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Jack LeGrow and his brothers, Charl, Will and Task

“Dad was a quiet man and very religious. Mom took it hard,” said Pop. Asking Pop about how his parents were during those times opened old wounds, but his demeanour remained calm. 

“Mom wouldn’t get much sleep while Jack was gone,” he said. “Jack was out in the Burma Jungle for two years, and he couldn’t write. The family thought he was dead,” said Pop. “We knew nothing until we heard he was in St. John’s.”

Jack became a Hometown Hero, and he was welcomed home as such.  

“They went in on the road and put carpets on the ground for Jack to walk on,” Pop recalls of the day.  “All hands went to welcome him home!”

Jack was gone from ‘39 until the war was over, with the exception of some short two-week leaves. 

Each night, Pop and his mother would listen to the radio to get an update on the war until it cut off at midnight. 

“We would stay up every night and listen to the war news, and [every night] they’d sign off with Lord Nelson’s Prayer,” he said. “Mom would be in the kitchen and she’d sit in the old rocking chair and sing and cry for Jack, ‘Oh where is my wondering boy tonight?’”

Pop’s mother and other women would regularly send cakes, and knit socks to send to the men who’d gone to serve. She would walk to St. John’s and post it in the mail. 

“Mom would walk to St. John’s time after time with a big pack of stuff on her back,” Pop recalls. 

“She could play the mouth organ…She would play as she was walking and keep in step with what she was playing.” At that time, cars were rare.

Sometimes, Pop, along with one of his older brothers Will or Charl, would take their mother as far as Torbay on a horse and cart.  She wouldn’t let them go much farther for fear the boys would be out late in the dark by themselves. 

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While the family, and the rest of Bauline, wondered and waited for word from Jack, he and many other Newfoundlanders were off doing extraordinary things to keep us all safe, and create the freedoms we enjoy today. 

The following is an excerpt from the book More Fighting Newfoundlanders: a history of Newfoundland’s fighting forces in the Second World War by Gerald W.L. Nicholson: 

The summer and autumn of 1942 saw an extension of Allied amphibious operations to widely separated coasts, Newfoundlanders were aboard the landing craft and the ships of the covering naval force when Canadian troops made their costly assault at Dieppe on August 19. That was where Seaman Percy Pieroway, of St. George’s, was Mentioned in Despatches for his ‘gallantry, daring and skill in the combined attack.’ Less than a month later, several thousand miles away, and in considerably warmer waters, a number of Newfoundlanders took part in the assault landings on the Vichy-held island of Madagascar. When the eight assault craft of the 11th (‘Empire Pride’) Landing Craft Flotilla reached the sea wall on ‘Green Beach’ at Majunga, on the west side of the 900-mile long island, Leading Seaman Jack LeGrow, of Bauline, was on the extreme right. The army officer in his boat; with two Bren gunners, scrambled up the wall; but the remaining troops appeared to experience difficulty in mounting the obstacle. LeGrow put his engines to ‘Slow Ahead,’ his wheel amidships, and set up his climbing ladder. He then scaled the wall, and though fully exposed to fire coming from a house less than 100 yards away, steadied the ladder while pulling the troops up. His coolness and gallantry brought Seaman LeGrow the Distinguished Service Medal.

The Distinguished Service Medal was one an individual might receive for a “conspicuous and gallant act of valour, usually in the presence of the enemy,” whilst serving in the British, Dominion and Colonial armed forces. Until 1993, the Distinguished Service Medal (DSM) was a military decoration awarded to personnel of the Royal Navy for bravery and resourcefulness on active service at sea.

Following Jack’s act of valour, one of the head officers recommended him for the award. Jack was 25 years old at the time and he didn’t know he won the medal. On his next scheduled leave, Jack was faced with the choice of going to the King to accept his honour, or to go home to Bauline for Christmas. 

He chose to come home.

He would come home on leave for just a couple weeks after that. And each time, whether it were Jack or another hometown boy, there would be a big party to honour their arrival. 

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Jack LeGrow of Bauline, in his later years

Pop and I spoke in his home in Bauline, one he owned for years, and raised a family in. Hanging on his wall, displayed prominently for all to see, Pop holds dear a photo of his cherished brother Jack, who has since passed on. He also has his medal. It’s become a prized family possession.

When the war was finally over the family had a big celebration for Jack at their home.

When Jack entered the house, he stood up in the porch and took off his navy uniform.  The words he spoke were, “Never Again.”  

After the war, Jack lived in Bauline, and spent the remainder of his career on the sea as a fisherman and working on the coastal ferries. He frequently told family that he sailed six of the seven seas, and hoped he would someday sail the seventh - the Indian ocean. He never shared many stories of his time overseas. 

Lest We Forget.  - Submitted by Colin LeGrow

Blair Legrow

Not sure why this part of the family has Uncle Jack's medals. He has a granddaughter and great grandchildren. I'd say he's still spinning in his grave cause the last people he would've wanted to have it was these people