Uncle Henry’s last Christmas dinner

Henry was the youngest child of Albert and Olivia Bjerke, who farmed southwest of Kelvington. After his father died in 1937, Henry lived on the farm for a couple years with his mother, his brother Daniel and oldest sister Carrie. His sister Annie worked, then married, near Swan River, Man. His sister Olga (my mother) had been away from home for many years.


Uncle Henry worked the winter of 1939 in Manitoba, then in a logging camp in Ontario until the spring of 1941. He was in Red Deer, Alta., when he decided to join the Army. A slight-built man, five-foot-four with brown hair and blue eyes, he enlisted with the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada in Edmonton on June 6, 1941. Initially he was in Calgary, then Camrose for basic training.

In 1943 he was transported by train to Halifax, leaving aboard the SS Letitia for southern England for further training before deployment to Italy. It was Nov. 17, 1943, that Uncle Henry sat down to write Christmas greetings to his family. His letter shows that he was assigned to “B Coy.” of the Seaforth Highlanders.

Dec. 25, 1943, brought no relief for Canadian soldiers in Ortona. They were rotated back to a bombed-out church at Santa Maria di Costantinopoli. Members of the Seaforth Highlanders prepared a meal. They had scrounged the essentials for this special meal and served the infantry, who gathered in shifts for a Christmas dinner just a few blocks from the fighting.

In their attempt to get to the special feast, many were shot down by German forces. Some commanders ordered their men to hold their positions rather than risk getting killed over a Christmas dinner. An organist played Silent Night and for a few moments there was a semblance of normality as the soldiers were able to sing these words amid the raging war. But they had to return to the fighting. For many, like Henry Bjerke, it would be their last meal.

Uncle Henry fought in this eight-day battle. He did not win any awards for bravery, but he and many others did the bravest thing of all. They gave their lives. Uncle Henry was one of 41 in his unit who died; 262 Canadians lost their lives in Ortona, and 1375 in this battle. More than 45,000 Canadians were killed during the Second World War. Some were from Sasman County, Sask. Henry Bjerke is one of 32 servicemen commemorated on the Second World War cenotaph at the Royal Canadian Legion in Kelvington.

The Battle of Ortona has been well documented in newspapers, diaries of soldiers, and in a comic book. Even film documentaries and movies were made, and songs were written. These were no consolation for a mother after the death of a son, having only a medal with a ribbon to show for his sacrifice. That ribbon became tattered and tear-stained, held tightly by a woman who had lost her youngest child.

Submitted by Sylvia Murray

Wadena News


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