For God, King and country.
Eric Brunt heard those words countless times growing up whenever his grandfather, Clifford, was asked why he had joined the war efforts in 1940.
“That would drive my dad insane,” says Brunt. “Because it was almost like my grandpa was just pushing him off.”
After his grandfather passed away in 2013, the Victoria native began reaching out to local veterans eager to hear and record their stories.
“For a lot of them, they would tell me ‘Oh, nobody has ever wanted to interview me.’”
Inspired by his grandfather’s story and the other local veterans, the 26-year-old decided to take on a project he says “snowballed” into a year-long mission.
Packing all his camera equipment and camping supplies into the back of his van after graduating from film school, Brunt set out across Canada looking to interview as many Second World War veterans as he could find.
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Now, 380 interviews later, Brunt is heading back to Victoria with a lot more mileage on his van and a lot of editing to do. He plans to create a feature-length documentary called Last Ones Standing showcasing the stories he spent a year of his life chasing.
Brunt told Black Press Media he tries to pick out a few stories that stand out before every interview he does himself, but the answer is always changing. While he never met anyone who knew his grandfather, he did meet someone who knew his great uncle.
“I recorded — on video — this moment of disbelief of ‘What? You’re related?” Pulling out a photo, the two began to bond over the connection. “It’s him, my great uncle and two other men and it’s the day they received their wings.”
Two of the men in the photo died while serving overseas, highlighting the staggering statistic of about 50 per cent of pilots lost to the war. The significance was not lost on Brunt who says the number came to life for him in that moment.
“It’s easy to see numbers but to really have that connection makes you think — wow, these guys who were my age, or usually younger, go overseas — and that is not a good statistic for survival.”
Another story that stands out to Brunt revolves around the HMCS Athabaskan, a destroyer in the Canadian Navy that was torpedoed and sank in the English Channel a few weeks before D-Day.
Only one person — a veteran living in Thunder Bay — was thought to have survived. He jumped off the left side of the ship and was picked up by another ship, the Haida, and was returned to Canada.
Through his travels Brunt discovered there were actually two survivors, whom neither knew about.
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You’re on a lifeboat with 17 of your closest friends. Soaked in oil, you huddle together to stay warm. The ship that was your home for the last year has been torpedoed and you’ve been adrift in open water for hours. You don’t know how many of your friends were lost. You don’t know if you’re going to see Canada again. On top of this, you might look like the others but there’s one significant difference. There’s something written on the dog tags around your neck. A single word that is a death sentence if found by the Germans: “Hebrew.” • This is the situation Harry Hurwitz found himself in the morning of April 29th 1944. Currently in a rehabilitation centre under quarantine, Harry Hurwitz was the only Jewish man aboard the HMCS Athabaskan, and one of only two men left alive. • Harry and his shipmates were eventually picked up by a German battleship. Before boarding, Harry threw his incriminating dog tags into the ocean. Without identification, he claimed his last name was “Hurwitt”. A German officer who had lived in Harry’s hometown of Lachine, Quebec before the war was suspicious. However, Harry kept his identity hidden and was sent to a prisoner of war camp instead of a concentration camp. • There were 82 other Athabaskan survivors who would spend the rest of the war in the same camp. Harry successfully hid his religion from the German guards with the help of his shipmates. • The sinking of the HMCS Athabaskan claimed 129 Canadian lives. At the bottom of the Atlantic, Harry’s dog tags sit. The word “Hebrew” has rusted over. Similarly, the negative connotations around this word have also faded. However, Harry’s memories have not. He remembers what was lost in the cold Atlantic Ocean and in the German concentration camps. Today he wears his Navy hat proudly. His story is in the book he is holding, All the Ship’s Men. I highly recommend this book if you want to learn more about the Athabaskan. The author, Sherry Pringle, is a great friend of mine and if it wasn’t for her, I wouldn't have had the honour of meeting Harry. • Thank you Harry for your service and for sharing your story. You are a true Canadian hero.
“He went off the right side of the ship and the Haida couldn’t get to him,” explains Brunt. The veterans clung to a lifeboat, eventually being picked up by a German ship and spending the rest of the war in a prisoner of war camp.
“They both said to me it was literally what side of the ship you jumped off that determined your fate,” says Brunt.
The grand finale to his journey is an upcoming trip to the beaches of Normandy, France to take part in the D-Day ceremony with over 40 Canadian veterans, 10 of whom Brunt has interviewed for his documentary.