by Amanda Reside

(Amanda Reside is a 15-year-old student. Her project was part of the Grade 10 curriculum  at the Almonte District High School.  The name of her subject, William James Hefferman, is engraved on the Almonte Cenotaph.)

Last year, I had the pleasure of participating in the Lest We Forget project, in Mrs. Jennifer Yake’s grade ten history class. Students were assigned names of local soldiers who fought in the Second World War. My soldier’s name was William James Hefferman, and Able Seaman in the Royal Canadian Volunteer Reserve, and whose story is truly remarkable. In 1928, at the age of fifteen, Bill traveled alone to Canada from his birthplace of Wales.

Bill Hefferman with  his daughter Gwen
Bill Hefferman with his daughter Gwen

A few years after working in Almonte, Ontario as a millwright, he met and married Laura Cochrane in 1937.  They had a little girl together, whom they called Gwen. Tragically, Laura died of acute pancreatitis just three months after Gwen was born. Bill looked after Gwen as a single father, but Laura‘s sister helped him by taking her niece while Bill was working.

Bill joined the navy in late 1940, perhaps due to the same adventurous spirit that brought him across the Atlantic twelve years earlier. He did service at sea for approximately a year on the HMCS Assiniboine, but was sent back to St. Johns for surgery after a battle with a German submarine. He then participated in gunnery and signal training before being reassigned to the HMCS Sorel.

The Sorel’s crew were doing a training exercise off the coast of Halifax when Bill’s naval career came to an abrupt end. One of the missiles they had been using (which were rigged to explode on impact), instead of clearing the safety rail and hitting the target, exploded less than twenty feet from where Bill had been standing.

Shrapnel from the blast hit Bill in the arm, the back, and the neck, causing massive trauma. The ship quickly headed for Halifax.  Unfortunately, Bill died on route due to loss of blood from his wounds. Bill’s mother-in-law, Mrs. Myra Cochrane (now McPhail) took full time care of her granddaughter Gwen at age four.

Researching Bill Hefferman’s story at the Library and Archives really hit home for me. Handling his actual birth certificate, over one hundred years old, and held together by tape at least half that age, made me think about how real this man was, and how he wasn’t just a piece of history. Little did I know he was going to become even more real. My teacher, Mrs Yake urged me to look up his daughter, Gwen. When we called the phone number for one G. Hefferman in Ottawa, low and behold, it was Bill Hefferman’s daughter.

Gwen was so pleased to hear about my project and immediately said yes to meeting to talk about her father. Gwen Hefferman met me at my school, where she showed me a book she created about her father, complete with pictures from his own personal camera. She had been to the National Library and Archives to do her own research for over a year in order to put together this book.

Gwen had gone to high school in Almonte herself, so I gave her a tour of her old school. She told me about how she became a nurse at the Civic Hospital in Ottawa and we discovered that we had another connection to each other: my grandmother, Joan Reside, had been her supervisor at the Civic! They still remember one another, and see each other at their work reunions!

Recently, Gwen and I met again at the Almonte Legion, where the Lest We Forget projects were being showcased. We now have plans to share a dinner with my grandparents!

I am very grateful for this experience. The project taught me so much, and helped me gain a new found appreciation for those who have kept our country free and safe.  I hope Bill and Gwen Hefferman’s story provokes others to learn about and respect our veterans.

Lest We Forget.