BOWDEN — For the past five years on Christmas Eve, a Belgian man has gone to the Wijnegem Communal Cemetery with his son to light a candle on the grave of a Bowden veteran.
It’s Niko Van Kerckhoven's own version of Lichtjes op Oorlogsgraven, a project that began five years ago in the Netherlands to memorialize war heroes by candlelight at their graves each Christmas Eve.
The candlelight project has since spread to war cemeteries in more than 140 locations in the Netherlands, as well as other countries including Belgium, where Van Kerckhoven visits the gravesite of Bowdenite Norman Gilliland.
“I was one of the first persons from outside of Holland to pick this up via Facebook, and have participated ever since. It's not a big ceremony, just me and my 15-year-old son Wout lighting a candle on Norman's grave,” said Van Kerckhoven, a citizen of the nearby municipality of Wommelgem in northern Belgium. “I noticed Norman's grave a couple of years ago, and I had the feeling that he's so lonely over there, so I kind of adopted his grave.
“It really feels like I am visiting a family member,” he added. “It is a small token of my appreciation and the least I can do for one of our liberators who gave his all for my freedom.”
Van Kerckhoven believes it’s important for his son to know about Battery ,Quartermaster Sgt. Norman Walter Gilliland, a member of the 3rd Light Anti-Aircraft Battery of the Royal Canadian Artillery as well as his comrades for the heroism and sacrifices they made to liberate their country from Nazi Germany's occupation during the Second World War.
Gilliland died on Sept. 24, 1944 at the age of 44 as the guns of his unit were defending a crossing site of Wijnegem’s Albert Canal. He was patrolling along the canal when he tripped over a broken limber (two-wheeled cart), hitting his head hard on the pavement and falling unconscious in the canal.
Local police forces managed to pull the Canadian soldier out of the canal but it was too late as Gilliland had already drowned.
He was buried in the local cemetery, which is now adorned with a Canadian military marker. Gilliland is the only Canadian or foreign soldier buried at this Belgian cemetery.
Next to him are the graves of two local Belgian soldiers who were killed in 1940. There are also rows near Gilliland’s grave for the many civilian casualties from the devastating V-bomb attacks by the Germans on the port of Antwerp.
Here in Canada, the sacrifice and valour of Norman Gilliland did not go unnoticed, at least in years past.
In 1965, Mount Gilliland, a 1,940-metre mountain in the Solitude Range of the Hart Ranges in Northern British Columbia, was named after him.
However, while Norman Gilliland has been appropriately honoured by the Canadian government and military, no photograph of him can be found.
“For a few years now, I've been trying in vain to contact a member of his family and to find a picture of him,” he added. “It is very touching for me to put a face on a name carved in stone. It makes me feel closer to him and makes his sacrifice all the more personal.”
While the former Bowdenite has been honoured on the Commonwealth War Graves and the Canadian Virtual War Memorial websites, there is no photograph of him.
Officials with the Bowden Historical Society, which operates the Bowden Pioneer Museum, have searched extensively for a photo, and have even tried to contact probable descendants, but with no luck.
In the local history book, Pioneer Legacy: Bowden and District, there is a two-page chapter on Norman’s family, which was headed by Fred and Bessie Gilliland who came west from Ontario in 1909 and purchased a home farm eight kilometres west of town. Fred became active in Bowden community affairs, while Bessie was described as a hardworking homemaker who raised nine children, including Norman, an elevator agent who left Bowden to work in Bluesky, Alta. before the Second World War. There are two family photos in the chapter but both without Norman. Fred passed away in 1943 and Bessie in 1954. The couple are buried in the Bowden Cemetery.
In the meantime, Van Kerckhoven, who has conducted extensive research on war dead for his local historical society, is continuing his search for Norman's photo. He has sent as many emails and social media messages as possible but without success.
“I especially want to let his family know that he certainly is not forgotten and that he is still honoured every year by the local authorities on November 11, and by my family as well,” said Van Kerckhoven.
If any reader has a photograph of Norman Gilliland, he or she can email Van Kerckhoven at firstname.lastname@example.org.