BOWDEN - After five long years of searching, a Belgian military researcher has finally secured the photograph of Bowden war hero Sgt. Norman Gilliland.
"I woke up at 5:45 a.m. and there it was. It was sent five hours earlier. It was beautiful," said Belgian native Niko Kerckhoven on the morning of Nov. 12. He had received a Facebook message from Canadian David Archer, who administers a Facebook page called A Canadian Soldier "Memorial Site" for our WW1 & WW2 Heroes, that a family member of the Bowden warhero had sent him an old Second World War era black and white photo. "Don't really know him, (and) that makes it even more beautiful."
Battery Quartermaster Sgt. Norman Walter Gilliland a member of the 3rd Light Anti-Aircraft Battery of the Royal Canadian Artillery, was killed in Belgium 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, close to where Van Kerchhoven currently lives. Gilliland 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.
The former Bowden native was ultimately laid to rest with an official military headstone at the Wijnegem Communal Cemetery, which is also located near Van Kerchhoven’s home in northern Belgium.
Six years ago when First World War remembrance celebrations were in full swing in his country ,the 49-year-old Van Kerchhoven stumbled upon Gilliland's gravesite by accident at the Wijnegem cemetery.
“I was immediately struck by the loneliness of his headstone in between the rows of Belgian headstones of victims and veterans of both world wars,” he said. “I immediately felt a strong connection to Norman and decided to visit his grave on special occasions.”
A few years later, he joined the Dutch effort of Lichtjes op Oorlogsgraven and that made him even more aware of the presence of the Canadians in his area. Van Kerchhoven decided he needed to find out more about them. Gilliland's military record was central to the whole story.
With his son Wouk, Van Kerchhoven also made it a special mission to honour the Bowden soldier every Remembrance Day, and on Christmas Eve when he lights a candle at Gilliland’s gravesite.
“When I found the war diaries of his unit, it didn’t show much of what happened to him, and there was no picture of him on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission site or the Canadian Virtual Memorial site. So my quest started,” he said.
Through many hours of internet seaches Van Kerckhoven was able to probe Gilliland’s military service files, which provided answers to what happened to the Canadian soldier but there was no photograph of him.
“I first tried several Facebook groups, especially those remembering the Canadian war effort in the world wars, without much effect though,” said Van Kerchhoven. “I tried via the excellent Facebook page of my favourite author Mark Zuehlke, whose book Terrible Victory made me very much aware of what happened in my area in fall of 1944.
“But apart from a few loose ends, to no avail. I got in contact with a distant relative via Messenger but he was unable to get me a picture either,” he added.
Van Kerchhoven then tried local historical societies and ancestry and family tree websites, but many of those asked for money without any certainty of success, and that ruled that avenue out.
He later discovered Bowden’s local history book, Pioneer Legacy: Bowden and District, had a two-page chapter on Norman’s family. There is even family photos but none of Norman.
“So finally, my last hope was to try and contact the local newspaper (The Albertan) and fortunately they published an article about my quest,” said Van Kerchhoven. “Within hours of the article being published a member on one of the Facebook groups picked it up, put it on a Facebook page of Gilliland’s hometown and then there was contact by a family member with a photograph of Norman and a photograph of his grave in the 1940s as a bonus. That ends my five-year-old search.”
Van Kerchhoven said his immediate plan now is to have Gilliland’s photo waterproofed. He will then place it on the Bowden soldier’s grave.
This coming Christmas Eve he will return to the gravesite, and once more light a candle for Sgt. Norman Gilliland.