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Globe and Mail, The
26 November 2007, page R12
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Chaplain who endured the horrors of war is still remembered in Holland To tend to the wounded and bury the dead, he never left anyone behind even if it meant entering a minefield. To escape a barrage, he once had to dive into the grave of his dead CO


November 26, 2007

April, 1945, the district of Voorst, in the east-central Dutch province of Gelderland. The storied 48th Highlanders of Canada had arrived from Italy, where the regiment lost at least 250 men killed in action, plus another 1,000 wounded. Even so, the fruit trees were in bloom and the Nazi enemy a month away from surrendering. An end to the war was in sight, but the task ahead was no less daunting.

Handed the job of liberating 12 towns and villages in that part of the Netherlands, the Highlanders' first battalion massed on the free side of the Ijssel River. After engineers built a beachhead, they called for tank and artillery support.

Captain Alexander Rapson, a United Church minister and one of two chaplains attached to the unit, was used to artillery fire and not bothered by it. "But holy doodle, the concussion of those shells passing so closely over us was great enough to lift the ground sheet covering me to keep out the drizzle and then let it fall back on my face," he wrote just a year ago in the Highlanders' newsletter, The Falcon. "There was no sleep while the shelling lasted."

In that thunderous barrage, a sergeant and the padre - then 36, older than most of the officers - set out by jeep for a regimental aid post. They turned downriver, drove through a marked-off minefield and arrived at the designated Dutch farm near the edge of the bridgehead.

"The shells arrived while I was trying to console a stretcher bearer who had brought in our first casualty with both feet missing," Mr. Rapson recalled. "I had to leave him since one of those shells had blown one of his companions to pieces. The shell had landed dead centre in his ammunition pouches and hand grenades, all of which exploded, literally blowing him to bits, leaving his head and shoulders bare-naked like a Caesar's bust." Two companies had to march by the remains before they were buried on the spot since a battle gravesite had not yet been established.

"Tough stuff, eh?" Mr. Rapson queried. "I'd forgive you, if, like the stretcher bearer, you said, 'That is as far as I can go.' "

It was a bad day that turned worse. While Mr. Rapson tended to the dead and comforted the dying, the sergeant brought in the regiment's commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Donald Mackenzie. He had taken a chunk of shrapnel right in the heart. The padre dug a shallow, makeshift grave, then heard a shell whistling in his direction. With nowhere to run, he dived into the grave, on top of the body. It probably saved his life.

The last two hours of daylight were spent searching in vain for the body of a missing Highlander, as Mr. Rapson was responsible for burying all dead. He did not remember where he slept that night, but awoke to find a local telling him that the soldier's body was in his garage. Mr. Rapson, his driver and an assistant were now eight hours behind their unit.

That was April 12, 1945 - a single day in battle.

Would he have done it all over again? "You bet your life we would!" he exclaimed at last year's Remembrance Day ceremony at Queen's Park in Toronto, where the Highlanders lay a wreath each Nov. 11. "We would because we love this land and would give our lives to keep it free."

Scores more casualties, including burying 16 more dead, awaited the chaplain in those five horrible early spring days. He never left anyone behind, in either the Dutch and Italian campaigns, even if it meant going into a minefield to retrieve a fallen soldier (which he did once by walking in the tracks of a blown-up jeep). In battle, he toted an ever-present leather case that contained communion wafers, a goblet and a Union Jack to drape on an altar. He kept meticulous records of every soldier killed or wounded - when, where, and the nature of the wound.

"He was always in the front lines, through the smoke and shelling of combat, to be with his soldiers," said Geordie Beal, honorary lieutenant-colonel of the Highlanders, and whose father served with Mr. Rapson. "He was a tower of strength and comfort for our men in combat; positive, caring, upbeat ... a true 48th Highlander."

His father, Alexander, a Methodist minister, died unexpectedly in Saskatchewan before Alex Rapson was born. His mother was homesteading in northeastern Alberta and didn't learn of her husband's death for two weeks. Young Alex was raised in rural Ontario and studied engineering at Queen's University for a year before switching to the University of Western Ontario, where he graduated with an arts degree in 1933. He paid his tuition by working on Imperial Oil tankers in the summers.

Mr. Rapson married in 1935 and graduated in divinity from Emmanuel College, the United Church of Canada seminary at the University of Toronto, the following year. After serving in several pastorates in Ontario, he enlisted in the army in 1943 and was posted first to the Sault Ste. Marie and Sudbury Regiment, an artillery unit serving in British Columbia. In the summer of 1944, he was sent to Britain, and that fall he joined the 48th Highlanders and, according to the Orillia Packet & Times newspaper, replaced a padre who had been driven insane by the horrors of the battlefield.

After the war, he returned to the ministry and worked in and around Sarnia, Ont. For a time, he left the pulpit for a few years to work as editor of Dow Chemical's in-house magazine, The Maple Leaf. He wanted to combine the two callings by becoming an industrial chaplain in the chemical business around Sarnia. The idea didn't pan out, and for a while he served as a municipal councillor in Sarnia before returning to the church.

In 1971, he retired - but only from employment.

An inveterate tinkerer since his days as an engineering student, he built a wine press and made the interior for a camping van (complete with curtains he sewed himself) when he was 86 years old. At 87, he bought a computer and learned to use it. There was a new garage roof at 89, then a sugar shack he built in panels and erected in the forest at his son's farm when he was 91.

And just last year, he was a "drummer" for a crew at the Orillia dragon boat races.

He liked the occasional cigar and nip of rum. "Grandpa would enjoy saying, 'I'm going to live to 100, or die in the attempt,' " eulogized his grandchildren, Steve and Kate Rapson. Two of his great-granddaughters planned to take him to school for show-and-tell, where he was all set to teach the children to sing Roll Out the Barrel.

He also loved teaching kids how to shoot peas with a spoon, "something I thought was hilarious as a kid," said Kate Rapson, "then dreaded when he showed my kids."

As it turned out, he died three weeks shy of his 100th birthday. On his bedside table was a framed and signed photograph of a traditional Dutch windmill draped in the Canadian flag - a gift from the mayor of the district of Voorst presented last spring to some Canadians who were touring battlefields. The visitors were stunned to hear the mayor praise the Highlanders, and "Padre Rapson of Orillia" specifically.

"It was pure serendipity," said Richard Johnston, who was among the tourists. "The mayor didn't know we were from Orillia. When he found out we were, and that we knew Rev. Rapson, we were treated like royalty."

For years, Mr. Rapson had spoken little about his war experiences and probably struggled with it. "I live, like hosts of others, with these memories!" he wrote last autumn. "Has the time come when oldies like me should speak out to say that the price of freedom is high and always will be, but is worth the price?"

He reasoned: "If we go down to the Legion to 'histe' a few, please do not be too hard on us. Just keep in mind that we know some things we do not talk about."


Alexander Rapson was born in Kerwood, Ont., on Nov. 25, 1907, and died in Orillia, Ont., on Nov. 4, 2007, of complications after a stroke. He was 99. He leaves his son, David, daughter Louise, four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. He was predeceased by his wife, Grace, and two sisters, Jean and Philena.

Special to The Globe and Mail