“It hasn’t been a bad life after all,” were the last words of Second World War veteran Herbert “Bert” Merrett shortly before he passed away July 26. He was 94.
With a 1985 recording of Bert singing in the background, his wife Valerie choked back tears last week as she described him serenading her and crowds at the Billy Bishop Legion — a cozy neighbourhood spot in Kitsilano plastered with military memorabilia and pictures — around the piano with his renditions of sing-alongs and love songs while leaning against the post ordained as “Bert’s Post” on his 80th birthday. There he found the camaraderie he loved, said longtime friend Eric Mold.
Born on Nov. 27, 1919 in Bristol, England, Bert grew up during the Depression and left school at 14 to help support his family, followed by six years in the 40 Royal Marine Commando unit in Italy and Yugoslavia during the war. In The
Memory Project, which recorded oral histories of veterans, Bert recalled his toughest battle at Anzio on the western coast of Italy where he was on the front line facing bombardment from the Germans.
“At Anzio, had a lot of trouble there. At Anzio, the Germans were fighting. There were long gullies, irrigation ditch gullies, and we were on one side and we could hear the Germans, they were mortaring us,” said Bert in a 2010 recording. “We had no mortars, we were a pure fighting force, you see, Bren guns and some small side arms. You could hear them dropping the mortar down the barrel and then you could, you had to wait for it to land and we lost a few men like that.”
Discharged in 1946, Bert followed in the footsteps of his uncle who shared stories of prairie life in Canada. “He [Bert] had three sons, and he wanted more of a future for them,” said Valerie. Bert had the equivalent of $24 at the time and travelled westward from New Brunswick.
“Until he got to Vancouver, he hadn’t seen anything that was going to entice him to stay, but he pulled into Vancouver and he just loved it the moment he saw it, he felt ‘this is the place for me,’” added Valerie.
After settling in Vancouver, Bert worked as a truck driver until retirement and never steered far from his military roots. Each November, during some of the toughest weather in Vancouver, the gritty veteran was a familiar figure on Granville Island dressed in his uniform with a tray of poppies to raise money for the Vancouver Poppy Fund. He’d beat his own fundraising record consecutively with a total contribution of over $50,000.
“It’s my aftershave,” he’d say with a laugh when asked why he was so successful. “When I lean in to pin the poppy on the ladies, they’d just swoon and they just keep putting money in the box.”
In 1990, Bert relived some of his memories as a commando while spending three months in Europe visiting Commonwealth graves for the places he was in battle and where he had lost friends.
Those wartime years spent were pivotal in shaping Bert’s tenacious character.
“He had a stamina about him. If something needed to be done, he would just keep at it until it was done,” said Valerie, referring to Bert’s triumphant finish of the Vancouver Sun Run at 91.
He’d plant 50 tomato plants and other produce in the summer and give them away to his neighbours, according to Mold, who said Bert was one of those genuinely nice guys who aren’t around anymore. True to his character, when the West Point Grey adult soccer team needed a manager, it was natural that Bert stepped up to fill the role.
Bert was diagnosed with dementia in 2003 and was admitted to hospital in April. Friends are invited to join a memorial service on Saturday, Aug. 30 from 4 to 7 p.m. at the Billy Bishop Legion at 1407 Laburnum St.