OSDSS student Caleb Keeling, right, speaks about his research during the opening of the Conduct Unbecoming: Murder and Mayhem exhibit at the Billy Bishop Museum on Friday. Keeling and two other OSDSS students, Adrian Wagenaar, left, and Sydney Thornton, not pictured, curated the exhibit, which focuses on the killing of three Canadian prisoners of war in the days after D-Day 75 years ago.
(Photo by Patrick Spencer/The Sun Times)
“He was only 19 when he enlisted,” Caleb Keeling, 17, explained to the local historians, politicians and teachers who stood silently around him.The OSDSS student has been researching the life of Francis David Harrison, a soldier and one-time Owen Sound factory worker who fought in occupied France against Nazi Germany 75 years ago.Keeling’s work, underway since February, is now part of a student-curated exhibit that opened at the Billy Bishop Museum Friday.“He passed his physical exams, but another test determined he didn’t have the intelligence to complete basic training.”Keeling paused. The wooden floorboards of the narrow 135-year-old house creaked.“They sent him anyway.”Harrison would land on a Juno Beach on June 6, 1944 — D-Day. Two days later, he was taken prisoner and executed by German soldiers.Harrison’s tragic fate, and those of two other Canadian soldiers with links to Owen Sound, inspired the exhibit Conduct Unbecoming: Murder and Mayhem“They were all murdered prisoners of war,” Keeling said in an interview. “But they all have their own story. So it was interesting to go through and find out a little bit about all of them.”Two other OSDSS students, Adrian Wagenaar and Sydney Thornton, also curated the exhibit.“The museum had talked for some time of doing an exhibit involving students and letting them take ownership,” said OSDSS history teacher Ryan McManaman.A few months ago, to try and spark interest in the project, curator Emily Jolliffe visited McManaman’s history class, and was host to students at the Billy Bishop Museum.“I wanted my role to be a conduit,” said Jolliffe, adding that she was happy to offer the museum’s resources and guidance to the students.McManaman assigned each student a soldier to research. The three students then thumbed through military records from Library and Archives Canada, contacted regimental museums, and reached out to relatives of the soldiers living in Owen Sound to create a vivid picture of each man.Wagenaar researched Walter Leslie Brown, one of the first chaplains to land on Juno beach. When Brown and two other soldiers went to visit a wounded officer on the night of the invasion, they took a wrong turn and came face-to-face with a German patrol.“What’s supposed to happen is you to take them to the closest prisoner of war camp,” said Wagenaar, an air cadet with a keen interest in military history. His research shows that Brown was found a month later in a ditch, stabbed to death. He was armed only with his communion kit.The gravity and moral complexity of what happened to Brown is not lost on the Grade 12 student.“How do you decide what to do and what not to do in a situation of life or death?”Thornton, who could not attend the exhibit’s opening, studied the life of Ernest Nelson Gilbank, a rifleman from Owen Sound. “He was sent as a reinforcement given the high number of casualties that were experienced on D-Day,” reads a plaque at the exhibit.Gilbank was captured and killed on June 9, 1944.The result of their research, said McManaman, is a “local story of tragedy and atrocity. One we thought should be shared.”On Friday, the three student-curators, McManaman and about 30 other students from OSDSS and Meaford Community School will go on a nine-day to Europe to commemorate the sacrifice of these and other Canadian soldiers. It will take them through England and France, ending in Normandy, where they will be present for the Canadian government’s official ceremony for the 75th anniversary of D-Day and the Battle of Normandy.Keeling, Wagenaar and six other local students will be some of the 359 students marching in the event — one for each Canadian killed on D-Day.“We will be making an effort to go to each of these gentleman’s graves when we are over there as well,” said McManaman.The three men are buried in war cemeteries in Normandy. Brown and Harrison rest in Bèny-Sur-Mer, and Gilbank in Bretteville-Sur-Laize.Wagenaar said they plan to hold a small ceremony at their graves.Conduct Unbecoming will be on display until May, 2020. The artifacts in the exhibit include a collection of cap badges from Canadian regiments present on D-Day, and a German soldier’s kit on loan from Steve Lehman.Lehman, who attended the opening, said he was pleased to see what the students had created. Retired after 33 years in the military, he described himself as an “avid historian” and said he sees value in what the OSDSS students are doing.Gloria Habart, chair of the board of directors of the Billy Bishop Museum, had similar thoughts after seeing how students have contributed to other exhibits throughout the museum.“The research to start something is tough, and they went to original sources, which is wonderful.”