GLACE BAY, N.S. — In 1943 a little Glace Bay girl made a promise to a soldier, and that promise is as true today as it was 75 years ago.
On Nov. 11, Audrey Greenhalgh, 83, will pay tribute to those who made the ultimate sacrifice during the Second World War, while once again honouring a commitment made to a soldier she didn’t know but will never forget.
“I’ll be remembering Johnny,” Greenhalgh said, her voice shaking with emotion.
“As a little girl, I made a promise and I’ve kept that promise.”
Greenhalgh grew up very poor with six brothers in the French Block area of Glace Bay.
The military had built barracks directly across the street from where she lived. In 1943, when the soldiers moved into their barracks, there was a lot of excitement as they marched down South Street with their military vehicles behind them.
“We couldn’t contain ourselves; it was so exciting to see them all.”
Greenhalgh, eight years old at the time, was exceptionally close to her brother Gerald, a year older, and they’d often go across the street to see the soldiers.
The first person they met was a man referred to by all as “Cookie” — a cook, not unexpectedly.
“He made a molasses pie once but it didn’t work out so he gave it to my brother and I. We sat in the field and ate it and got sick.”
As time went by they got to know some of the soldiers — some from faraway places — who welcomed having the children around.
Greenhalgh and her brother use to go right into the barracks and sing for the soldiers.
“That garnered us a lot of attention — and a lot of dimes and nickels, too!”
Greenhalgh also often sang for “Dr. Brent,” a dentist who had an office in one corner of the barracks.
“One day he called me over and he had a knife and a fork for me and one for him and we ate with the soldiers in the canteen. That was very special.”
Throughout it all, Greenhalgh said, she’d often notice a young solider, always alone behind the barracks, with a “medium build, big eyes and dark hair with a tuft at the forehead, like Li’l Abner.
“He seemed kind of moody so I didn’t approach him, but I’d spy on him.”
One day, she asked Dr. Brent why that soldier was always so sad.
“Dr. Brent said: ‘His name is Johnny, he comes from somewhere out West. He just wants to be alone. Some people are like that.’”
It bothered Greenhalgh that Johnny looked so sad, so one day she took a large slice of her mother’s homemade lemon pie to him.
“He just looked at me and said, ‘No thanks, kid,’ and he walked away.”
Greenhalgh remembers feeling a deep hurt and prayed that night that God would make Johnny happy.
Time went by and one day her mother said: “If you want to say goodbye, you’d better hurry because the soldiers are leaving tomorrow.”
Greenhalgh and her brother ran across the street and said goodbye to “Dr. Brent,” “Cookie” and “Slim,” who played the mouth organ. Starting to walk home, Greenhalgh suddenly heard someone call “Audrey!” and turned around and saw Johnny.
“He walked towards me and then bent down and pinned my name — in gold filigree — on my worn dress.”
“It was so beautiful. He took both my little hands in his and said, ‘Remember me, kid.’”
“I said, ‘I promise, I will remember you.’”
Greenhalgh doesn’t know where he got the pin but remembers a jewelry store on Commercial Street that made pins with people’s names on them.
“No one had ever done anything to make me feel that special.”
Greenhalgh said she knew about the seriousness of the war, something her father would talk to her about while listening to the latest news on his short-wave radio.
“I remember my mother protected that pin, she used to stick it in the wallpaper high up to make sure it didn’t get lost.”
Every Remembrance Day, Greenhalgh has worn the pin and
always wondered if Johnny came back from the war.
“I never saw him again but I always remembered him,” she said. “Wouldn’t it be great if a family member heard the story of him giving a little girl a pin in Glace Bay and contacted me?
“You never know . . .”
Over the years Greenhalgh became known for publishing numerous poems and short stories as well as her memories of Johnny.
On Nov. 11, Greenhalgh will once again wear her pin and remember when, as a little girl, a soldier known only by his first name made her feel so special.
“He trusted me to remember him and so I’ve kept that promise all of these years,” she said.
“I will always remember Johnny.”