One picture has told thousands of words to millions of people.
Soldiers marching single file down a sloped city street alongside another single file row of anxious women. One soldier is smiling and reaching back towards the outstretched hands of a small boy, dressed in a sweater and tie, whose mother is reaching to restrain him.
Whitey Bernard is talking to audiences throughout B.C. about the moment that made him famous to help promote Gary Doi’s recently released ‘In The Moment.’
The longtime Tofino local is one of 26 contributors to Doi’s book; a collection of inspirational stories gathered from across the globe.
Bernard was five years old when he seized his moment, breaking free from his mother’s grasp and running towards his father on Oct. 1, 1940.
It’s a moment that’s lasted a lifetime after being immortalized by Claude P. Dettloff, a perfectly placed photographer for The Province. Dettloff dubbed the image of Bernard’s father heading off to war: ‘Wait for me Daddy’ and it became one of Canada’s most iconic photographs.
“I don’t remember that actual moment, but I remember the bunch of excitement the next day when the picture was in the paper,” Bernard told the Westerly News.
The photo has been featured on stamps, coins and a monument in New Westminster. Bernard has a copy of it hanging on the wall in his living room. He said to understand the image, viewers must understand that the men marching with his father, away from their families and into WW2, had childhood memories of WW1.
“Those are 800 guys in that picture who volunteered to basically go to Europe and fight. When you know a little bit of the history of World War 1 and what a disaster that was, particularly for Canadians; they got the dirty end of the stick all the way through that one and they did at the beginning of World War 2 as well,” he said.
“Those guys were walking away from their wives and families and doing what turned out to be the right thing, but it was pretty scary and people like my mom, who was born before World War 1…knew that this wasn’t going to a carnival or going on a drunk or just getting out of life and joining the army; it was serious business.”
Both of Bernard’s grandfathers had fought in WW1. One was killed, the other lost an arm.
“My whole family on my dad’s side were in both World Wars and of course, being the boy in the Wait for me Daddy picture, it brings back lots of memories,” he said.
“In the last little while, especially when I’ve been writing these speeches for presentations about the book, I start reliving those war years…For years, I didn’t think it ever had much of an effect on me but, as I get older and reflect, it did. I still get emotional when I’m trying to talk about it.”
He said the image of a young boy racing towards his war-bound father still rings true.
“It is what it is. There’s nothing fake about it. It’s a soldier going to war,” he said.
“It’s the same now. If you go down when a ship sails in Esquimalt, it’s the same thing. Somebody’s going off and you don’t know whether they’re coming back…Especially when you’re young like I was.”
The popularity of Dettloff’s photograph made Bernard an instant celebrity and, he says, its notoriety remains.
“I don’t think it dawned on me that I was a celebrity and I still have trouble with it,” he said. “It’s amazing. Even when I go around to Legions now, people come out of the woodwork and tell me that that’s their uncle behind my dad, or that’s their grandfather in the picture. They really held it close…I didn’t realize people were that emotional about the picture.”
With his father gone, Bernard’s mother sold the family home in Summerland and moved with Bernard to Vancouver, where she had no friends or family.
“She was a very strong minded and determined woman my mother, and she went to work full time…By the time I was going to Lord Tennison school in Grade 2, I was going to school on my own in the morning and coming home to an empty house at night,” he said.
“They always used to say, ‘Your dad’s away in the army, now you’re the man of the house,’ Well, ‘Yeah I’m the man of the house alright. I was still scared of the dark.’”
That early independence grew stronger with time.
“It probably moulded me into the character that I’ve become,” Bernard said. “I’ve maybe been a little bit too independent for my own good sometimes over the years but I’ve remained a pretty independent person and I think that’s, kind of, what I reflect upon with mom and dad and the picture.”
Bernard’s dad was 38 when he returned home and was hardly recognizable to young Whitey as the pair toured around B.C. on victory bond drives fuelled by the nation’s love of the ‘Wait for me Daddy’ photograph. It wasn’t quite a celebration.
“You’ve got to remember my dad went away when I was five,” he said.
“When he came home, I was 10 and, even though we’d corresponded during the war and stuff, he was out of my life. So the next thing you know here we are parading around Vancouver in an army truck going to war plants and selling victory bonds.
“I’m with this man who’s certainly, I know by his medical records, suffering from post traumatic stress as they call it now…There was music with this group that went around to sell the victory bonds and he was just like a cat on hot bricks.”
Bernard goes deep into this chapter of his life in ‘In The Moment,’ which will be available at Tofino Fishing and Trading in time for Remembrance Day. All proceeds will be donated to the Children’s Wish foundation.