Whitey Bernard became famous in October, 1940, as he chased his war-bound father down a New Westminster Street.
He had celebrated his fifth birthday a month prior and would see his dad just once over the next five years.
“I don’t think you can understand an incident like that unless you’re connected with the military,” he said. “When the guys pull out of Victoria on a ship and they go to the Middle East for six months or a year, then those families get a touch of what it was like and understand a bit.”
Claude Dettloff, a photographer for the Province newspaper, captured a photograph of Bernard racing along the line of soldiers, who were heading off to fight in the Second World War, to reach his father. The instantly iconic image was named ‘Wait for me Daddy’ and has since been reproduced in stamps, a commemorative toonie and a statue in New Westminster, which Bernard visited with his wife Ruby last month.
“Driving past the park at the top of the hill where they all assembled before they marched down. You, kind of, remember back,” the longtime Tofino resident told the Westerly News. “It brings back memories of that day…In fact, a lot of the kids from that street came out to New Westminster for the unveiling of the statue [in 2014].”
He said the trip became an opportunity to tour through the streets he spent much of his childhood growing up around as his mother had sold the family home in Summerland and moved to Vancouver after his father went to war.
“She wasn’t going to sit around. It was a small town with an agricultural economy. She wanted to go where there was work and get on with her life and so she did. She was struggling to make ends meet and work full time. To her credit she kept me with her,” he said. “She was a single mom and, in those days, that wasn’t an acceptable thing. People didn’t treat servicemen’s wives very well because, obviously, they had no male support…They weren’t the type of renter people wanted, so it was pretty tough to find a place for a woman and a child in those days. We lived in some fairly bizarre circumstances by today’s standards. I didn’t think there was anything wrong with it because I didn’t know any better.”
He remembers keeping in touch with his dad through letters.
“I remember my mom nagging me, ‘You’ve gotta write to your dad.’ I was between five and ten [years old] so my abilities to correspond were reasonably limited,” he said adding he has all the letters he and his father exchanged during their five years apart.
“They were typical. One of the letters said, ‘Happy Birthday. I know it’s your birthday but there is no stores around here because there isn’t anything left standing.’ I think that came from probably Belgium or northern France or wherever they were at the time.”
He said his parents did not exchange letters, but he remembers his mother diligently reading the newspaper where lists of soldiers who had died or been wounded were published.
“My mom would go through the list and I’d pick up on it when she’d start crying or something like that, she’d seen somebody she knew,” he said. “There was always somebody that she knew of that she’d see in the paper…It was part of the life. As a kid you just accepted it. You couldn’t compare it to anything because you didn’t know anything different.”
Dettloff’s ‘Wait for me Daddy’ photo shot Bernard into stardom and he was paraded through Victory Drives from the ages of 5-10 though, he said, he never felt like much of a celebrity.
“When I went on the Victory Bond drives, that was kind of something special. But, they were playing on people’s emotion, dragging this little kid out to make a speech and unveil a picture,” he said.
When his father returned from the war in 1945, he was not the same man.
“The old man was extremely sensitive to noise, sounds, flashpoint temper, stuff like that and I do believe he did suffer a fair bit from post traumatic stress,” he said. “They called it ‘battle fatigue.’”
He said the photograph was displayed in schools throughout his childhood, but he never made a big deal about being the subject of it to his friends and, eventually, its popularity waned, before coming back in the 1980’s.
“It is what it is. I never tried to run away and hide from it, but it ran away and it came back. I’m 83-plus now. It’s probably going to be with me until I drop dead,” he said.
READ MORE: ‘Wait for Me Daddy’ in Whitey’s words