Commentary – POW story won’t stay buried

Joe McWilliams
You could say the topic of World War II prisoner of war camps around here has gotten as much coverage as it deserves.

I thought I was pretty much done with it, after a flurry of articles I did over a decade ago, based on research at the time.

But some stories won’t stay buried.

In any case, there’s a lot of what I found out back then that I never got around to writing about. I had the notion then that I’d churn out a series of stories. I had contact with two members of the crew of the U-39 German submarine who had spent part of the war years working at the logging and sawmill camp at Fawcett Lake.

They were in their mid-80s then, and probably are not still living. One provided me with a set of sketches he did from memory of the Fawcett Lake POW experience. A couple of them appeared subsequently in a film on the history of the forest industry in Alberta, produced by King Motion Picture.

That was fun, although the film probably didn’t break any box office records. But what was even more interesting, and a bit on the delicate side, was the hint, from one of these old U-boat guys back in the Old Country, that he might have a son here in Alberta.

This had been his secret, kept from his family all those years. But in his old age, things began to leak out. His daughter, reached by email in England, told me he sometimes dropped his guard in phone conversations, reminiscing about things he had never shared, while relapsing into the regional accent of his childhood.

One thing he let slip was that he’d had a girlfriend at Fawcett Lake. He’d met her while skating on the ice at night. He also remembered snuggling with her under a spruce tree, and hearing a sound like somebody cocking a rifle.

He was pretty shy about it, but it came out that he thought he’d left the girl pregnant; at least that’s what she told him before he was shipped back to Germany after the war. He’d been living 50 years with the possibility in the back of his mind that he had a Canadian child.

I was all gung-ho to find answers for him, but it didn’t work out. What I found out was the boy in question was likely not his.

The girl had told him it was, but members of her family I talked to thought she was leading him on, for reasons they never understood. She was still alive, they said, but mentally unbalanced. I decided not to intrude further, and advised Mr. ____ in Germany that he likely wasn’t the father of a Canadian fellow.

Meanwhile, a story I did on the POW camp back in about 2003 surfaced on the Internet. It was attached to a website on the history of Fawcett Lake and would come up in web searches if the proper terms were entered.

That must have been where Sheila Shwaykoski of New Westminster found it. She must have contacted me (I don’t remember it). Years later, going through her photos, she found a set of pictures of a trip she’d taken to the Fawcett Lake camp in 1945, as a 14-year-old. She mailed them to me and that got this whole thing going again.

Some of those photos, with yet another story, appeared in last week’s Lakeside Leader, and should be available soon on The Leader’s new-look website at

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