D-Day veteran Doug Hester looked pretty much the same at age 80 as he had when he was 18. A little less hair and slightly more around the middle, maybe, but apart from that not much different. He could still fit into the uniform he had worn as a member of The Queen’s Own Rifles bugle band in the late 1930’s. In fact, in Port Charlotte, Florida, beginning in the early 1990’s and continuing until Doug’s death in 2005, on the 11th of November every year, he and Herb Goldring, another former Queen’s Own bugler, got into their bandsman’s uniforms, settled their busbies squarely on their heads, tightened the chinstraps, pulled on their black gloves, picked up their recently polished and buffed bugles and marched together to a park near their homes and came to a halt under the waving palms.
At exactly 11 a.m they came to attention and began to play Last Post and Rouse in memory of those members of their regiment who had died in the service of Canada. Doug’s wife, Ruth, said that, “Doug landed on D-Day with The Queen’s Own and he did this in memory of those of his regiment, his comrades, who had died in World War Two. It was something he felt he had to do.” Buglers Hester and Goldring are now dead, their brass and copper bugles now gone silent under the Florida palm fronds. Doug Hester, born in Toronto in 1923, became a bugler in the regiment in 1938 and enlisted in 1940 as a member of The Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada, Canadian Active Service Force (CASF).
Short days later these new recruits boarded a train for Camp Borden, their kit in potato sacks since kit bags were unavailable. Within weeks they were ordered to Botwood, Newfoundland, where they spent six months before it was “back to Canada” and Sussex, New Brunswick, now part of the 8th Canadian Infantry Brigade. They left Canada, many of them never to return, in July, 1941 aboard a ship bound for England. There, they underwent many months of training, during which the bandsmen laid aside their instruments as they learned to become medical attendants, as well as riflemen. On D-Day Rifleman Hester was in B Company, commanded by Major Charles O. (Charlie) Dalton. One of the young officers was Lieutenant H.C.F (Hank) Elliot, who in the post war years would command the 2nd (Regular Force) and 3rd (Militia) Battalions of the regiment. At the landing, Hester made it safely to the seawall, but his friend, Doug Reed, was killed beside him as they ran up the beach, as was his sergeant, Fred Harris.
Harris was the son of a Toronto doctor and had deferred his chance for a commission in order not to miss the landing. Early in the campaign Doug was wounded, was hospitalized in England and after making a recovery was shipped back to the regiment, joining his comrades in France in August in time to be present at the battle for Quesnay Woods. This encounter, historian Colonel C.P. Stacey noted, “produced nothing but casualties.” Wounded again in Belgium, Doug was sent once more to hospital, where he was declared unfit for further battlefield action and in February, 1945, was invalided back to Toronto. In his book, “Canadians,” author Roy J. Whitsed told the story of a German corporal who was the first person Rifleman Hester killed in his attempt to get over the wall. He had lobbed a grenade into a pillbox and three occupants came out, weapons in hand. One, the corporal, had a Luger pistol which he was shooting at Hester, and Doug returned fire with his rifle, killing him. “A Luger is no match for a Lee Enfield,” he would say later.
Whitsed wrote that before making a further attempt to scale the sea wall, “He had taken some items from the dead corporal to send one day to next of kin. Among the soldier’s possessions was a prayer book. Hester still has it. He was stunned to find it. ‘We were the ones who carried bibles and prayer books,’ he said, still troubled. ‘We were the good guys. Weren’t we? They were the bad guys. What’s he doing with a prayer book? What goes on here?'”
Whitsed’s interview with Hester continues: “It was at the turn of the year, 1949 moving into 1950, when I finally got around to writing to that soldier’s family. They wrote back to me on February 24, 1950, clearly older people and probably not too well off. They had a friend translate the German, maybe not too well, but here it is, just the way it came in the mail.”
Dated February 24, 1950, it read:
Dear Mr. Hester: We were deeply moved when, yesterday, your letter box, papers and photos of our unforgettable Ernst arrived here. Take many thousand thanks. How are we able to reward you, that you let us have our boy’s last belongings? By our office of the Werhmacht we formerly learned that our boy was probably killed on June 6, 1944, near Bernieres-sur-Mer. They could not exactly inform us. We, my husband and me, are nowadays old people. We lost five children. Ernst was our last, who takes care of our living. We always hoped that he would saved us and that our Lord let him come home from that terrible war, but we have to leave this hope too. Today we are old and nobody takes care of our living, and the war took all that we possessed in particular my husband was terribly moved losing five children. In this letter you find a photo of my son. Formerly, when we were informed of his death we made celebrate amass for him. Take this as a souvenir of a German comrade, whomyou saw only dead, but whom was, in the deep of his heart, has never been your foe. I should be heartly grateful to you. When you reply write me in complete details. Was he hard wounded? Had he lost his arms or legs or how had he been killed? You can write in English or French as I have found someone to translate the letters. And now, my husband and me thank you heartly once more and beg you to answer us pretty soon and tell us about our son. Take in advance many hearty thanks for your kindness. Sincerely, Frau Johanna.”
Whitsed concluded: “The letter Doug Hester sent back to Frau Johanna is not available, but it is said to have been friendly and forgiving. It closed with “You can be certain your son was brave, killed instantly and suffered no body damage.”
Ruth Hester said that, “Doug did have an awful struggle with his war experiences. Too much for a young boy, really. But he did so well and we had a wonderful life together. We met on Toronto’s Centre Island after the war. I was working at St. Michael’s Hospital and he was with Ontario Hydro. The story is that he borrowed his ex-girlfriend’s canoe to take me out! But then, Doug was always full of surprises. He proved this, yet again when, now in his early 70s, he volunteered to get back into his Queen’s Own Rifles bugle band uniform and march and play with the regimental band and bugles during the regiment’s trip to France in 1994 to mark D-Day+50. He did it again in 1995 when the regiment and band returned to Holland to celebrate VE-Day+50. On both occasions he was in good company. WO Ted O’Halloran, another D-Day veteran and bugler, who had also been wounded in the campaign to liberate North West Europe, marched proudly alongside him.
A professional engineer, who had lived and worked in the United States since 1956, Doug Hester retired from 3M Corporation in 1988 and settled in Florida with Ruth. He died in 2005 but Ruth Hester still lives there, with her fond memories of the man she married not long after he got back from World War Two.