When B.C. filmmaker Eric Brunt’s grandfather passed away a few years ago at age 95, his stories of the Second World War went with him.
Clifford Brunt had never been one to speak about the four years he spent in the Air Force, and his grandson had never been one to pry. It wasn’t until Eric Brunt took a photo of his grandfather for a photography course at the University of British Columbia, and Brunt’s classmates and professor asked him for details, that Brunt realized his opportunity for learning about his grandfather’s life was closing.
A few months later Clifford died, his stories left unshared.
The loss spurred Brunt into action. Surely there were other Second World War veterans in Canada whose stories were at risk of being lost, Brunt remembers thinking.
In early 2018, he took off on a cross-Canada tour in a van-turned-mobile film studio, with the sole goal of preserving as many of those stories as possible. Since then, he’s spoken with 433 veterans and partnered with Melki Films production house to preserve each one-on-one interview at the Canadian War Museum.
With the average Second World War veteran now 97 years old, and fewer than 20,000 of the 1.1 million Canadians who served estimated to still be alive, the time for Brunt’s project is running out. Already, he says, more than half of the people he has interviewed have died.
This fall, he’s headed off on one final trip across the country to capture whatever remaining stories he can.
“That’s really what this whole project is: the last possible second,” Brunt says.
He’s especially concerned about preserving the stories of veterans who have never had their experiences captured before, primarily women and people of colour.
“Finding out that women served in the war was sadly a surprise for me, because we never learned about that in school,” Brunt says.
Now, two of the interviews that stand out the strongest in his mind are of female veterans.
Brunt says he recently spoke with 99-year-old Francise Edwards in Victoria, who worked as a decoder in Ottawa during the war. She and other women would use complex mathematical systems to interpret intercepted messages and relay them to those on the front lines.
Edwards told Brunt that one week before Germany surrendered, she was the decoder who received the message explaining what was about to happen. Of course, the information was top secret.
“So she just had to act like everything was normal and not tell anyone that the war was going to be over in a week,” Brunt says.
Another B.C. woman Brunt spoke with, Jaye Edwards, passed away last month at age 103. She was a pilot during the Second World War and would transport planes from factories to squadrons.
While male pilots would generally stick to flying one type of plane, Jaye had to know how to fly all kinds of different ones.
One time, Jaye told Brunt, she took a hard landing while flying a Spitfire and knocked out her two front teeth.
Brunt says each of his interviews varies wildly and each veteran is full of stories of both trauma and loss, and excitement, camaraderie and laughter. Among all of them, though, Brunt says there is a shared agreement that there are no winners in war.
“Every single veteran will tell you three words: war is hell. They’ll always say that,” Brunt says.
Beyond preserving history, the goal of Brunt’s film project is to ensure we learn from it.
“If we don’t realize how terrible war is, maybe we’re doomed to repeat it,” he says.
He’s giving himself until the end of the year to connect with any remaining veterans who want to share their stories. The Eric Brunt Collection will be released in 2024 when the Canadian War Museum launches its digital archives.
Anyone hoping to share their story can reach Brunt at firstname.lastname@example.org.