Rediscovering the Beach boys
J.T. McVeigh Photo - Joanne Decarie holds an original copy of a photo which ran in the Examiner last week of two servicemen, her uncle Mike, left, and her father, Laurence Beach, reading a copy of the Barrie Examiner while stationed in England in 1943 during the Second World War. Her father was killed while serving with the Royal Canadian Air Force, while her uncle became a prisoner of war in a separate incident.
Our readers didn't let us down. Last week we printed a mysterious photograph on our Forum page sent to us from the Royal Canadian Legion Branch 353 in Eganville, some 100 kilometres west of Ottawa.
A representative wanted to know more about the photo, which was taken in 1943 and showed two grinning soldiers reading a copy of the Barrie Examiner.
We asked readers to help us discover who they were.
The phones started ringing before 9 a.m. the next day, and during the next few days we were able to piece together the history of the two Barrie boys.
Verna Robinson was the first to call, announcing that she recognized Mahlon (Mike) Beach as the best man at her wedding.
Robinson, of the former Robinson's Hardware on Dunlop Street, is 92 years old. She and her husband, Alvin, were married on March 19, 1942 and Beach attended the wedding before enlisting.
"My husband and Mike were really good friends," said Verna, who will be celebrating her 70th wedding anniversary next week.
"They had a big family. Their parents were fairly religious and that's why they named him Mahlon; it's in the Bible.
"We all just called him Mike."
After a call from Joanne Decarie, it was then we discovered the larger man on the left was Laurence (often spelled incorrectly with a 'w'), Mike's older brother and Decarie's father.
Laurence was born in Iroquois in 1911 and Mike was born in 1917.
Their father, also Mahlon, owned a large flour mill in Iroquois, but the province was developing the St. Laurence River, so he packed up his large family and moved to Barrie, where he opened Beach Flour Mill on Dunlop Street in 1939.
They lived at 48 High St., where Paul Daffern's Law firm is located now, said Decarie.
"I never met him," she said from her condo in south Barrie. "I've heard from my (older) sisters he could be strict, but he died overseas shortly after I was born."
Laurence and Mike joined the war and arrived in Liverpool, England, July 1, 1943. The photo of the two brothers was taken in the British barracks in August of that year by a CFB Borden public relations photographer by the name of Corp. R.J. "Buddy" Glunz. He brought the photo of the Beach boys back to Barrie and it ran in the newspaper a few weeks later.
From Eastview Secondary School teacher Clint Lovell's The Boys of Barrie book, we found that Leading Aircraftman Laurence Beach was a motor transport technician during the Second World War.
He was one of 23 Commonwealth soldiers aboard a transport that was shot down over Germany on its way to an island in the Mediterranean.
A letter received by Decarie's mother in October 1944 reads, "He was a passenger on an aircraft that left its base in England at 2:30 a.m. September 24th, and was due to report at Elmas, Island of Sardinia, and no word of the aircraft, its crew, or passengers has been heard since its departure from England. ...the term "missing" is used only to indicate that his whereabouts is not immediately known and you are to be assured that all possible search has been undertaken."
It was later determined that Laurence's plane crashed four miles south of Neu Leiningen, two miles south-west of Grunstadt, Germany. The 20 passengers and three crew were buried in a common grave in the local cemetery within three days of the crash, but Laurence was later moved to a grave site in France. The second letter indicates "the weather at the time was very bad: dark, low clouds, heavy rain with thunder and lightning, which may have accounted for the aircraft being off its route."
His brother, now WO2 (Warrant Officer Second Class) Mike didn't find out about the death of Laurence for a few months, as he was held captive in a concentration camp near East Prussia.
The younger Beach had been a navigator in a Halifax Bomber on their tenth mission to the Ruhr Valley when their aircraft iced up and they had to bail out over Germany.
Two crew members didn't survive the jump of more than 30,000 feet, but Beach and four others did. Terrified of heights, he later told a newspaper reporter in St. Mary's, Ontario that he blacked-out on the way down and woke up the next day in a small German village.
Beach was picked up by a German soldier, who treated him humanely he said, and spent the next nine months as a prisoner of war in a camp near Hamburg.
He returned to Barrie as a flying officer, but now his daughter Lillian Beach-White, who also called last week, picks up the story.
"He was the most remarkable man I've ever known," said Beach White of her father, "He loved me unconditionally, and I was very, very spoiled."
Another phone call to the Examiner by Nancy Hickling, daughter of Alan Beach - Mike and Laurence's brother - offered details about the end of the Beach Flour Mill in Barrie.
Shortly after Beach returned home, his family's flour business on Dunlop Street burned to the ground, said Hickling. A spark tapped by a pipe smoker caught the dust in the mill on fire, and on March 6, 1952 flames from the old mill could be seen miles away, she said.
"We could see the flames from the house (on High Street)," said Hickling. "The sky was red."
Beach-White finishes off the story of the Beach boys by adding her father was a Toronto school board trustee for many years, in addition to an editor for the Fraternal Order of the Freemason's magazine.
She remembers him as a strong and brave man, but until his death in Feb. 2007, he was still very afraid of heights.
"We took him up to the CN Tower, he actually clung to the wall," said Beach-White. "I think we were the only family that ever changed their storm windows in the dark at night. He couldn't bear to look down from the ladder to the ground."