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Engraved on a Nation: War-torn history of '42 Grey Cup players

Shane McNeil, TSN.ca staff

11/9/2012 7:34:56 PM

To celebrate the 100th Grey Cup, TSN presents 'Engraved on a Nation,' a series of documentaries highlighting eight indelible moments in the history of the CFL's ultimate prize. TSN.ca producer Shane McNeil presents a feature story on how each of these stories was brought to the screen.

A mission to reconstruct the history of the most heroic team to ever win the Grey Cup began with just one photograph.

Twenty-six men jubilantly celebrate winning the top prize in Canadian football. Every one of them in uniform: some the battle gear of the Royal Canadian Air Force Hurricanes football club, the others in the formal attire of the Air Force itself.

The photograph was taken in the wake of the Hurricanes' 8-5 victory in the 1942 Grey Cup over the Winnipeg Air Force Bombers, a jubilant end to a Canadian Football League season contested amongst non-civilians.

The Western Interprovincial Football Union and Interprovincial Rugby Football Union had shut down for the year with most of the players having enlisted for World War II, but in the interest of national morale enlisted men competed for the Grey Cup.

Shortly after the photograph was taken, 15 members of the team would be shipped overseas to combat the Nazi terror. Of those 15, seven would not return.

One that remained in Canada, however, was Jake Gaudaur.

From this photograph Gemini Award-winning filmmaker Manfred Becker sought to piece together a history that Gaudaur – who would serve as CFL Commissioner from 1968 to 1984 - would not even speak to his own family about.

The result of that search was "The Photograph" the sixth installment in TSN's Engraved on a Nation documentary series.

"In a way the film became a detective story," Becker said. "We knew all the men had died, so there were no survivors. Those who went overseas and died had no offspring so we spent considerable amounts of time searching for family members."

What Becker found from the descendants of the victorious Hurricanes was a silence similar to that experienced by the Gaudaur family.

"As we went around talking to the offspring of other players and talked about the times they grew up in and there was very little said about the war years," Becker said.

"I found it amazing. Here are the winners, the guys that should be proudest of what happened and there was hardly a word spoken about the war years.

I realized that with these traumatic events it didn't matter what side you ended up on. Once you live through war it changes your psyche."

But war, unlike football, does not often differentiate the lasting mark it leaves on those who endure it, win or lose.

The effect of the lives lost scars those forced to endure it and Gaudaur – who was kept out of the war to remain in Canada training the next wave of army pilots – was all the more exposed to the loss of so many friends and teammates.

"I don't think you ever really get over the death of anybody that you love," Jake's daughter Diane says in the film. "There's always that part of you that aches. I think that's what my father was mourning all those years. He was grieving for his friends."

The bonds forged on the football field gave way to the battlefields of Europe, where the same men would at times entrust their lives to their fellow soldiers.

The bonds would carry over, making the loss of seven teammates all the more heartbreaking for the survivors.

"One thing that my father very strongly believed was that you supported the group," said Laurie Prince, the daughter of Hurricanes punter Charlie Prince. "Being a team member and in the war, that was the epitome of what they were doing, wasn't it? To risk yourself for the bigger group."

Charlie, too, would be assigned duties in Canada during the war, but would also lose his best friend and fellow Hurricane George Oliphant to the overseas fight.

The memories of the War lingered for the survivors, forcing many to silently suppress the memories for the remainders of their lives.

For Gaudaur, the answer lied in devoting his life to football in memory of his teammates and brothers in arms.

"We came to the conclusion that Jake dedicated his life to football because that was a way for him to both forget and also to honour the men who had gone overseas and died," Becker said.

Becker himself has experienced first-hand the need to escape the long shadow of a war that would shape and re-shape the world.

Born in Germany, he would come to Canada in 1983 to finish his journalism and film studies with a year abroad. He would land work in the Canadian film industry where he has thrived ever since.

For Becker, the story of Gaudaur is mirrored in his own back-story.

"Wherever you turn there's a monument, another reminder of what took place there twice during the 20th Century and I wanted to leave that behind," Becker said of his need to move on from the European continent.

"But you can't run away from history. It kind of catches up to you and I think that's true for personal history as well."

For Gaudaur, Becker and all the surviving kin of the 1942 Hurricanes, one photograph opened a door to memories that may not have been shared over a lifetime of trying to cope with the massive losses of the Second World War.

Jackie and Diane Gaudaur were able to discover a lifetime of experiences accrued during the war years that their father could not bring to light.

For Becker, it was an opportunity to hold the history books up to the family albums of the lost Hurricanes and discover that somewhere in between the two reflected one another.

And for the fans of the CFL and all Canadians, the endeavor provided a look at a time when football was more than just a game: A time that should not and can not be forgotten.

The Hurricanes triumph came less than four months after nearly 1,000 lives were lost and more than 2,600 Canadians were wounded or taken prisoner in the raid of Dieppe.

The failure confirmed that the only way to drive the Germans back from completely conquering Europe was through the air, a task that would take the Hurricanes overseas.

"They were boys," Becker said of the Hurricanes. "They were 18, 19, 20-years old and they gave their youth and they gave their lives to an idea which was the freedom which we now enjoy."

But though it was a time of great sacrifice, it was also a time when Canadians desperately needed something to cling to on the home front.

There, too, the Hurricanes would step up.

"It looked so bleak that people needed something to believe in," Becker concludes. "That was found in the Grey Cup and they needed a team to believe in and that was the Hurricanes."