Kootenay soldiers’ families reunite after seven decades
Two Kootenay families linked by a war correspondent’s battlefield dispatch have made contact for the first time in almost 70 years.
Nelson’s Ron Cox, 92, was astonished to receive a letter early last month from the sister of Lt. Denis Huscroft, with whom he served on a dangerous mission during World War II.
Last Remembrance Day, the Star profiled Cox, who stormed the beach at Normandy with the Canadian Scottish Regiment and also figured in a 1945 Star Weekly article by journalist Matthew Halton. It chronicled the attempted capture of a prisoner from behind enemy lines at Little Tobruk, Holland. It was, Halton wrote, “Nothing titanic or historic — just another patrol,” but demonstrated how a few young Canadians did their duty “brilliantly and bravely.”
Huscroft, a young Creston Valley man who’d just received word he had a three-day-old son named George, led the way. During a three-hour reconnaissance, he and Cox saw several machine gun posts surrounded by mortar and decided it was impossible to safely snatch a prisoner.
They reported back, but the officer in charge told them to try again. Huscroft protested: “I don’t know how anybody could get in there, sir. Only one opening through the dyke and in that moonlight we’re a sitting duck.”
But the colonel was adamant, so Huscroft relented. “Okay, sir, I will go again, but the men are done in. If I can have fresh men ...”
The colonel agreed, but asked “Will Cox go with you again?”
“There was a painful silence then as we waited for Cox to speak,” Halton wrote. “At last Cox said ‘I’ll go with you, sir, I’m all right.’ The tension seemed to snap and Huscroft turned to Cox almost eagerly. ‘You mean you will come with me and have another spit at it?’ And slowly, Cox replied, ‘Sure I’ll come again.’ They looked at each other, the lieutenant and the corporal, two brave men, friends. It was like a film.”
Joining them was a “remarkable little sergeant from another regiment,” Cpl. Ian Sutherland of Calgary. Huscroft led the patrol along the dykes to the German strongpoint, and then the three men went in by themselves, a “great feat of nerve and skill.”
Four hours passed. The trio was trying to find a way to attack one of the machine gun posts when they were spotted, and 500 artillery men who’d waited all night to help the patrol unleashed their might.
“Thousands of bullets from everywhere ... turned the silent night into bedlam,” Halton wrote. “Huscroft and Sutherland and Cox had to get out, and they’ll never know how they got out alive.”
“Believe me,” Huscroft said, “I was sure thinking of Little George right then.”
Huscroft’s youngest sister Muriel Lasuta, who lives in Sechelt, saw the Star’s story online and sent a letter to Cox that read in part: “In the past, as I re-read Mr. Halton’s article, I often thought about Denis and wondered about his two companions on that infamous patrol and if they survived the war. Now I know that you did and am so glad. All of you were indeed heroes.”
“It’s quite a letter,” Cox says. “Right out of the blue.”
“A real surprise,” his wife Sheila concurs. “I couldn’t believe it. It’s amazing.”
A SOLDIER’S SOLDIER
Born January 22, 1924, Denis George Morris Huscroft was the second of George and Doris Huscroft’s four children. Raised in Wynndel, he showed great promise from an early age.
“Although only six years separated us, I regarded my only brother with a respect bordering on awe,” says Lasuta, 83. “Through my young eyes he could do everything and do it well. And now as I look back on his life from the vantage point of maturity, I marvel still at his character.”
Denis was smart, athletic, and always busy, she recalls. He was on the national honour society, a crack shot with a rifle, and caught trout for the family’s breakfast on early morning visits to Duck Creek. He built bobsleds, skied the steep hill behind their house, and earned awards in school track meets. He was also an excellent swimmer, fine basketball player, and took up boxing in the army.
When Muriel was seven, Denis made her a doll house for Christmas, complete with hand-crafted furniture and electric lights. He also trapped rabbits and squirrels, tanned the skins, and gave the finished product to elder sister Nesta to trim her doll clothes.
Nesta, 90, of Tigard, Oregon, says she and Denis were very close: “Mama used to tell us that when we were small, everything one did, the other did. It was always us. Not me, not I, us.”
At 16, Denis fibbed about his age and enlisted. He finished his education in the army and quickly rose to captain, making him one of the country’s youngest commissioned officers. However, at his request, his rank reverted to lieutenant, ensuring he’d see action overseas — although it also meant he couldn’t refuse assignments such as Little Tobruk.
Inspired by her brother, Nesta left college and joined the air force. Denis visited when she was stationed in Lethbridge. “We got together as much as we could. He always wrote to me. I kept every letter.” One of those letters described a close call in the Aleutian Islands, where he was nearly blown up by a land mine.
In November 1942, Denis married Grace Anne Barrett, whom he met in Calgary while serving with the Rocky Mountain Rangers. He confessed on their wedding day that he was two years younger than her.
“I remember his buddy writing to my mother and saying Denis was young but his men looked up to him because nobody would have ever thought of his young years,” Muriel says. “He didn’t look it and didn’t act it. He was a soldier’s soldier.”
Denis brought Grace and baby Shirley Anne to stay with his family in Wynndel when he went overseas — she was then pregnant with “Little George” but didn’t know it yet. (From the incident at Little Tobruk, Denis salvaged a nylon parachute that his mother turned into a christening dress for George.)
On April 21, 1945, Denis was with the Canadian Scottish 21st D Company as they pushed their offensive through Wagenborgen, a village in northeastern Holland. But with strong defensive positions and plenty of firepower, the Germans devastated the Can Scots’ lead platoon. When artillery fire struck the barn that was the company’s makeshift headquarters, Denis was among three men killed. He was 21.
The family received a telegram that he was missing in action, and a few days later, confirmation of his death. It cast a pall over them, with only weeks left in the war.
“It just tore the family apart that Denis didn’t come home,” says Nesta. “It was so hard to understand. Everyone was celebrating [the war’s end], but we weren’t.” Denis’s personal effects were sent to their mother, “and when she saw them, it hit her really bad.”
“It killed my father,” Muriel adds. “He couldn’t get over it.” George Huscroft died in 1947, age 53.
The exact circumstances of Denis’s death are a bit hazy. A colleague offered to provide details, but his wife declined. However, Nesta wrote to her brother’s commander: “He told me Denis was shot by a sniper. He ran out to his jeep — I don’t know why.”
Denis died without ever meeting his son. Now 68, George still lives in Creston, where the Huscroft name is prominent, while his sister Shirley, 69, is on Vancouver Island. In late 1946, their mother married James Hulme, a returned soldier, and had two other children. She died four years ago.
THE SEEDS OF GREATNESS
In 1970, Muriel and husband Paul, a veteran himself, visited Denis’s grave at the Canadian military cemetery in Holten. They also went to the farm in Wagenborgen where her brother died, but opted not to view the rebuilt barn.
Muriel took with her a book about the Canadian Scottish, and presented it to the family that owned the farm. They recounted the battle for her.
Other Huscroft family members, including Nesta and both of Denis’s children, have since visited his grave. “It’s a beautiful place,” Nesta says. “I’m glad I saw it because I know it would be where Denis wanted.” Nesta’s son and George’s son were both named after him.
“I still miss him,” she says. “I still get emotional talking about him.” She plans to pass her brother’s letters on to George, though she hasn’t yet brought herself to re-read them.
“His lifetime was short and eventful and I believe he had within him the seeds of greatness,” Muriel says. “For those who knew and loved him he left profound and lasting memories.”
The skirmish at Little Tobruk, celebrated in the Star Weekly article, was the last time Ron Cox saw Denis Huscroft, who soon transferred to another unit. Cox knew of Huscroft’s sad fate and even visited his grave in 2005, but was never in touch with his family. He doesn’t know what became of Sutherland, the third man named in the article.
Cox’s daughter replied to Muriel Lasuta’s letter, while George Huscroft hopes to visit Cox soon — a reunion of sorts for two men who have never met.