Remembering the laughter amidst memories that are too tragic for tears

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Another letter to Roamer about Belfast-born Royal Navy Petty Officer Victor Wilson, who was mentioned here recently, included the moving words “he only ever recounted the funny episodes of those six years of horror.”

On June 7, 1944, the day after D-Day, Victor was on board the Destroyer HMS Undaunted off the coast of Normandy. His vessel was ordered to take two passengers off the Cruiser HMS Apollo which was grounded helplessly on a sandbank. Much to everyone’s surprise on Undaunted, the marooned passengers were the two highest-ranking commanders of the previous day’s biggest ever seaborne invasion in history - Supreme Commander General ‘Ike’ Eisenhower, future President of the USA, and the Admiral Commanding the Naval Expeditionary Force, Admiral Bertram Ramsay!

Stepping to safety on the Destroyer, Ike presented Victor Wilson with his personal flag, which he’d autographed with an indelible pencil dipped in whiskey.

“I was not aware of the half of this,” admitted today’s letter writer, also a close relative of the Petty Officer.

During the next few months of WWI and WWII anniversaries there will be countless folk here and around the world who’ll be fretting at the lack of information about their loved ones’ wartime experiences - because the indescribable horrors they faced in action were designated to their innermost self.

William Wordsworth described such uncommunicable trauma as “thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.” So Victor Wilson barely mentioned to his family that he’d participated in one of the most important rescue missions of WWII.

“He was lucky never to have been injured,” his relative wrote, “except by the salted ropes when boarding captured U-Boats. But of course the nightmares were horrendous. He died aged 66.”

We’re all aware that this year marks the 100th and 75th anniversaries of the start of the two world wars, and the 70th anniversary of D-Day, but on Tuesday a sombre wreath laying ceremony in Belfast brought back memories of the Belfast blitzes.

There were three attacks on the city, the two most devastating were 73 years ago on April 15 and May 4, 1941.

“It was a lovely evening in April,” Mrs S Howard wrote in her very poignant letter to the address at the bottom of this page. “I had gone to the Astoria Picture House with a boy from the youth group at church.”

His name was Sammy, and the two young cinema-goers were both Air Raid Wardens, based near the Arches on Ravenscroft Avenue.

“I do not remember what the film was,” continued Mrs Howard, now in her 90th year, and resident in Towell House on the King’s Road. “As we came out of the cinema the air raid siren went, so Sammy and I ran down the road to the Arches in record time!”

It’s little wonder that Mrs Howard can’t recall the movie - rarely does the curtain come down on a film accompanied by 200 tonnes of high explosives and 29,000 incendiaries!

“It was a lovely moonlit night but Belfast was taking an awful bashing from the German bombs.”

She particularly remembers that Ballymacarrat and St. Patrick’s Church were in the hub of the horror.

“The bombing went on until six o’clock in the morning, when it eased off,” Mrs Howard recounted, adding that local chemist Mr McDowell, chief air-raid warden in the area “told Sammy to walk me home along the Albertbridge Road to Mount Street, just around the corner from Price’s shop.”

It was every boy and girl’s dream to walk together in the city - then and now - but the Luftwaffe wrenched away their dream and replaced it with a nightmare.

“When we got to Templemore Avenue we realised that the ‘Wee Hospital’ as it was known had been hit by a bomb. I will never forget what I saw that morning,” are her heartrending recollections, “the beds were hanging out of the windows.”

Vividly illustrating Wordsworth’s profound sensitivity - “thoughts that do often lie to deep for tears” - Mrs Howard ended her hugely touching letter “I was too upset to cry. I will always remember that night. Now in my 90th year as I pass along the Albertbridge Road by bus or in a car, I look up to where the ‘Wee Hospital’ was and I can still see the beds hanging out of the windows.”