One day in late July, Doug Armstrong picked up the phone. An unusual conversation would follow.
Did he have a relative who fought in Holland in the Second World War? Yes.
Was that relative F.W. Armstrong? Yes, Armstrong said, that was his father.
We found something of his. Can you fly to the Netherlands?
The full story of Cpt. Frank W. Armstrong is featured in the concluding episode of War Junk, a four-part television documentary that airs on History channel beginning Sunday, ending on Remembrance Day.
“Junk” isn’t meant with any disrespect. Over the past three years, filmmaker Wayne Abbott and military historian David O’Keefe have visited battlefields throughout Europe and Asia, looking for remnants of global conflict. It’s obvious in some cases, like enormous concrete bunkers or rusty shrapnel bubbling up in French fields. But much is hidden, like an active British grenade found in Hong Kong, or pristine signatures in tunnels deep beneath Vimy Ridge.
O’Keefe and Abbott work back from the identifiable human traces, finding surviving family members, who come to the battlefield to help tell the story. It’s a way beyond grainy stock footage or armchair generals musing about strategy.
“Every show, we try to connect an artifact to a person,” Abbott says. “That’s what really makes the show special.”
This year’s episodes feature a trip to Juno Beach, France, where they’re permitted to conduct an excavation. The fields near Monte Cassino, Italy, where 20,000 people died, are full of unexploded ordinances. And in Groningen, Netherlands, they search for supply caches buried by Canadian soldiers leaving at the end of the war.
“There’s so much left behind that you can’t forget the war,” Abbott says. “A lot of times, people who live there are still very connected to what happened 70 or 100 years ago.”
The link to F. W. Armstrong wasn’t found in any field, but inside a private museum in Groningen, where 209 Canadians died in a four-day battle in April 1945. They convinced Doug Armstrong, a retired Edmonton doctor, to return 70 years later. F. W. Armstrong may have not been among the casualties, his son says, but like many returning soldiers, he still gave up a great deal to be there.
“My father gave up five years of the prime of his life,” says Armstrong. “It was important to acknowledge this sacrifice.”
Born in 1900 to a poor family in southwestern Manitoba, Armstrong became a Christian in his 20s, then went to college to train as a pastor in the newly formed United Church of Canada. He’d enlisted during the First World War, like many teens, though his plans were scuttled when his mother informed the army he was only 16. When global conflict erupted decades later, Armstrong stepped forward again in a different capacity.
The 40-year-old father of three would serve as a Protestant chaplain, joining the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders of Canada as a captain.
Preaching hope over the sounds of shelling isn’t easy. After battles, he’d comb fields to retrieve dog tags and say final prayers for the fallen, once accidentally crossing over enemy lines, possibly spared because of his clerical collar.
Armstrong rarely talked about the war after returning in 1946, when he continued as a pastor and later as a volunteer in southern Manitoba. He held onto one relic, which he later used as his communion set — a military chaplain field kit in a leather attaché case. There were better ways to solve conflict than war, he’d insist, and he remained a committed pacifist.
“He was dedicated, he was a believer in his faith, a hard-working guy, and he was a good man,” his son says. “He instilled that in us and believed in that wholeheartedly.”
In his final two years, he moved to Edmonton to live with his son, who’d become a family doctor and had settled in Edmonton. Frank Armstrong died of cancer in 1986.
Over in Groningen, Doug Armstrong went to the grave of the last Canadian soldier to die there, on April 16, 1945, just three weeks from the German’s unconditional surrender. His father would have likely prayed over that body. Until the recent trip, Doug Armstrong says it hadn’t even occurred to him that his father would have also worn a helmet, the relic revealed during the show. In his father’s memory, he brought a relic of his own.
“We didn’t know he was going to do that,” Abbott says. “We never know what we’re going to find. Sometimes the family surprises us.”