A veteran's son: Ray Willett with a picture of his late father Vergil

Lake Country veteran Vergil Willett Fondly Remembered

With the passing of his father, Ray Willett recalls the stories of his father as Remembrance Day casts a special light on veterans

Ray Willett has a lot of memories of his father.

And he’s not the only one in Lake Country who fondly remembers the genuine antics of Vergil Willett, a Second World War veteran and one of the founding members of the Oceola Fish and Game Club, who passed away last month at the age of 95.

Vergil Willett was an anti-aircraft gunner in the Second World War. Blessed with the keen eyesight of a sniper and a knack for being in the right place at the right time, Willett served from Oct. 30 of 1941 to June 4, 1946 when he was honourably discharged as a corporal with several medals to his name.

But the one medal that might tell more of Vergil’s story than the Defence, Volunteer Service and War Medal that were bestowed upon him, was a medal given to him by the rest of the veterans in Lake Country, years after he returned from service.

During what became an annual poker game held by the veterans in the area, Willett’s buddies presented their generous friend with a medal they had made for him. Emblazoned on the makeshift medal was an inscription, honouring Willett for “evading commanding officers and doing damn well whatever he pleased.”

And that was who Vergil Willett was. He would give you the shirt off his back, could take down four deer before his hunting buddies could even get a shot off and he always had a smile that hinted of his playful nature.

“He always had the ability, when he was in a bad situation, to keep a smile on his face,” said Ray Willett of his father.

“Everyone thought what a great fisherman he was, but he was a better hunter. He had amazing eyesight. He was a really good shot and thought maybe he would be a sniper. But on the boat over there (to the war) he found out what the Germans did to snipers if they caught them alive. So when he got there and was training he purposely missed his shots.”

So a sniper he was not to be and Willett was eventually stationed as an anti-aircraft gunner in England.

In a letter home to his Aunt Anna dated July 9, 1944, Vergil described what he had seen and where he was.

“There is quite a difference here when you go out you never see hardly any young fellows around, they seem to all be in the army….You should see all of the beer joints here, there seems to be one on every corner. I don’t think much of their beer though…They say that the war won’t last much longer now. It sure has been hard on some of the boys that have been over here nearly five years now,” he wrote.

During his time in England, Willett came close to death several times but always seemed to be in the right place at the right time. When he learned that you could make more money as a sergeant, he enrolled to take training and left his anti-aircraft battery to take a course. While he was gone the battery was bombed to the ground.

“Dad lost all of his friends that time and he did have regret that he was in school when all of his friends died,” said Ray. “It stuck with him a long time but he learned to live with it. He didn’t like to talk about it. The only time I heard him talk about it was when his friends would come over and have some drinks for the yearly poker game.”

After being discharged at the end of the war, Vergil returned to the Okanagan. On the boat ride home, he won enough money in poker to purchase a new car.

At an area dance he met his wife Betty and they were married within a year, settling in Winfield to raise a family. He was the first hire at the BC Tree Fruits processors and was a hard worker who rarely missed a day. He purchased the land that the Oceola Fish and Game Club now operates on. He was a hunter who could out-shoot any of his cohorts and he loved to fish, heading out on Wood Lake for the last time this summer.

“He liked to socialize with everyone. He knew everyone in town,” said Ray, who this year will face Remembrance Day for the first time without his father. It will hold special meaning as he remembers his Dad and the sacrifices he made with pride.

“I’m proud that he was willing to die for what he believed in,” Ray said. “There were people that got drafted but he volunteered and he was always proud of that.”

The Remembrance Day celebration in Lake Country will be held on Wednesday, Nov. 11, at the Creekside Theatre. People should be seated by 10:30 a.m. for a moment of silence and ceremony at 11 a.m. followed by procession to Cenotaph in Memorial Park. American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter will be provided. The event is hosted by the Royal Canadian Legion Oyama Branch #189; and following the formal proceedings there will be a public open house at the Oyama Legion located at 15712 Oyama Road.