AMHERST, N.S. - In the 1970s a young woman found a First World War Victory Medal while snorkeling in Hawaii. Now, more than 40 years later, that medal has been repatriated with the family of Pte. Ronald C. McDonald.
“My heart wants to explode, this is just the most fantastic thing,” McDonald’s granddaughter Carol Pereira said while holding the medal. “The only thing we have that physically belonged to my grandfather was his army cap, so to have something like this that he wore, and was awarded for his service, is pretty amazing for us.”
The granddaughters of McDonald flew in from Vancouver Island and visited the North Nova Scotia Highlanders Regimental Museum on Saturday to collect the medal, ending the search for a family member to take possession of the medal.
Pereira said following the war her grandfather left Cape Breton and settled first in Manitoba and then in Alberta, where he met and married his wife, Mary Alice Clough, and raised his children before finally ending up in Port Alberni, B.C., where he died in 1953.
Pereira said she didn’t know her grandfather since she was only three months old when he died, but she would often her family stories about his service in the First World War and his upbringing in Glace Bay.
Pereira had no clue the medal even existed until her sister, Sandra Corbeil, called her a week ago saying she’d been contacted by the regimental museum in Amherst asking if her Pte. McDonald was her grandfather.
“It’s quite the story, the mystery we want to solve now is how the medal actually got to Hawaii in the first place, but it was so long ago and so many things could have happened. I suspect we’ll never figure it out,” she said.
Corbeil admitted to being flabbergasted when John Wales called her from the museum.
“We didn’t even know there was a mystery,” she said. “When John called I couldn't believe it and upon talking to Carol we decided we had to go get it, we just couldn’t let it be mailed. That’s how we got here.”
Wales said when he went to work as a volunteer with the museum the first task given to him by the museum’s curator Ray Coulson was to try to research McDonald and try to find relatives.
“It was the first file I was given,” Wales said. “I used my skills as a former researcher and university librarian and started online and found his death certificate, his wife’s death certificate and a daugther’s death certificate. From there I found a name and literally just cold-called. The first one I called I ended up getting Sandra Corbeil and asked her if her grandfather was Robert McDonald.”
Wales said it’s the best feeling in the world to be able repatriate the medal. Coming from a small museum, he said, it’s nice to be able to get an artifact, learn about its history and then find out a family connection.
“It belongs in the family. We have lots of artifacts here, but one like that is very personal and belongs in the family,” Wales said. “The story is so compelling that this medal was found by a Canadian girl in the waters off Hawaii and has crisscrossed the country several times and is now going back to where it belongs.
The search for McDonald’s descendants started in earnest back in the spring when retired Navy commander Philippe Mendard and his wife, the woman who found the medal, were cleaning up their Ottawa house in preparation for a move. They rediscovered the medal and decided to try and repatriate it with a member of McDonald’s family.
Menard said in an email to Coulson that he’d done some research on the medal. Along its edge, the name of Pte. R.C. McDonald of the 25th Battalion of the Canadian Infrantry is inscribed. After a quick search on Google, it was found that McDonald, who was born in 1894 in Glace Bay, enlisted in November 1914 with his brother and survived the war – having participated in many of Canada’s most significant battles of the war.
The Victory Medal is a United Kingdom, British Empire First World War medal. To qualify for the medal, recipients had to be mobilized for war service in the United Kingdom or the British Empire, in any service, and entered a theatre of war between Aug. 4, 1914 and Nov. 11, 1918.
According to Veterans Affairs Canada there were 351,289 medals awarded to members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force and a total of 5.725 million medals awarded across the British Empire.
The recipient’s name, number and rank were engraved on the first issue of the medals.
The 25th Battalion was the first of three regiments to be formed in Nova Scotia during the First World War. Regimental headquarters were in Halifax with recruitment offices in Amherst, Sydney, New Glasgow, Truro and Yarmouth.
Of the 1,000 Nova Scotians who started with the battalion when it left for Europe in 1915, only 100 were left after the first year of fighting with 900 killed, taken prisoner, missing of injured.
It fought in France and Belgium at major battles including the Somme, Vimy Ridge, Passchendaele, Arras, Ypres and Cambrai.
By the end of the war, 53 per cent of its men had been wounded while 14 per cent died in battle.