Ladysmith’s Empty Chair ceremony honours Lionel Harry Williams

A toast is given to a Saltair airman who died Oct. 2, 1942, while serving in the Second World War.

This year

Lionel Harry Williams of Saltair was a champion boxer who was known as a shy, hard-working person who kept to himself.

Like his father, he served his country overseas, enlisting in the Royal Canadian Air Force and serving as a wireless operator and air gunner during the Second World War. But unlike his father, he did not come home.

Williams, a flight sergeant during the war, was honoured during this year’s Empty Chair ceremony at the For King and Country Veteran’s Dinner Nov. 10 in Ladysmith. He died Oct. 2, 1942, at the age of 24.

During the For King and Country Veteran’s Dinner put on by the Ladysmith Rotary Club and the Ladysmith Legion, a chair is left empty at the head table to honour a Ladysmith-area resident whose name can be found on the Cenotaph.

“The Empty Chair bids us to remember with gratitude those who never returned home, those men and women who gave their lives so that others could enjoy freedom,” explained Ladysmith Mayor Rob Hutchins, who addressed the Empty Chair and led the room in a toast to Williams.

Williams’s parents, John and Ethel Williams, came to Canada from Wales and settled in Medicine Hat. Williams’s father served for three years in the First World War and was wounded on the western front.

Williams was born Dec. 30, 1917. His family moved to Calgary, and when he was in middle school, Williams joined the cadets.

He was a city and district champion boxer in 1934, and he won the provincial amateur boxing championship for his age and weight class.

In the summer of 1935, Williams’s family moved to Valdon Road in Saltair, right above Davis Lagoon.

Williams enrolled in the commercial program at Ladysmith High School Sept. 3, 1935.

“Those who knew you and your family said you worked hard but kept to yourself,” said Hutchins. “You, Lionel, were remembered as the quiet one of the three brothers. Although  popular in school because of your talent in sports, especially boxing and basketball, you tended to keep to yourself a lot, especially when you were at home in Saltair.”

After leaving school in 1936, Williams followed his father into banking, and on July 21, 1941, he enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force while he was in Salmon Arm.

“It was recommended that you train as a pilot; unfortunately, your medical review indicated that the muscular control of your eyes had to be corrected, so you enlisted as a wireless operator and an air gunner but with the understanding that when your eyes were corrected, you would be re-trained as a pilot,” said Hutchins.

On Dec. 3, 1941, Williams arrived at Royal Canadian Air Force 405 Squadron based at Topcliffe, North Yorkshire.

“During your time in Topcliffe, you completed 29 missions flying over enemy territory with your crew of seven,” said Hutchins.

On Oct. 2, 1942, Williams’s aircraft was hit by enemy aircraft fire, and it crashed onto a farm in  southern Holland. The entire crew of seven men was killed. They were buried Oct. 8 at the Noorwijk General Cemetery in Holland.

“Back home, Lionel, your mother and father did not accept that you had been killed in action and wrote many letters to the Casualty Branch in London insisting that you were still alive,” said Hutchins.

Williams’s mother had received a small photograph of a number of Royal Canadian Air Force prisoners of war in Poland, and she was convinced that he was still alive. After a lengthy investigation by the International Red Cross, the young man in the picture was identified as a sergeant from Edmonton.

“Only then did your family give up their desperate search and the hope of your returning home,” said Hutchins.

Hutchins dedicated this year’s Empty Chair speech to David Walbank, who passed away Oct. 17. As a member of  Rotary, Walbank started the For King and Country Veteran’s Dinner and the toast to the Empty Chair.

“David did much for our community, but I believe one of the most important initiatives was his tireless effort to ensure Ladysmith’s recognition of our veterans was truly second to none,” said Hutchins. “David, as he has done in the past, and now with the help of Ed Nicholson, did much of the research and writing of the words that are before me tonight. David delivered his words for this, his last toast to the Empty Chair, by e-mail to me five days before his death. David was a passionate, determined and exemplary organizer and dedicated to making our world that much better, and we will miss him.”

The guest speaker for the evening was Master Cpl. Tim Peebles from the Canadian Forces School of Search and Rescue in Comox. His presentation focused on what it means to be courageous.

Peebles spoke about the importance of celebrating the courage of the men and women who have served Canada and continue to do so and celebrating what he calls Canada’s fighting spirit.

“Over the years, Canada’s military has become known for its fighting spirit — that is not a spirit of conflict, however, but the spirit to overcome adversity and to see things through to the end,” he said. “This fighting spirit is evident in our determination and in our desire to succeed regardless of what obstacles lay before us. Throughout Canada’s history, there have been many stories of courage. These examples, however, are not exclusively in those of us who wear the uniform. Anyone can be courageous. If you do the right thing for the right reasons, despite the negative consequences that you yourself will suffer, you are courageous. If you keep going despite the obstacles you face, you are courageous.”

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