Like most war veterans, Alfie Viger didn’t talk much about his war experience.
According to his daughter, Cheryl Hasson, he was always reluctant to describe what the Second World War was like for him, even when his children tried to get answers out of him.
“Over the years, we all tried to pry stuff out of him, but Dad was very much focused on the good things, not the bad, and he didn’t want to say the bad stories,” Hasson said in an interview from her Fredericton home. “He would tell us the pranks they pulled, where they stayed, the fun parts of it.”
So it came as a complete surprise to the family, a decade after his death, to learn that Alfie Viger is portrayed in a wartime painting by one of this country’s most famous artists, and that the painting resides in one of our most prestigious museums.
Viger was born in 1921 and was raised on a dairy farm in the Coles Island area, about 90 kilometres east of Fredericton.
He enlisted in January 1944, joining the North Shore Regiment.
After training as a signalman in England, he joined the regiment in France in August 1944 and was involved in heavy fighting in France, Belgium and the Netherlands.
That included the month-long Battle of the Scheldt, an effort to clear the way to the important Belgian port of Antwerp, through a network of canals, dikes and strongpoints.
The 3rd Canadian Division, which included the North Shore Regiment, earned the nickname “The Water Rats” during the fighting, dealing with muddy and often flooded terrain.
Through it all, Viger kept up a string of letters home to assure his family he was OK, letters that were only recently discovered.
The Coles Island homestead remained in the family and is now a summer home.
While staying there, one of Hasson’s cousins came across a stack of 66 letters home from her father.
Most of them contained references to where he was and some insights into day-to-day life, even mentioning the quality of the dairy cattle he was seeing on his travels.
But his habit of not talking about bad experiences with his children clearly began here with his mother.
“The same thing with the letters to his mom, other than saying, ‘I had a couple of close scrapes, but I’m fine, Mum.’ He wasn’t one to focus on the negative,” said Hasson.
Then came a surprise, in a letter dated Jan. 7, 1945.
“Well Mother, I had my picture drawn today. Some portrait. There was a war artist here drawing pictures of the front line and he drew a sketch of the inside of our dugout. So he drew a picture of me setting operating the exchange. So if ever you take a trip to Ottawa, you can take a look at me. It looks pretty good for what he had to work on.”
The comment immediately caught the attention of the family. Was there a wartime portrait of their father?
Hasson said a cousin who lives in Ottawa began the search for this painting. And he found it in the collection of the Canadian War Museum.
Titled Dugout Near Nijmegen, it portrays a soldier sitting at a table in a roofed dugout, an oil lamp and telephone exchange on the table, the handset pressed to his ear. Behind him sits a second soldier, a cigarette in one hand, reading off a piece of paper held in the other.
It’s a work by Alex Colville, who was made an official war artist with the Canadian Army in spring of 1944, and was attached to the 3rd Canadian Division when it was stationed at Nijmegen.
Colville, who lived most of his life in the Maritimes, including nearly two decades teaching at Mount Allison University, went on to a successful art career, and his works hang in major galleries and museums around the world.
Hasson said the man at the table in the portrait is clearly her father.
“That looks like my father, yes, and we have a couple of other pictures taken in his uniform, and it’s the same thing — He’s got the hat shoved back — because we looked at it going, ‘His hair’s never been that puffy in his life. So what is that?’
“But he’s got the tam — a hat that they wore — shoved back on the back of his head, and it looks like a big blob of hair up there.”
For Hasson, the discovery is bittersweet.
“It’s very neat to see the painting and to be able to kind of understand a little more of what Dad did,” she said, “But it’s actually sad that it took us this long because it’s raised so many questions that it would have been nice to sit down and ask him now.”
Hasson’s cousin passed along what the family discovered to staff at the museum where the painting is kept.
“He went to the War Museum. They were quite happy to see the letter and have some provenance to go with it,” Hasson said, “because there was nothing there to tell them who was in the painting.”
The Canadian War Museum declined an interview, but in an email museum spokesperson Avra Gibbs-Lamey confirmed the museum had received the information.
“We don’t have a copy of the letter at this time, and are therefore unable to speak to it or make any direct connections between the letter and the sketch,” Gibbs-Lamey wrote.
“That said, part of the War Museum’s mandate is to help foster an understanding of our shared military history through personal, national and international connections, so anytime a personal connection can be made with an object or artwork in our collection, it helps us strengthen the stories we can tell.”
Now the family would love to know the identity of the other man in the painting.
“We do know the names of the other two signalmen that were in his company, so we’re trying to find a picture of one of them, Hasson said.
“One of them, he remained friends with the rest of his life. He’s from New Brunswick as well. But anyway, we’re just not sure what he looked like when he was younger.”
The family is seeking photographs of the men from Company B of the North Shore Regiment in hopes they can identify the other man.