James Henry Duncan Spence
November 11, 1926 – April 23, 2020
It is with profound sadness that the family and extended family of 93-year-old Duncan Spence announces his passing on Thursday April 23rd. In the end, Duncan was surrounded by family and the very caring staff of the Golden Prairie Nursing Home. Duncan was predeceased by his parents, William Spence, Mother Margaret Spence (nee Fox),) two half-sisters, Dorothea and Darlene, son William Spence, son in law Sung Tae Kim, wife Frances (nee Ford) and then later his very good friend Marion Gove (nee Black). He is survived by his sister Jean Dureau, his Uncle Maurice Fox, half-brother Don Spence and his wife Doris, his children Arlee-Jean Lang, Jimmy Spence and Judi Kim as well as five step children, Pat Lammie (Nelson), Janice Pilipow (Ron), Joan Smotra (Dennis), Donald Ford (Charlane), Judy Silzer (Greg), 23 Grand Children, 20 Great Grand Children and numerous loving nieces and nephews. Duncan left home at 16, after having lied about his age and joined the Canadian Armed Forces. He fought through France, Belgium, Holland and Germany in WW2 where he was part of a three-man team on a flame-throwing bren-carrier. After the war, he stayed on to do 6 months of occupation duty and then returned home alone. The engineer of that train, which did not normally stop in Sintaluta, heard they had a service man returning from the war and he stopped specially to let him off. Duncan often said his welcoming home committee at 2:00 am was one dog. After the war, Duncan’s career took him to a gold mine in Yellow Knife, a lead/zinc mine at Riondel BC and then to the suburbs of Chicago, where he worked his way up to Supervising Foreman of a Chemical Plant. In 1984, he retired early and returned to Saskatchewan. Then, while attending a school reunion, he met up with Frances Ford who he had once dated. Must have been some sparks still there, because in 1985 they were married and spent 17 very good years together. The family is oh so grateful to the staff of the Golden Prairie Nursing Home. During these very stressful times we are in, they exemplified a level of compassionate care and conduct that could only be described as heart-warming. Locally, Duncan will fondly be remembered for all of the work he did at the Cemetery. In his retirement he spent countless hours straightening headstones, fundraising for markers for graves without any and for renovating the mini-chapel. Dad will be remembered for his quick wit, his sense of humour, his love of family and any kind of gathering, his strength, his work ethic and oh yes, his stubbornness. He will be deeply missed by all of us. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to the either the Canadian Cancer society, the Indian Head Hospital or the Golden Prairie Nursing Home.
J.H. Duncan Spence
This article was written for the Indian Head Wolseley News in November of 2000. It was printed in the annual Remembrance Day insert and may give you some sense of Duncan and the measure of a man that he was: It was early in January of 1999 when Duncan Spence came to me and said, “Don, you’re on the Internet aren’t you?” I suspiciously said “yes”, knowing full well that Duncan would have a project lined up for me. He did. We sat, as Duncan relayed the story, which went back to his service in WW II Europe with the Royal Regina Rifles. Duncan was part of the crew on a flame throwing bren-carrier. As he described it to me, it was a tracked vehicle (think of a mini tank) but with no top to it. It carried a crew of three. A driver, a bren-gunner and a third man who operated the flame-thrower. Each of the crew were cross-trained in three positions. If one man were wounded or killed, another could jump in and take his place. I think it’s relevant to the story to know that if available, flame-throwers were at the spearhead of most attacks. The infantry preferred to move in after the flame-throwers had opened a path. Now if you were the enemy, you knew what was coming and it wasn’t good. As a result, when a carrier was seen, they would throw every last bit of firepower they had at the vehicle. Bearing in mind that there was no roof for protection on the carrier, the life expectancy of a carrier crew was not exceptionally long. Sergeant David Porter Preston was one of Duncan’s best friends. They both served in the Rifles but David had been there longer and in fact had signed up in 1939.
About a week before the end of the war, the Rifles had just come out of Holland and were in Emden Germany. They were firing on a protected enemy fortification. Duncan’s carrier had just entered the building compound, flamed the building, then spun on its tracks and hi-tailed it out of there. The next carrier in was David’s. They entered, flamed as well, but as they turned to leave, the carrier hit a boulevard and threw a track. When you lose a track on a carrier you’re finished moving. As the carrier took heavy fire, David stayed on his bren gun and gave cover as his two crew and friends ran through the compound, jumped a wall fence and made their escape. Now without cover protection himself, David jumped from the carrier and ran for his life. He made it to the wall, but as he was going over, he took a bullet in the side. The wound was fatal and Duncan was there with his friend when he died. At the time, Duncan felt that when he returned home, he would one-day try to find David’s wife and explain the circumstances of his death. Circumstances which in fact were quite heroic. He had died after saving his friends and comrades.
After the war ended, Duncan stayed for an additional tour of occupation duty and the next year after returning home, finding a career and making a family became the priorities of the day. Finding the Preston family, and then just the right words might have to wait.
This is where I entered. Duncan didn’t have a lot of information to go on, but it was his recollection that David was married and that he possibly had fathered two children. He vaguely recalled something about Maple Creek but didn’t know why. Perhaps he thought, this might have been his hometown. I started out by calling the Maple Creek Legion, to determine if they had any records on David. I spoke with a Mr. Porter, who confirmed that in fact a David Preston was on their Role of Honour, as having been killed in action. In fact, there was a David and a Lee Preston. He was not aware of any family, but something suggested to him that David’s wife might have moved to Medicine Hat. He couldn’t recall if they had any children. He would check around the community though and see if anyone might recall the family. My next move was to call the Regina Armoury to the office of the Royal Regina Rifles. I spoke with a Master Corporal Bouck. All she could do was give me the name of the President of the Regina Rifles who lived in Prince Albert. Later she called back and suggested that we try putting an ad into the Legion Magazine in the “Lost Trails” column. Its where old army friends could try to find and reconnect with each other. It occurred to me to make contact with Veterans Affairs in Regina, but they had no way of finding the names of the family. I did check into the VLA Internet site, but it was of no assistance.
As I searched the Internet, I found an address for the “National Personal Records Center at Public Archives Canada. I sent in a reference inquiry on David and did receive a response, indicating that they had received the request and would respond as soon as possible. They said it could take several months. In continuing my search, I found an office of what was called the “Master Locator” in Ottawa. It sounded good, but their records only went back to 1971. Another dead-end. By now, I’d been on the trail for about 3 months but felt like I was running out of sources to search. It was then that I decided to try an ad in the Maple Creek Newspaper. Perhaps someone other than a Legionnaire would know the family. I called in the following ad: “Seeking any information on Names or Location of family of Sgt. David Preston. Killed, Europe WWII. Call collect to my number”
The young lady at the paper, suggested that I might want to call a Mr. Hockley, another prominent Legion member. She indicated also, there was an elderly Mrs. Preston who lived down the street from her Mother. It occurred to her that she might be a relative. I called Mrs. Preston. She was 86 years of age, but still very articulate and a pleasure to speak with. She indicated that she was not a relative, but that she knew of the family. By her recollection, David’s wife was named Ruth. She thought that Ruth might have moved to Medicine Hat and that perhaps there were two children. She was pretty sure there was a girl named Evelyn. She mentioned a few times that she thought the family had some relationship with the community of Golden Prairie, Sask. She didn’t know why, just that it came to mind. I also phoned Mr. Hockley. He was interested in helping and would see what he could do. Thought it was a good idea that I had advertised in the paper. He said “Everyone reads the classifieds in the local rag.” There was a Legion meeting coming up on the next Monday, and he would raise the subject again. April 26th 1999 was a big day. I received an envelope full of records from the National Archives of Canada. Some of the details they had uncovered on David included:
- Wife’s name was Ruth Favilla Preston. - Parents were John Roy who had passed away in 1943 and Maude who passed in 1938. - David’s service number - Detailed directions to the cemetery where he is buried in Germany. - Daughter was an Evelyn Maude Preston. - Sister was Helen Louise Preston - David had a brother LeRoy killed in action June 11 1944 - There was another Brother Edward Lauren Preston who had died November 9 1924
This was all great information, but it still didn’t give me any clues as to how to find either his wife or daughter. His wife Ruth could well have remarried. His daughter Evelyn would now be in her 60’s and most likely would have married as well. What would their names be now and how would I find them? I didn’t have long to wait for those answers. The ad in the Maple Creek News came out on April 27th. That evening I received a call from a Mrs. L. Muhlbeier. She had just read my notice in the paper and not only had she known Ruth Preston; she was holding a copy of Ruth’s Obituary in her hand. Ruth had passed away in December of 1998. That was less than a year before. When I lamented over having just missed her, she said not to worry, as Ruth had Alzheimer’s disease and hadn’t really been able to converse in the last 5 years. Mrs. Muhlbeier had her obituary in her hand though and she read it to me. Not only did it give her daughter Evelyn’s married name and location, but also the names and addresses of her two daughters and a son. All of them now living in Alberta. I was elated! This was much more than I had hoped for from the ad. All Duncan would have to do, would be to call information for her number and he’d soon be speaking with his old friend’s daughter.
I called Duncan with the good news. I won’t soon forget the emotion in both our voices during that call. I gave him all the information he would need to make the call but as it was already after 9:30 p.m., he felt it might be better to call the next evening. Besides, he needed to prepare himself.
My job was complete and I don’t mind saying I was feeling pretty darn good about myself, when at 10:00 p.m. the phone rang again. The lady on the other end sounded somewhat tentative as she started out by saying, “my name is “Evelyn Jamieson” (nee Preston) from Alberta.” I think my response went something like “Oh my God… Evelyn, how on earth did you find me?” My recollection now, is that she said she had received a call from a cousin in Medicine Hat who had heard from another relative from Golden Prairie Sask., who received the Maple Creek News and had seen my ad.
I explained that Duncan had been a good friend who had been there when her father had died and that he had some important information for her. She was absolutely thrilled to know she might be able to speak to a friend of her father’s. She had only been 3 months old when he had left for the war. As he had died so near the end of the war, the family had not received the telegram until one week after armistice had been declared. It had been devastating news, as they now had lost two boys to the war. As a result, when she was young, they didn’t or wouldn’t talk about her father at length.
She needed a little time to absorb all this and asked that Duncan not call until the next evening. Actually, it was just as well. Couldn’t help but finding myself getting choked up as we spoke and by the quiver in her voice, I sensed she was overwhelmed by all of this as well.
So now I get to call Duncan with that news. Two words… Just Delighted! He could hardly wait to make the call the next night. When he did, he said it was one of those once in a life time kind of conversations. They laughed hard and cried hard. Duncan was able to tell her stories about her Dad that she knew nothing of. Things about home he would have talked about or even jokes he liked to tell. Their barber had been killed and Duncan had been handed the clippers. He had given David his last hair-cut. It was small things like that, which Evelyn could just picture.
Evelyn said how much it meant to her that Duncan had kept this old promise to himself as it filled in so many blanks for her and her family. I didn’t come out of this looking so bad myself.
Later, I was inundated with calls from other people who had heard about my newspaper ad. From cousins of David, to a grade school Teacher who had taught him and boarded at their farm. Another lady called to say that her mother and David had been great childhood chums. A lot of other relatives, who just wanted to phone and say thanks. All were just so happy that Duncan had taken the time to want to reconnect with the Preston family.
In May of 1999 Duncan and Mom were able to meet Evelyn and her son Drew. They recall the meeting as being unforgettable and I’m sure it was. Duncan had prepared quite a package of Regina Rifles memorabilia for Evelyn. I’m sure that if Duncan had any idea I was writing this, he would probably want me to acknowledge the office of the Royal Regina Rifles and particularly Master Corporal Bouck for all of her help with that.
The final page of this story is yet to be written. Many people know that in Saskatchewan, every service man who was killed in WW II has a lake, river or island named after them in the north. In 1995, Duncan and a convoy of close friends and family made their way to Fox Lake. There, a cairn was erected to the memory of his Uncle Harold Fox from Indian Head who had also been killed overseas in the war.
Duncan has done the research and found that Preston Lake, named for David, is situated not far from Pelican Narrows. I wouldn’t put it past him to be planning one more excursion north to pay tribute to his old friend. I’m guessing that there might be a few Prestons or Jamiesons in that entourage as well. Let me just finish by saying that most of us I’m sure, are so very proud of all of our Veterans. For what they sacrificed, and for the freedoms we all enjoy today. I’m not sure if what they went through could be described as having built character. What I do know, is that in terms of this one old friendship, it certainly revealed character. I’m also thinking David would be very pleased with his old buddy Duncan.
B. Donald Ford
In 2006, two of David’s great nephews who had heard this story, wanted to do more. They were Robin Blais of Regina and Arnold Keith of North Battleford. They arranged for a pontoon plane to fly into Preston Lake from Pelican Narrows. Only about a 15-minute flight north.
Then they asked if Duncan and I would consider joining them, and of course we were honored to be asked. The plan was to have a friend of theirs who owns a float plane, fly us in. I should mention it turned out to be a home-made plane built from a kit. Wasn’t fancy, but he was a good pilot and the plane got us there and back.
We landed next to and stayed on an island on Preston Lake. We had taken bags of quick drying cement in with us. Robin, Keith, Duncan and I, poured a base and laid a plaque commemorating David’s service and sacrifice during the war. An interesting note. David and Lee’s Mom lived here in Sask., but she went home to her parents in Manitoba to give birth to Lee. After which, she returned to the farm and Lee spent all his life here in Saskatchewan. I mentioned earlier that Saskatchewan named a lake, river or island for each and every service man from Saskatchewan that was killed in the war. But because Lee had been born in Manitoba, he didn’t qualify to have anything named after him here. At the risk of getting into any protocol trouble, I will only say that we may or may not have placed two plaques at Preston Lake. And the second one may or may not have honored Lee’s service and sacrifice as well.
It was a trip of a lifetime, where Duncan was able to share many stories of Robin and Keith’s Great Uncle David.
In the years to follow, Duncan would fondly talk about that trip many times.
B. Donald Ford
Service to be held at a later date
James Henry Duncan Spence
have a memory or condolence to add?ADD A MEMORY
April 28, 2020
RIP Duncan,I have know Duncan for some time now ,i always told him he is the most hansom man around ,pure stud .I look after the grave yard in Indian Head ,where Duncan did so much work to make the place beautiful ! He will always be remembered ,stop by his grave site enjoy a walk while your there find Duncans den and a bench with his name on it , a street called Fox way . thank you Duncan Spence you are a true Canadian !
April 28, 2020
On behalf of the Royal Regina Rifles Association we would like to pass on our thoughts and prayers to the family for your loss.
Thank you for your Service
“Up the Johns!!”
Royal Regina Rifles Association
April 27, 2020
RIP Duncan, deepest condolences and sympathy to the family!
April 27, 2020
Arlee, I am so sorry to hear of the loss of your beloved Dad! My heart is breaking for you and I reach over the border and wrap my arms around you! I so wish I could be there for you and help you thru this really hard time. Sending love and hugs, always. ~Lynn & men