Scanlan: Polowin Avenue is a stroll down memory lane for decorated naval man

 

 
 
 
 
Decorated Second World War vet Alex Polowin, 92, recently had a street named after him in Barrhaven for his service to Canada.
 
 

Decorated Second World War vet Alex Polowin, 92, recently had a street named after him in Barrhaven for his service to Canada.

Photograph by: Julie Oliver, Ottawa Citizen

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Alex Polowin received a pleasant surprise when he tried to pay for some body repair work on his car.

First, you should know that Polowin is 92, a navy man who served in the Second World War, having signed up for duty just before his 17th birthday. His father, an immigrant from Lithuania, couldn’t read or write English so didn’t realize the paper he was signing said that Alex was 18, old enough to serve his country. Outfoxed by his own kid.

So here was the ancient mariner at the body shop recently when the guy at the counter asks for his name. Alex Polowin, he says. You’re joking, says the man.

No, of course not, Polowin says.

“I live on that street, Alex Polowin Avenue,” says the body shop man.

What are the odds?

Polowin explained that in late November, the street was named for him in Barrhaven, to recognize his war service and community contributions over the years, speaking at hundreds of schools and seniors homes, sharing tales and playing old tunes on the harmonica, the ones he played on those war ships. Moon River was a favourite. 

He returned to pay for that body work. No chance. For you, sir, it’s free, the man said.

“It was wonderful,” Polowin says, his face alight. “I couldn’t thank him enough. I felt sky-high.”

Living to 92 – Polowin will be 93 on May 15 – is a double-edged sword. Polowin’s health is good and his mind is beyond sharp, his stories engaging, rife with detail, but he can no longer reminisce with those who also remember when.

The news that Polowin was the “last man standing” on two of his three war ships, the HMCS Pictou and the Huron, hit him hard. He felt empty. Abandoned.

“These were people I shared so much with,” Polowin says. “But life has to go on.”

Many teenagers who joined the war effort did so for family reasons. Young Alex, hearing stories from his mother about the mistreatment of Jews in Lithuania, as in other parts of Europe, thought about his uncles in Lithuania.

As a toddler, Alex had developed double pneumonia and it was his two uncles who rushed him to hospital, saving his life. With their image in his mind, Alex went off to war, choosing the navy after speaking to some crew members, sensing a strong camaraderie in the naval corps.

These days when he speaks to school kids, Alex rarely goes into detail about battles fought, or fears faced. His prevailing message – Canada is worth fighting for. Polowin doesn’t glorify war, he often speaks out against war, and says he acted out of duty, as so many did.

His war experience, from the spring of 1942 to September 1945 included missions escorting merchant ships between Scotland and Murmansk, Russia, 21-hours of daily winter darkness when the bitter cold would paint icicles on his face, and an enemy star shell overhead was terrifying because it revealed the Allied ship’s silhouette. His ships engaged with German war ships in the English Channel and he was part of a gun crew during D-Day landings in Normandy. The Allied ships outnumbered and disabled several German ships, keeping them from returning to port.

On the 70th anniversary of D-Day three years ago, Polowin returned to Normandy, where he was treated like royalty and met royalty. In his Ottawa condominium is a picture of him shaking hands with Queen Elizabeth II. On that same trip, he met then-U.S. President Barack Obama, German chancellor Angela Merkel, and the prime ministers of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

“I was chosen to represent all the D-Day veterans at Normandy,” Polowin says, matter-of-factly.

For his efforts, Polowin was one of the first non-French servicemen to receive the French Legion of Honour, to go with his Diamond Jubilee, Ushakov Medal, Atlantic Star and 1939-45 Star among other medals.

When Polowin received notice of the Legion of Honour medal he was skeptical.

“I thought it was a chain letter,” he says.

Once he established the honour was legitimate, he felt unworthy, and thought about declining it. Why me?

He did finally accept, with the understanding he was receiving the honour for all the men he served with overseas.

Three days after the war ended, Polowin’s two uncles came to him in a dream.

“They hugged me and kissed me and told me they were proud of me,” Polowin says. The dream confirmed for him that he’d done his best.

In 70-plus years, Polowin has never had a dream about the war. Not one.

There were days, especially early on, when he’d wondered if he’d done the right thing, enlisting. He was lonely at first, a 17-year-old held to a curfew when the older sailors went out. Navy men under 20 kept their “rum ration,” ten-cent additions to a $1.85 per day pay that added up to a $55 total at one point. This made Polowin the “richest man aboard.”

“It felt like a million dollars,” he says.

Around the time he received the street name honour, someone asked Polowin if it had all been worth it, if he would do it over again? He hesitated, unsure how to answer. Later, his resolve firmed.

“Now I would say, I want it all exactly as it was,” Polowin says. “It topped it off. A life accomplishment.”

Polowin keeps his copy of the blue-and-white metal street sign proudly atop a table in his home.

Following the war, Polowin married and had three sons — Howard, Cary and Sheldon. Howard, a human rights lawyer, died of a heart attack at age 40 while out for a run. Polowin’s post-war marriage didn’t last, but five years after the split, he met and married Kathleen Petrie, twenty years his junior, but a great match.

Sadly, Kathleen died three years ago, after living with Parkinson’s disease.

“We never had an argument,” Polowin says. “Not one.”

Family keeps him company and part-time insurance work has him busy enough. He always was self-employed. At the age of eight he was helping his father by selling fruit door-to-door in Lowertown and the ByWard Market. In high school, he joined boxing and wrestling teams but was told by his dad, “If you’re strong enough to play sports, you’re strong enough to work after school.” And he so he quit those teams and worked delivering prescriptions.

His father first came to Ottawa in 1906, but returned to Lithuania to get married and returned in the late 1920s. The family lived on St. Andrew Street where there was a horse stable in the neighbouring yard.

Today, he lives on Riverside, alone but with the support of the Polowin clan, friends and Naval Association of Canada pals, thanks to the encouragement of board member Tim Addison to join the group. And he has his own street, a handy metaphor for a stroll down Memory Lane.

In the spring, sometime before his 93rd birthday, Polowin plans to knock on every single door on Alex Polowin Avenue – a warm hello, from the man on the street sign. Because who else in the region can do that?

wscanlan@postmedia.com
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Decorated Second World War vet Alex Polowin, 92, recently had a street named after him in Barrhaven for his service to Canada.
 

Decorated Second World War vet Alex Polowin, 92, recently had a street named after him in Barrhaven for his service to Canada.

Photograph by: Julie Oliver, Ottawa Citizen

 
Decorated Second World War vet Alex Polowin, 92, recently had a street named after him in Barrhaven for his service to Canada.
Mr. Polowin at the building site where the street was named after him. Courtesy of Alex Polowin. 
Alex Polowin meeting Queen Elizabeth II.
Photo of Polowin at the 70th Anniversary of D-Day and the Battle of Normandy in France, June, 2014.
 
 
 
 
 
 
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