97-year-old former army nurse a living Canadian legend

She has a Legion of Honour medal on her chest from the grateful country of France.


There’s a banner hanging on a light standard on Kingston Rd. with her picture as one of Canada’s Second World War heroes.

When she walks into Pickering’s Royal Canadian Legion, Branch 606, they stand to honour the 97-year-old army nurse who valiantly served in England and France in 1944-45.

Helen Kerr is a living Canadian legend and — reluctant — war hero.

“I appreciate it all but I am nothing special,” she said with a chuckle.

Humble Helen. And she is special.

Many wounded soldiers came home because of the care she and hundreds of other Canadian nurses provided in those dark days in the battle for Europe.

Flashback to June 6, 1944 when she was known as First Lt. Helen Greer from Imperial, Sask. Just 25 at the time, she was on board RMS Lady Nelson hospital ship en route to Europe when the big D-Day news broke.

“It came over the loud speaker that we had landed on the beaches in France,” she said.

The liberation of Europe from Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany had begun.

“Everybody was really happy about it,” she said. “There was cheering.”

But days later, in the 21st Canadian General Hospital in Horley, England, the reality hit home for the nurse everybody called “Red” because of the colour of her hair.

“We didn’t know it but we were going there to take care of the wounded from D-Day,” she said.

In one day at Juno Beach, 340 Canadian troops were killed. Their sacrifice, and that of so many others in many armed conflicts, is remembered on Nov. 11.

Helen remembers them every day.

“I never stop thinking of them,” she told me Thursday. “They are always remembered.”

She also remembers the wounded from that day too — 574 Canadians, to be precise.

Over the next two months, the number of dead and wounded grew.

“Some lost legs, were paralyzed, hurt their backs, had serious head injuries, suffered burns,” Helen said. “When I get asked about what I think of war, I say it is a good thing to try to avoid.”

The scars of war are not just physical.

“I remember one boy who would sit up in his bed and stare out into space,” she said. “He was traumatized. What went on that day and in so many other battles clearly was hard on them.”

The horrors of those images are still with her 72 years later.

“I remember a lot of their faces,” said Helen, who chronicled her story in a book called Tender Years. “You don’t forget something like that.”

And the soldiers she helped get back on their feet didn’t either — as documented in a tiny notebook many signed.

One soldier expressed his thanks in a poem: “A salute to you, gentle lady, and the noble cause you serve, your aid to suffering mankind is a tribute to your nerve. Yours is a noble effort which cannot be forgot. And in future lists of heroines your name should reach the top.

“God Bless you, gentle lady. Will be in many a soldier’s prayer, as they smile in the midst of their suffering, when they sense your presence near.”

It was signed by TE Malcolm.

“He was a sergeant,” said Helen. “Very brave. They all were.”

Some of the notes in her book were harmlessly flirtatious, but there was only one man for Helen — Capt. Alex Kerr, from Glasgow, Scotland.

“He asked me to marry him and he was so darned handsome that I did,” she said, laughing. “But I only would if he would move to Canada — so he was a war groom.”

They were together until his death in 1991, had three children (Robert, Sandra and Sheila) in the GTA, and decades of happiness.

When Helen lays a wreath on this Remembrance Day, he’ll be on her mind — as well as all the Canadian soldiers she saw in pain and suffering.

So many of them wrote to the Kerrs, calling her a hero and expressing how much they appreciated what she did.

“Well, I appreciated what they did,” she said.

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