GANDER, NL – The time Eileen Elms spent with Sergeant Gander was a short but memorable winter season.
Before he was given to the Royal Rifles of Canada Regiment, the burly and playful Newfoundland dog was known as Pal.
The dog belonged to Ron Hayden, who lived in the old town site next door to Eileen (Chafe) Elms’ family.
“We played with the dog just about every day in the snow, and that must’ve been the winter of 1941. Newfoundland dogs are gentle, but they are like big bears and he knocked us down in the snow and we weren’t afraid of him at all,” Elms said.
Eileen was six years old then, and she remembers playing with Sergeant Gander with two of her close friends, Ron Hayden’s son Jack, and Mike Ratcliffe, son of Frank Ratcliffe.
Not many photographs were taken during at the site of Gander’s old town because it was a military post and a strategic location during the Second World War.
However, one of Elm’s cherished photos was taken by Ron of Jack, Mike and Eileen on a sled pulled by Sergeant Gander.
“I don’t particularly remember Mr. Hayden taking a picture of us,” Elms said, but “I remember the day the dog jumped on us and scratched my sister Joan’s face, and that’s how come the dog was sent overseas.”
“Us kids, we didn’t want to see him put down, but where he scratched Joan’s face and there was blood everywhere and it looked pretty awful … I remember that day. Mrs. Hayden was upset, and mum was upset so they decided that he was going to be sent away.”
Elms did not hear about the dog after he was sent overseas, but she recalled “hearing some rumours that he had gone to Hong Kong and caught a hand grenade.”
“Mikey and I, we were kids and thought that was pretty wonderful,” Elms said.
Many years passed, and it was by chance that Elms overhead a conversation on the radio that posed the question whether a dog could be awarded a war medal.
That chance encounter on the radio happened 40 years after the incident.
“I was floored – they were looking for a medal for a dog named Gander, and they wanted to give him a medal. So, I wrote to the CBC, and told them I know the dog and I got a picture of that dog on my living room wall,” Elms said.
As a result of that discovery, Elms was contacted by the aviation museum in Ottawa to borrow her picture of Sergeant Gander, in addition to being invited to the presentation of the medal to recognize the dog’s bravery in 2000.
Sergeant Gander was awarded the PDSA Dickin Medal, which is the highest award any animal can receive whilst serving in military conflict, according to the PDSA Dickin Medal website.
“It was quite emotional, and I was very, very proud to be there,” Elms said as she recalled the presentation of the award to Sergeant Gander.