Honoring our History

One man’s passion to uncover the past creates a WWII memorial unlike any other


The heart of the Alberni Project is this memorial, a wall of names and information about the HMCS ALBERNI. Here each of the 59 men who died when the HMCS ALBERNI sank on August 21, 1944 are honored, as well as the men who served on the ship. “Here was a tiny warship, a young crew, taking great risks for their country and the freedoms that we all enjoy,” says Lewis Bartholomew. “And many of them lost their lives in the process.” Photo by Seadance Photography

Lewis Bartholomew is an inspired man. For the last 16 years Bartholomew has pursued his passion—an insatiable curiosity to discover and honor the stories surrounding the warship HMCS ALBERNI.

On one of his many trips between Seattle and Canada he stopped to read the inscription below a painting of this warship on the Queen of Alberni. “I had met a Canadian, and was coming up once a month, always seeing that picture, but not really paying much attention to it,” he recalls. When he read the inscription he was filled with such a welling of gratitude for the men who fought for our freedom that he was ignited from within to pursue the histories.

“Here was a tiny warship, a young crew, taking great risks for their country and the freedoms that we all enjoy. And many of them lost their lives in the process,” he says.
Bartholomew went back home to Seattle and immediately began researching. “Yet I could find nothing in those early days of the internet and its primitive search engines,” he says.

“The internet was very young at the time, Google was in its infancy, and all I could find was the size of the ship.” Bartholomew stayed up all night building a website, made the film featured on the opening page, and created The Alberni Project “to make sure that the lives of these brave Canadians would be remembered.”

Bartholomew had been traveling back and forth to Courtenay for a long distance relationship. “I had a really good union job, a really nice SUV, great health and a beautiful condo,” he says. “But I really wanted to move to Canada.

“Suddenly I lost my health, so I lost my job and I had to go onto social security disability. A 6.1 earthquake damaged my condo and I was suddenly homeless.” Then, to top it all off, Bartholomew was coming home from his going away party at work, and a young man talking on his phone while driving hit him twice and smashed his car. “I was sort of left with the decision should I stay or should I go,” he says, laughing. “I took all this as a sign to go!”

Bartholomew immigrated to Canada in 2002. What began as a website quickly evolved into a traveling show for Bartholomew after attending The Battle of The Atlantic Sunday, “an unknown Canadian holiday that honors all of the men and women who served in WWII.” That year, 2003, a memorial was also being held at the event to honor all the men who died on the ALBERNI, and Bartholomew met two of the survivors. When they asked why he was doing this all, he could say was “I just felt compelled.”

They suggested he create a mobile memorial in some form. “I opened the door in my head, so to speak, to develop a mobile exhibit I could take on tour,” he says, noting that in its first days the exhibit was basically a table, a canopy, and an IKEA backdrop that flipped open to show photos.

“As I got more money I would purchase more display units,” says Bartholomew, who funded the entire project out of his disability check. The exhibit can range from a small table with a backdrop to a 40-foot exhibit, including a circular tent and a trailer that converts into a movie theatre depending on the location and duration of the event. This portable exhibit in all its variations is known as The Alberni Project. In 2010 the project was featured as part of the National Remembrance Day ceremony in Ottawa.

The Alberni Project Society encompasses both this traveling display and the HMCS ALBERNI Museum and Memorial, which is the concrete counterpart currently housed at the Comox Mall in Comox.

The museum is filled with memorabilia, flags, recruit posters and letters. Music of the time—1937-era—is played through a model Prescott radio, and a screen shows fish swimming around the shipwrecked ALBERNI , the rights to show the film being donated to the museum by a diver from England. The walls are adorned with histories, stories, and each area of the museum has its own flavor. Currently in the back room is a display called ‘How I Long to See You.’

“The title,” explains Bartholomew, “comes from the very last words spoken in a letter from William Kinnear Leslie to his wife when he’s writing to tell her how excited he is about the birth of their daughter. He died five months later on the front lines.” The display holds a copy of the original letter from Leslie, as well as medals sent to his widow after his death, and black and white photos of him on horseback and in his battalion.

“Leslie came from a farm,” says Lewis. “He was able to calm horses down. All June [Leslie’s daughter] could say was that he and his wife were walking past the horse shoe barn. The story is that some soldiers called out and said, ‘Hey, we’re going to war, want to join us?’ and he said yes…”

Bartholomew continues to relate the story and the details he shares show his dedication to uncovering the stories that have been buried over the years. Taking it one step farther, Bartholomew contacted a former student of his who was being transferred to Belgium. He asked if she would drive down to Vimy Ridge, to visit the grave of William Kinnear Leslie, who rests in Villers Station Cemetery in France. Pictures of the grave site and their visit rotate in a digital photo box on top of the display.

“One hundred years after the man’s death, his sacrifice, and that of other Canadians, is still affecting a whole new generation of people,” says Bartholomew, who feels that the story is a story of valor, courage and a father’s love.

Museum visitors can see a replica of the ALBERNI, the only Canadian warship built on Vancouver Island, in Esquimalt. Photo by Seadance Photography

Museum visitors can see a replica of the ALBERNI, the only Canadian warship built on Vancouver Island, in Esquimalt. Photo by Seadance Photography

The heart of the program is the memorial, a wall of names and information about the HMCS ALBERNI. Here each of the 59 men who died when the HMCS ALBERNI sank on August 21, 1944 are honored, as well as the men who served on the ship, and those who were onboard the German submarine U480, which sank the ALBERNI.

The HMCS ALBERNI was the only Canadian warship built on Vancouver Island, in Esquimalt. “All of her sea trials were up both sides of the Island and throughout the straights of Juan de Fuca,” says Bartholomew. “It was the first Canadian allied ship to be sunk by the very first German submarine to have the rubber coating alberich, which made it invisible to sonar.”

Visitors can learn all these facts and more as they wander through the museum, which has expanded beyond the HMCS ALBERNI to encompass the histories of people, and their stories woven in, through, and because of the war.

“We have reached so many people,” says Bartholomew, noting that people have shared with him stories about how they met their husbands, or what it was like to be a soldier in the war, or a child. “We have reached the minds and hearts of people. A woman came in every day when we were in Port Alberni for four days to tell her experiences of being a young girl in Dresden. It is a place to remember.”

Another interesting feature in the museum is the “him” book—a collection of ratings of different men, compiled by one of the nurses from the Nurse’s Home at Holy Cross Hospital in Calgary. Violet Florence Young has pages of personal notes on men, some with pictures, nicknames, and information on where they met, before she goes on to detail an opinion of what he appears to be. The inscription on the front of the book playfully inscribed is “From this day on / I’ll keep complete / A record of all / The boys I meet, / Because among them / There may be / The one who’ll mean / The world to me.”

Another story that was shared with Bartholomew was the experience a woman had as a young girl, being evacuated from England and shipped to Canada on an empty cargo ship. She was such a small child at the time all she can remember is one night a man came down, and it was so dark because no one could have lights on the boats, but he wrapped the children in warm blankets and, holding hands, led them by his torch up to the deck so that they could see the stars. “He wanted them to see how beautiful the stars were… She says she has never seen the stars that beautiful as she did that night on the deck of the ship heading to safety in Canada.”

“I find it hard to explain,” Bartholomew says. “You get these people who served in the war, talking to you and you watch their face, and there is an amazing change that happens. Their eyes change. Their eyes are no longer old. Nothing physically is changing. I don’t know how to describe it. There is a change that comes into their eyes when they tell these stories because they are reliving it.

“We’re all volunteers, and that’s how we get paid here—in these wonderful stories that this exhibit pulls out of people,” he adds.

“My generation grew up with the heartbeat of WWII. My mother, my father—they were WWII—my grandparents… all the men and women were of WWII. Children of today, most don’t have grandfathers who were [in the war]. The war has been pushed down by more recent history.” Part of Bartholomew’s intention is to keep WWI and WWII available. “If not the heartbeat,” he says, then “the echo of the heartbeat still going.”

Bartholomew speaks of a couple of young children who have come into the museum, specifically a little girl in a princess dress who loves looking at the displays, and another young boy who was so fascinated by what he was learning that Bartholomew ended up giving him a book. When children respond to the museum he knows he has touched a new generation, carrying the past into the future and keeping the memory alive, which enables us to continue honoring the soldiers, the men and women of the war, and people’s lives.
“People have tried to go through [the museum] and it so overwhelms them that they come to the desk. ‘That’s all I can handle for today. I’ll come back next week.’” Bartholomew feels honored that people are so touched by the stories he has compiled and put on display.

He shares the story of a man who came in, time after time, always jovial, until he started to open up. Slowly, one visit at a time, the man went from funny to broken as the tragedy of his experience unfolded. Too young to enter the war, this man had stuffed newspaper into his shoes to appear taller. He was shipped off to Italy, and quickly came face to face with the horrors of the battlefield. For 70 years this man had been holding these secrets in and they were painful, shocking and sad. “But that’s what we’re here for,” Bartholomew says. “For whatever reason, they feel comfortable here. They tell us stories I don’t think their families have heard.”

The museum’s next exhibit is called “One Way Passage” and runs from June 15 to September 15. The ­­­exhibit explores the lives of war brides and will feature 30 hand-selected portraits by renowned Canadian artist Bev Tosh. Tosh will be in attendance at the exhibit’s opening night event on June 13 at Berwick Centre in Comox. “We are extremely honored that Bev Tosh has chosen our museum to host the Canadian portion of this exhibit,” says Bartholomew. “It’s the 70 anniversary of Canadian War Brides.”

A war bride is a woman from WWI or WWII who married someone from a different country and chose to move to his country. The show will feature women who ended up all over the world, as the war brides both came to Canada and left. Whenever possible, Tosh interviewed the featured woman or their family and has written a short story to accompany the painting. Bartholomew has arranged to have each caption translated into French as well. As an extension of the exhibit, Bartholomew is currently working with a sculptor to create a ‘War Brides’ sculpture, which he intends to install in the waterfront Marina Park at Comox Harbour.

Bartholomew was awarded the 2015 Heritage Award by the Town of Comox for his work in preserving Canadian history. He received the Paul Harris Fellowship from the Rotary Club in 2015. He is also the founder of the Comox Valley Museum Association.

Bartholomew loves this work, and he has never minded putting in the finances when needed. Donations have come in over the years and he has been able to find the occasional grant, but the project is always looking for sponsors. He is hoping that the Society can transition into being self-sufficient, mainly due to his health.

“We’re serving a purpose, and it’s a good purpose,” says Bartholomew of the Alberni Project. “It’s an honor to be a place where people feel safe.”

The museum is open Tues.-Sat. 10 am – 4pm, and is located just inside the South entrance of the Comox Mall. For info call 250-339-4322 or visit alberniproject.org