Katie Berger was in an antique shop in Monroe, Wash., a small city 35 kilometres northeast of Seattle, when her interest in history was set off by a pile of photos and cards.
Looking through it, something caught her eye — a postcard, handwritten with an address she could make out. It was dated 1918.
Intrigued by the subject matter — a soldier’s letter home to his mother — Berger paid a dollar for the postcard and took it home to investigate further.
With a simple search for the soldier’s name online, Berger found what she was looking for in a Kamloops This Week article published in June.
That soldier was Norman Stuart Harper, a Kamloops man shot down in Germany 100 years ago during the First World War. As it turns out, the postcard may also have been the man’s final correspondence.
“I was really shocked, actually, because I’d never found something that easily before,” she said of her online search. “It was the first hit.”
Berger, who holds multiple degrees in history, has on occasion done this sort of thing before. She built up a small collection of old photographs and historical ephemera, collected from antique shops such as the one in which she found the postcard.
“Unfortunately I lost those in a theft,” she said. “I haven’t really been looking for these much since then, but recently I started getting back into doing it.”
Berger said she was sad to learn the man did not survive the Great War, especially considering peace came less than five months after his death. But she is glad she had a chance to learn his story.
“It was incredible. There’s something about finding these things that connects you to people you otherwise would not have known,” she said.
After Berger contacted KTW with news of the postcard find, KTW reached out to John Stuart (Stu) Harper — the nephew of the Kamloops man shot down who told his story to this newspaper in June and arranged for a commemorative plaque to be displayed at the Kamloops Royal Canadian Legion.
“It’s really neat,” he said. “It really is. Especially something like this.”
Along with his own career as a soldier, Stu also worked in the philatelic industry for 10 years and, during his own search for information on his uncle, reached out to stamp dealers, asking them to keep an eye out for postcards or letters addressed to his relatives.
“I never got one thing,” he said. “Not one — and I handled a lot of material myself, too.”
Although that search was unsuccessful, Stu did manage to find out a great deal about his uncle — and the postcard presents a new piece of the puzzle he has been putting together for years.
It also presents even more questions.
The postcard was written by Norman Stuart while he was in a Canadian field hospital in London and sent on May 6, 1918. The date on the card and the fact Norman Stuart was in hospital lines up with other evidence uncovered during the search for more information about Norman Stuart undertaken in the 1980s.
A 1983 letter written during the course of that search reveals Norman Stuart was known to be in hospital between May 3, 1918, and May 27, 1918, and mentions how he got there.
“From Salisbury, England, flying to St. Omer with a rough landing in a ditch put him in the hospital,” the letter reads.
“He made very light of his being in the hospital there,” Stu said, noting his toughness.
He provided other insights, noting the Gordon mentioned in the postcard is Norman Stuart’s brother, who survived the war and later returned to Kamloops for a short time.
“They would meet up occasionally in England sometimes — and when their father found out that Stuart was missing in action, he wrote several letters trying to get the Canadian government to search for his son and get the military to second Gordon for the search,” Stu said.
Definitive news of Harper’s death did not come until the early 1920s, when his body or grave site was first discovered.
As for how the postcard ended up in Seattle? Stu has no idea, but he speculated it might have been from one of his uncle’s siblings who moved south of the border.
“We’ll probably never know the answer to that,” he said.
Who was Norman Stuart Harper?
Norman Stuart Harper, who went by his middle name Stuart, was shot down during a bombing mission over Lahr, Germany, on June 25, 1918. The bomber group he was in was attacked by the enemy and his plane was struck in the radiator.
Norman Stuart and his co-pilot and gunner, D.G. Benson, a fellow Canadian, were killed.
The Germans, who were known at the time for their better treatment of members of the British Royal Flying Corps, gave the two Canadians a funeral with full military honours. British officers from a nearby prisoner of war camp attended.
News of the airman’s death, however, did not reach Kamloops for some time. A frontpage article in the July 2, 1918, edition of The Kamloops Standard-Sentinel says his mother Elizabeth, then noted only as Mrs. J. M. Harper, had received a telegram saying that he was missing. It was assumed, at the time, that he had become a prisoner of war. She did not know that her son had been buried two days earlier.
Norman Stuart’s death, at the time, was likely not a surprise to some. As noted by the soldier’s nephew, Stu Harper, the average Allied pilot lasted just 11 days, with many killed during training. Norman Stuart, however, lasted at least two months in the air.
Furthermore, the aircraft Norman Stuart was flying was known to be underpowered. As Stu understands it, the plane Norman Stuart was flying, an Airco DH.9 biplane, was intended to have a much more powerful engine, but wartime demands meant the supply was needed elsewhere and builders turned to a backup engine, which left the plane sluggish in the air. He called it a “flying coffin.”
It’s not clear how Norman Stuart came to be a First World War pilot with the British Royal Flying Corps, but some say it is likely he and his co-pilot were among the first Canadians shot down over Germany.
Norman Stuart’s family back at home included his father James Milne Harper, who was the commanding officer of the local B.C. Horse squadron and owner of a dry goods store in the city, and his mother, Elizabeth Walker Harper. His brother Gordon served concurrently in the First World War and survived. The family is not related to the ranch and ski hall family also from Kamloops.
Norman Stuart was originally buried in Lahr but was later moved to the Niederzwehren Cemetery in Kassel, Germany, next to his co-pilot Benson.
The two pilots’ names were posthumously lent to a branch of the Royal Canadian Legion in Lahr when it was searching for a new name in the 1980s, christened the Benson and Harper Branch 002, Lahr. The Canadian Forces based in Lahr closed in 1994.