When Gerry McMillan attends Wednesday’s dinner and meeting at the Orillia legion, it just won’t be the same.
Doug Giles won’t be at the table with McMillan, imparting his wisdom and eliciting laughter with his trademark dry humour.
It’s something McMillan came to cherish over the years in the company of Giles, a Second World War veteran who died March 5 in his 95th year.
“This gentleman so touched my life,” McMillan said.
McMillan, a padre at the legion, has been with Branch 34 since 2000. Years ago, during one of the legion’s meetings, he sat with Giles and veteran Jim Dack. When McMillan returned the following week, they had reserved a seat for him at the table.
“Over the years, we became good friends,” McMillan said of Giles. “He very seldom missed meetings and events at the legion.”
The bond and mutual respect among McMillan and Giles grew stronger as the years passed. When Giles took a turn for the worse after suffering a heart attack in December, he asked a favour of McMillan.
“He wanted me to get his story out,” McMillan recalled. “One night, he sat at the side of the bed and he told me his life story.”
Giles, born in Sebright, was in the Navy for more than 26 years. He served on 10 ships — five destroyers, four corvettes and a battleship.
A member of the 6th Royal Canadian Navy volunteer service, he was loaned to the British Navy for five years during the war.
The importance and impact of his service cannot be understated, McMillan noted. An artificer, or military mechanic, aboard the HMS King George V, Giles was involved in bombardment runs along the coast of Norway, firing on German battleships taking refuge in the fjords.
He was also on board for a “memorial trip,” carrying special cargo. The sailors and crew didn’t know what the trip was all about. “Then they found out they were picking up a special visitor — none other than Sir Winston Churchill, and his daughter,” McMillan said.
“(Giles) was the only one looking after the engine room on that trip, and the British Empire Medal was given for the whole crew, but Doug was the chief engine room artificer, so he was the one to wear it.”
It was one of eight medals he earned for his service in the war.
Giles had the distinction of being the only Canadian to serve on the HMS Chiddingfold, a British destroyer, during the Italian Campaign — “one of the biggest campaigns Canadians were involved in,” McMillan noted — during which the crew launched star shells, lighting up the night sky to aid the troops.
After the war, Giles rose in the ranks to become chief warrant officer at a base in Nova Scotia.
When he returned to Orillia, Giles refused to rest on his laurels.
“He didn’t just serve his country; he served his community,” McMillan said.
He spent seven years as a member of the executive at the Orillia legion, volunteered with the naval cadets and was chair of Orillia Legion Minor Ball for seven years.
“Orillia Legion Minor Ball wouldn’t be what it is without Doug,” McMillan said. “He said that was the greatest job he ever had. He loved children. That was his heart’s desire.”
When Giles asked McMillan to take notes on his life story, it wasn’t attention for himself Giles was seeking.
“He was so thankful for life and for having the opportunity to serve in the Navy and serve his community. He wanted others to be inspired to do the same,” McMillan said. “He was very humble. There wasn’t an arrogant bone in his body.”
McMillan, who officiated the memorial service for Giles, is also an RCMP chaplain. He has been with officers, veterans and their families during their hardest times. So, he experienced “mixed emotions” while watching his friend fade.
“It’s hard to be with a friend who is passing away,” he said, “but you’re going to be there. I wanted to be there with the family during this time.”
When Giles died at his Orillia home, he was surrounded by family.
“He loved his family, and they sure took care of him,” said McMillan, who visited Giles almost daily since his condition began to deteriorate in the couple of weeks before his death.
“I’m a minister, but he ministered to me more than I ministered to him. He taught me so much,” McMillan said.
Giles was McMillan’s guest at last October’s Take a Vet to Dinner event. McMillan planned to take Giles again this fall.
“Honestly, I thought we were going to do it,” McMillan said. “But he’s in God’s hands now.”