This story began as a mystery just two days ago.
As we are still in November, I thought one more soldier’s story would be fitting, but I had not settled on anyone in particular.
Suddenly, there it was. Like a number of my local history stories in this column, this one came in the form of a query. It was posted in the popular Facebook group called Barrie Families Unite.
The message began with one of my favourite phrases: “Hello everyone! I found some letters.”
Sophia, of Cornwall, wrote that a precious bundle of letters and photographs, belonging to her boyfriend’s grandmother, had recently been uncovered. They dated back to the Korean War of the early 1950s, and the last of the correspondence was returned from the war zone stamped “verified deceased.”
The fallen soldier was 26-year-old Cpl. Wycliffe Leslie Presley, of Bourget, which is 50 kilometres east of Ottawa. His tale, and that of the people connected to him, is a somewhat sad one, so I began writing in hopes this story would be seen by the right people and result in a happy ending.
Presley was born in Russell County in 1926 on his grandparents’ farm. To understand how a far-from-home soldier relates to our part of the province, we must look at the Plant family, of Thornton.
Around 1855, Thomas and Elizabeth Plant brought six children to Simcoe County from County Longford in Ireland. Three more children joined the family after their immigration.
In 1912, Thomas and Elizabeth’s grandson, Thomas Robert Plant, married Ellen Goad. Ellen was born in Kent, England, and had travelled to Canada in 1910 to work as a housemaid in a fine home on Leopold Street in Toronto.
The newlywed Plants settled in Barrie and lived on Perry Street and Sanford Street at different times. Their only child, a daughter named Florence Ellen, was born in Barrie in 1913.
In June 1937, the weddings pages of the local newspapers reported on the “quiet early summer wedding” of Florence Plant and her beau, Gordon Robus.
The couple resided with Florence’s parents on Sanford Street, then known as Charles Street. A year after their marriage, they welcomed a son named Wally, who would be their only child together.
In 1944, tragedy struck. Gordon, who was a truck driver for a doughnut company, accidentally backed his delivery vehicle off a pier into Toronto Bay and drowned. He was 32 years old.
Nearby Camp Borden has long brought enlisted men to the Barrie area and continues to do so. It was because of this that the soldier from eastern Ontario and the widow from Barrie met.
Presley enlisted in December 1949 and served with the 1st Battalion Royal Canadian Regiment. He and Florence were married at Camp Borden in 1950 and welcomed their daughter, Marilyn, in 1951. The girl was five months old when her father set sail for Korea on March 15, 1952.
As Presley left for the theatre of war, his wife and child settled in Petawawa to await his return. When he wasn’t on active duty, he was writing letters home — many of them.
Sadly, he lost his life while on a night patrol on June 25, 1952. His last letters have been kept and treasured by family since that time.
Sophia’s hope is that Wycliffe’s daughter, Marilyn, can be found and given the letters. I can report the first half of that wish has already been granted. Sophia was ecstatic.
“WE FOUND HER! I love the power of the internet.”
My own wish is that I can learn more about this wonderful result and then share it with you in a second part to this story.
Each week, the Barrie Historical Archive provides BarrieToday readers with a glimpse of the city’s past. This unique column features photos and stories from years gone by and is sure to appeal to the historian in each of us.