A Life's Story
December 21, 2019
Full speed ahead
Ernest Copper refused to let a devastating Second World War injury slow him down, a message he delivered to child amputees for 40 years
By: Ryan Thorpe
Ernest Copper endured more than his share of tragedy and hardship during his 97 years, but it didn’t stop him from living a life full of love and family, travel and adventure, and dedication to the service of others.
Born in Winnipeg on New Year’s Eve 1921, Copper was an only child. From an early age, he developed a love of the outdoors and would spend his summers running barefoot through forested areas of the city and swimming in rivers.
"He was a bit of a Tom Sawyer character. He’d stay out for hours and hours, running like a wild kid, fishing, swimming. He was crazy about fishing and just being out in the bush and the outdoors his whole life," said son Bill Copper.
When he was roughly 20 years old and the Second World War was underway, Ernest decided to sign up and do his part, serving as a gunner in a tank regiment.
After being shipped off to North Africa for training, he took part in serious and bloody fights as the Allies tried to wrest control of Italy on their march to Berlin.
Throughout his life, Copper was proud of his wartime service with the Lord Strathcona’s Horse regiment.
He was injured three times. On the first occasion, shrapnel hit him in the cheek. He got some time off to rest and then went back into the fray. That led to being hit a second time by shrapnel, which ripped through the side of his torso and imbedded itself into his lung.
The third injury changed the rest of his life.
"His tank got hit. He opened the hatch and jumped out and the whole tank exploded, was incinerated. He was the only one to get out alive. There was a big chuck of shrapnel in his calf and he had to tourniquet it off," Bill said.
"He crawled through fields and laid in plow furrows in enemy territory as the Germans were taking potshots at him. He said he was never so scared in his whole life, bullets whizzing over his chest. He thought he was a goner."
Ernest was able to crawl away from enemy territory and link up with other Allied soldiers, who got him to a hospital. His leg would be amputated two times: first below the knee and later (due to an infection) above it.
Upon returning from the war, Ernest met the love of his life, Evelyn. The two married in 1947. Their first child, Bill, was born in 1952. He was followed by David and Nancy, both of whom died of cancer — David in 1984 and Nancy in 2015.
Ernest spent the majority of his working career with Air Canada. In his spare time, he volunteered with the War Amps of Canada, focusing his efforts on the Child Amputee Program, also known as Champs. He spent 40 years volunteering with the War Amps, serving two terms as Manitoba president in the 1990s.
"There were so many kids that were injured. There were a lot of farm accidents. They would just go show them that you could carry on in life, that a missing limb wasn’t the end of the world. The War Amps also paid for their prosthetic limbs," Bill said.
Ernest didn’t allow his disability to slow him down. When he didn’t like the way his prescribed prosthetic limb functioned in the outdoors, he designed his own — which his son said looked like a "pirate leg" — so that he could fish and hunt.
"Everyone was amazed he could do what he did with his peg leg. When it came to fishing or hunting, there was nothing that would stop him. He’d be out duck hunting and quite often his peg leg would be sinking into the ground, but he’d just keep trudging along," Bill said.
In the 1980s, Ernest and Evelyn bought a cabin at McConnell Lake, where they would spend their summers with friends and family, always arriving early in the spring and staying as long as possible into the fall so they could enjoy the changing of the seasons.
In addition, the couple travelled extensively, first with their children, and then later, just the two of them. They spent time in Italy and Great Britain, Barbados, Texas and British Columbia.
Ernest was a good cook, known for searing thick steaks on coals when camping with friends and family, or making spaghetti in the kitchen of his home with Italian opera music playing as loud as it could go.
Last spring, due to complications from a surgery, Ernest had to go into Deer Lodge Centre. He died Nov. 20. He is survived by his Evelyn and Bill, as well as his grandchildren and son-in-law.
"He would have been 98 at the end of this month. You wonder, with some of the tragedies he experienced, it might have just finished some people off. But he just kept moving ahead. He was a great dad and he spent a lot of time with his kids," Bill said.
"He lived a good life."