A WWII Love Story: Ernest and Isa Lee Bryant

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Serving in World War II with the “Hasty P’s” in the Italian campaign, Ernest Bryant and his platoon’s experiences are detailed in their Commander Farley Mowat’s book ‘The Regiment’. Isa Lee Bryant served in the Canadian Women’s Army Corps, much to her prominent family’s dismay. Little did Ernest and Isa Lee know that their chance meeting under sombre circumstances would set the stage for a lifetime of love.


Early Life

Ernest Clayton Bryant was born to farmers Fred Hubert Bryant and Myrtle May Bryant (nee Whitney) in Pickering, Ontario on October 20, 1920. Fred was a World War I veteran whose health was declining. Ernest was the fifth born in a family of 11 children and left school after the eighth grade to help on the family farm.

Isa Lee Bryant (nee) Nicholson was born into a prominent business family on May 29, 1924, in the small town of Marintown, Ontario to parents Henry Nicholson and Mable Elizabeth Nicholson (nee) Ellis. Henry was known for being the first garage owner at the time in the area when most people still drove horse and buggy. Growing up over 400 kilometres apart, when Isa Lee’s path would cross with Ernest’s many years later in somber circumstances, it would be life-changing.

Wartime

In 1939, at the age of 18, Ernest joined the Canadian Armed Forces and became a member of the Prince Edward and Hastings Regiment, known as the Hasty P’s. His commanding officer was the renowned Canadian author, Farley Mowat. Ernest served in the Italian Campaign where half a million Allied soldiers, sailors, and airmen grappled for control of Sicily from the Axis alliance. 

It was rumoured that Lady Astor, a member of the British parliament, derogatively called the regiment the “D-Day Dodgers” in reference to the soldiers in Italy, which inspired a song of the same name. It was an unfortunate distraction. The Hasty P’s were already long since deployed to Sicily. They were forced to keep only the packs on their backs and scale the cliffs in Sicily under the cover of night, in order to confront the German SS awaiting atop with heavy guns and equipment. Throughout their campaign, the Hasty P’s fought through Sicily, into mainland Italy, and up into France, where they were once again forced to destroy their equipment and trucks as they boarded boats in the middle of the night to continue along their path. All four units of the Hasty P’s sustained heavy casualties.

When the Italian Campaign was over, Sicily became the first piece of the Axis homeland to fall to Allied forces during World War II. It served as both a base for the invasion of Italy and as a training ground for many of the officers and enlisted men who, 11 months later, landed on the beaches of Normandy. Platoon Commander Farley Mowat wrote the novel “The Regiment”, which details the campaign in which Ernest took part. It provides a considerable amount of insight into the campaign and the men involved. Ernest himself did not serve unscathed, as he carried and hid many of his scars of the wounds he received from the constant assault on the vehicles he drove during the war. Despite this, the military commanders described Ernest as casual, carefree, friendly, and cheerful. His presence must have been uplifting for his platoon.

In May of 1943, when Isa Lee was 18 years old, she also joined the military, despite her family’s objections. Isa became a member of the Canadian Women’s Army Corps (CWAC). She was trained in Kitchener and stationed in Kingston, Ontario, working in communications and also assisting at the base supply store. It was in Kingston where Isa Lee and Ernest’s paths would finally cross. Shortly after Ernest arrived in England for training, he received word that his father passed away. While he was on leave to attend his father’s funeral, Ernest met Isa Lee. Their chance meeting grew steadily into a love story as they corresponded throughout the war.

As their time spent serving Canada in the war was coming to an end, both Isa Lee and Ernest became decorated veterans. Ernest received the 1939-1943 Star and the Canadian Volunteer Service Medal and Clasp, while Isa Lee was also awarded the Canadian Volunteer Service Medal. They both continued to honour their service with active and contributing membership at the local Legion throughout their lives.

Post-war

After the war, Isa Lee briefly returned to her home in Marintown before marrying Ernest. The young couple moved to Guelph to be close to Ernest’s mother, and they started their family — including eight children: three boys and five girls — in 1946. Isa Lee revelled in being a housewife, while Ernest drove a transport truck for Lasby Trucking Ltd. that kept him away, sometimes for days at a time. He lived a simple life, working hard to provide for his family with what little he earned. He was family-oriented, loving, and hard-working. Ernest enjoyed hunting, camping, boating, and going to the stock car races, but spending time with his grandchildren, especially at Christmas, was his favourite joy of all.

Ernest had a very strong sense of duty to help those in need. His family recalls that at an air show they attended, one of the planes was about to crash, so Ernest quickly sent his family members in the opposite direction and he ran towards the crash knowing there would be danger. 

Isa Lee was described as caring, well-spoken, and friendly. Her life was not a luxurious one but was filled with the happiness of being there for her children. She had a unique ability to be direct and honest. Isa Lee’s children and grandchildren were her source of pride and joy, and she especially loved knitting and sewing for her family. She was known as having baked the best butter tarts ever.

Ernest was later employed by Laidlaw, where he worked until his death. He had started to have severe migraines which ended up being diagnosed as a brain tumour. After several surgeries and a year in hospital, Ernest passed away at Hamilton General Hospital in October 1975, at the age of 54. Two of his children were still quite young. The Bryant family was devastated. 

Just two years later, in December 1977, Isa Lee suffered a brain aneurysm at the young age of 54 and passed away at home in Guelph. This was a blow that would affect the family deeply. While Ernest and Isa Lee only met a few great-grandchildren before their passing, they were exceptionally proud of their family, which grew to include five sons-in-law, two daughters-in-law, 12 grandchildren and many great-grandchildren. Their memories live on through them.

Isa Lee and Ernest are buried together at Woodlawn Memorial in Guelph in Section W close to the Children’s Garden, in line with the Blue Spruce Circle.

Written by: Susan Farrelly

Isa Lee Bryant (nee) Nicholson

Ernest Clayton Bryant

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Comments
  • Pamela McKee

    What a beautiful write up about my grandparents. Wish I could have met them and express my gratitude for their sacrifices. Lest We Forget!

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