‘He was the first one to hold me’

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It took nearly eight decades, but a Canadian soldier’s family had the opportunity to speak with the abandoned infant he found in an English field 77 years ago.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 27/01/2019 (1340 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It took nearly eight decades, but a Canadian soldier’s family had the opportunity to speak with the abandoned infant he found in an English field 77 years ago.

Mary Crabb from Hertfordshire, England, only learned the name of the soldier who saved her less than a month ago.

The story of Crabb’s birth was a thing of legend in the Curtis family.

Royal Canadian Artillery members Ernest (Ernie) Curtis, Bob Griffin and A.J. Bracket pictured with baby Mary Crabb. (Submitted)

Growing up hearing the story of a newborn baby girl her grandfather found in a field in England during the Second World War, Jodi Douglas and her family wondered what became of the infant.

After decades of waiting and wondering, they finally had the opportunity to speak with Crabb on Friday.

“It’s incredible,” Crabb said by phone on Tuesday. “I still can’t believe it. I have to pinch myself sometimes.”

A people person with a kind heart, Ernest (Ernie) Curtis would use a soft tenor tone while sharing the tale of the baby he found, said his wife, Winelda Curtis.

It was Douglas’ favourite story.

Royal Canadian Artillery sergeant Ernie, along with gunners Bob Griffin and A.J. Brackett, both from Regina, discovered the baby abandoned in a field on a cold September morning in 1941.

“They heard this squawking and they thought it was an animal, and when they went there, it was a baby,” Curtis said.

Fresh to this world, doctors estimated Crabb could not have been more than two hours old.

The soldiers found the baby hidden away in some bushes in Horsell Common, an open park about 45 kilometres west of London.

“He (Ernie) was the first one to hold me when I was born,” Crabb said. “That really does put a chill down my spine.”

Visiting the bushes at the Common where she was found brought a lump to Crabb’s throat. She said she was covered in “goose pimples.”

Winelda Curtis poses with a scrapbook commemorating the life of her late husband Ernie Curtis Saturday. (Chelsea Kemp/The Brandon Sun)

In such a vast space, it was a miracle the soldiers found her.

She was still covered in afterbirth with her placenta attached.

Thinking quickly, Ernie cut the umbilical cord, leaving it long in case of infection so it could be recut if needed. Doctors would later ask Ernie how he knew how to do this, and he credited his experience as a farm boy from Alexander.

“He (Ernie) took his water and washed the baby’s face … because she was lying on the ground,” Curtis said.

Tying her up in clean underwear he had in his pack, Ernie and the gunners took the baby in an army truck to the nearest hospital.

The doctors were unsure if the tiny infant would live, as she was so cold she was turning blue.

Offering further support for the baby, the three soldiers and their regiment donated one day’s pay to her, Curtis said.

The infant was almost christened Alexandra Brandon Regina, honouring the hometowns the soldiers hailed from.

Mary’s biological mother was later found, discovered after she passed out that same day milking cows, and she was admitted to the same hospital. Unwed, Curtis said, the stigma surrounding that predicament would have led her to abandon the baby. Her father was married and had three children.

Crabb never met her biological parents and was instead placed with her grandmother, originally.

Jodi Douglas, right, and her grandmother Winelda Curtis look at a scrap book featuring news clippings and photos of Ernie Curtis Saturday. (Chelsea Kemp/The Brandon Sun)

The grandmother assured the men the baby would be treated well, but about five months later the baby was put up for adoption.

“As far as he (Ernie) knew, he thought the grandmother was looking after her,” Curtis said.

Ernie came home after the war and often wondered what became of the infant. He never went back to England.

Air Canada pilot Alex Wanlin, a friend of the Curtis family, was in England and went to find the baby on behalf of Ernie in the late 1960s.

At the time, they didn’t even know her legal name.

“Ernie just wanted to know that she was all right and what had happened to her,” Curtis said.

Unable to get any information due to confidentiality, at that point, Ernie stopped searching.

Never far from Ernie’s mind, the family has a scrapbook that contains the journal entry from the day Ernie found the baby, newspaper clippings and a photo of the three soldiers and Crabb.

Ernie died Sept. 7, 1995, at the age of 85, never knowing what happened to the baby.

Unlike the Curtis family, Crabb was unaware of her eventful entrance to the world until 12 years ago, and only recently learned the names of the soldiers who saved her.

Hearing about Ernie for the first time about three weeks ago, Crabb has been inundated with information, she said, creating a mix of emotions difficult to imagine.

Winelda Curtis shows a scrap book celebrating the life of the late Ernie Curtis Saturday. (Chelsea Kemp/The Brandon Sun)

The hunt for her rescuers launched when her nephew found a photo on the internet.

He couldn’t believe what he found, calling Crabb on New Year’s Eve to share his discovery.

The picture was from a 1941 newspaper that announced Crabb’s birth and the names of the soldiers.

“It was so lovely to see the three soldiers that saved me,” Crabb said.

She cried when she saw the photo.

Crabb hoped to connect with the families as soon as possible.

Getting to work Crabb’s family read through obituaries from Canada, searching to find a connection to Brandon that could help her find her rescuers.

They discovered the obituary of Curtis’ son, Ken Curtis, which named his daughter from Brandon, Alyssa Reid.

Emailing Reid, she was able to identify Ernie, and the ball began to roll.

The photo also went viral online as Crabb searched for her saviours.

Jodi Douglas, left, and her grandmother Winelda Curtis read a scrapbook celebrating the life of the late Ernie Curtis. (Chelsea Kemp/The Brandon Sun)

Douglas came across a post on Facebook looking to identify the three men who saved the baby.

She recognized her grandfather immediately.

“It was pretty cool when I saw the picture,” Douglas said.

Curtis spoke with Crabb for the first time Friday — an emotional meeting nearly eight decades in the making.

“She is so happy to finally connect,” Curtis said.

Not one for going on the internet, Crabb uses Skype to speak with her daughter in New Zealand and son in America.

Her daughter-in-law is going to help her set it up to speak with her newly found extended family.

“Then I’ll be able to speak with her any time, it will be lovely,” Crabb said.

Hoping to Skype so they can see each other’s faces, Curtis looks forward to the new relationship the family has with a now grown baby Mary.

“She said she wants to see a picture of (me),” Curtis said.

A photo of Royal Canadian Artillery sergeant Ernest "Ernie" Curtis. (Submitted)

What was once a story of family lore has become an international phenomenon.

The story of baby Mary has been featured in news articles and videos from across the United Kingdom and in Canada.

Crabb has been overwhelmed by the attention.

Curtis doubts she will have a chance to meet Crabb in person, but Crabb insists she is coming to Canada to meet the family.

“Wouldn’t it be lovely just to be near the people that knew all about me all those years?” Crabb said.

» ckemp@brandonsun.com

» Twitter: @The_ChelseaKemp

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