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COLUMN: Janet knew something big in the air before Hiroshima

Janet and Perry Short became lifelong friends with Lester B. Pearson – Perry established a very successful architectural firm in the Sault. His design skills were a boon to the Sault Theatre Workshop, as were Janet’s organizational, promotional and acting chops

Seventy-seven years ago this evening, future Sault resident Janet Williams – later to become Janet Short – was given a secret message she didn’t understand by one of the greatest world leaders of all time.

If her future husband, Perry Short, had been there and had been able to decipher that message, he would have breathed a monumental sigh of relief.

The message involved a cataclysmic event: the August 6, 1945 dropping of the atomic bomb on the Japanese industrial city of Hiroshima. The person delivering the message to Janet was Winston Churchill – who had replaced the hapless Neville Chamberlain as Great Britain’s wartime prime minister and in later years would be knighted by Queen Elizabeth II.

Janet’s father had been the vicar at the Anglican church in Westerham, Kent near the Churchill family’s country home, Chartwell. The Churchills regularly attended that church and Janet had befriended their youngest child, Mary – a friendship that would last a lifetime.

When Janet’s father died in 1943, the Churchills took Janet under their wing and she spent a great deal of time socializing with Mary at their estate. One regret was that she was too shy to accede to a request from Winston to paint her portrait, and I know this because Janet – a great friend from the many years we spent with the Sault Theatre Workshop – told me the story.

Another story she related: As a young teenager, Janet was reading in the Churchill den on the night of August 5, 1945 and the great man, ubiquitous pony of brandy to hand, was in one of his “black dog” moods as he stared into the crackling flames of the room’s fireplace. At one point, he looked over at Janet and said something along the lines of: “Young lady, tomorrow mankind will unleash a monster that will change the course of history…”

Janet looked up from her book, expecting to hear more, but Churchill sighed, took a sip of his brandy and resumed his troubled reverie, perhaps considering the flames in the fireplace a microcosmic preview of the towering inferno that would engulf Hiroshima within a few hours.

The Enola Gay, a modified B-29 bomber named for the American pilot’s mother, was already winging its way to Japan, having had a 9,000-pound Uranium-235 bomb nicknamed Little Boy loaded at a US base in Tinian in the Northern Mariana Islands off Guam.

Just after 8 a.m. Tokyo time, Colonel Paul Tibbets delivered the history-changing order to open the bomb bay doors and drop the deadly explosive by parachute over a city where children were on their way to school and adults were making their way to the workplace. The bomb exploded at about 600 metres above the municipality, creating horrendous devastation over a radius of about 13 square kilometres. Those who have visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum – as I have – find it almost impossible to understand why the bomb wasn’t dropped on an uninhabited island and a film sent to the Japanese as a warning of what would happen if they didn’t surrender in a war that they had already lost. 

Another “burning” question is why the Allies were so quick to drop a second, bigger bomb – nicknamed Fat Man – on the nearby city of Nagasaki three days later. The Japanese, still reeling from the first attack, wouldn’t have had time to assemble the proper authorities to draw up surrender documents – leading many students of history to believe that the bombs were dropped to test their effectiveness on humans. Others consider it payback time for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

The reason that Janet’s future husband, Perry Short, would have been greatly relieved at the news was that, while the two atomic blasts killed or maimed untold thousands of people, the action probably saved his life. Perry, born in the Scottish town of Alva, had left his architectural studies in Glasgow to join the glider pilot regiment of the British Army Air Corps after the outbreak of war. When hostilities ended in Europe with the German surrender, someone came up with the bright idea of sending invasion troops into Japan – and Perry was chosen as one of the pilots.

Knowing how ferociously loyal the Japanese were to their emperor – and thus would fight to the last man, woman and child to defend their homeland – Perry kept asking his superiors how he’d get back to base once he’d offloaded his contingent of troops but everybody ignored the question. The Japanese surrender made his query irrelevant.

Earlier in the war, Perry had met his future bride when he and Janet’s brother, Peter, spent some leave time at the Williams home in Kent. Like a Hollywood movie, Perry consider Peter’s 16-year-old sister a “snotty-nosed brat”. But after the war, Perry again visited the Williams homestead and mentioned to Peter that there had been “an alarming improvement” in Janet’s looks. They were married in London in 1952 – but only after Perry got permission from the Churchills, who reportedly considered him a fine young chap.

By this time, Perry was working as a junior architect for a large London firm. Realizing it would be decades before he was offered a partnership, Perry decided to head for greener pastures. It was a toss-up between Canada and Australia – and the canny Scot chose Canada because the fare was cheaper.

London’s loss, as the saying goes, was Sault Ste. Marie’s gain. After short stints in Timmins and Elliot Lake – where the Shorts became lifelong friends with the Algoma East federal representative, one Lester B. Pearson – Perry established a very successful architectural firm in the Sault. His design skills were a boon to the Sault Theatre Workshop, as were Janet’s organizational, promotional and acting chops.

Perry would eventually be showered with more awards for stage design than he could count. He served on the Board of Directors of Theatre Ontario and was named a Fellow of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada. 

Perry’s talents and his generosity were boundless. In addition to designing such Sault Ste. Marie landmarks as St. Jerome’s Church, the two local forestry buildings, the airport terminal and a number of educational facilities, Perry donated countless hours to such projects as the restoration of the Old Stone House – now called the Ermatinger Clergue National Historic Site – and the redesign of White Pines Collegiate into a theatre centre. He also devoted a great deal of his talents and charitable donations to St. Luke’s Cathedral.

Janet had dabbled in amateur theatre in England and continued to work both backstage and before the footlights while in Timmins (where their fledgling theatre group did a virtual sweep of the Northern Ontario Drama Festival with their first entry), Elliot Lake (where she and Perry launched the Elliot Lake Players) and in the Sault.

In addition to sharing the Sault’s Medal of Merit in 1983, Janet and Perry were also granted Theatre Ontario Lifetime Memberships for outstanding service to theatre in Ontario in 1988.

Janet held every executive position on the Quonta Regional Drama Festival board of directors except president and took on all Sault Theatre Workshop executive posts, also winning several acting and production awards in the process. 

When Janet was selected as a recipient of The Commemorative Medal For The Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 2002, her nominator listed a number of Janet’s contributions to the City of Sault Ste. Marie over the years:

  • Administrator and member of the Board of Directors of the Allied Arts Council
  • Founder and Director of the Patchwork Players Youth Theatre
  • Public Relations volunteer for the Algoma Fall Festival
  • On-Air personality reporting on the arts in Northern Ontario for the CBC
  • Technical Advisor to the Maycourt Club’s Black Stocking Review fundraiser
  • Member of the Board of Directors of Breton House Rehabilitation Centre
  • Public Relations Director for the Canadian Games for the Physically Disabled

Perry Short, an avid gardener, loved working in the backyard at their home at 171 Simpson Street in the Sault. Early in May, 2000, he took ill while gardening and decided to lie down for a while. Suffering a massive stroke, he died the next day without regaining consciousness. Janet abided by his wish to be cremated – sending him off in his kilt and with his favourite beer mug.

After a long battle with cancer, Janet passed away in June of 2011. I was honoured to be asked to delivery the eulogy at St. Luke’s and related a story Janet had told me about her first acting gig – as a toddler in one of her father’s church skits.

“I was supposed to scatter rose petals about the stage and instead I tickled the angels’ toes,” Janet revealed. “That’s called upstaging and that’s how I made my debut.”

I closed my remarks at Janet’s funeral by allowing as how I imagined that, at that very moment, she was no doubt again tickling the toes of the angels.

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Tom Douglas

About the Author: Tom Douglas

Tom Douglas, a former Sault journalist, is now a freelance writer living in Oakville, Ontario
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