I’m urban exploration photographer Dave of Freaktography.com, and this is the story of how I found two sets of forgotten war medals in an abandoned house (and what I decided to do with them).
Some time ago I was sent a new abandoned location to check out by a person on Instagram. The photos she sent me got my interest as there seemed to be a lot of items left behind and there was a lot of decay. There would be no doubt that this home has sat vacant for a very, very long time.
I made the trip to the area and planned a day around it, exploring a number of other locations along the way. Arriving at the destination, I am in a nice neighborhood, large detached homes with lots of property and a great place to live.
Then there is the corner lot, overgrown, mailbox laying across the driveway, weeds, and overgrowth surrounding the house and no upkeep whatsoever.
With the neighbor’s dog barking at me aggressively I made my way to the house and found the opened door, stepping inside I nearly tripped on all of the debris. I already know how this is going to go, these types of homes are near impossible to shoot, there is too much stuff, too many piles and it is so hard to navigate from room to room.
I decided to start with video and I’ll shoot pictures later, tripping over debris, stepping on things, and trying my best to not disrupt things too badly. I work from room to room.
The kitchen is a mess, large cobwebs, food containers, movies, clothes, dishes all on the floor. A small table in the center of the room is entirely covered with riff-raff, there are books, magazines, piles of newspapers — I need to move on.
Heading right to the living room it’s even worse, stacked 4-5 feet high with boxes, luggage, furniture, much covered with furry raccoon feces, I don’t stay in this room long.
The Living Room
I head back through the kitchen to another room that has been made into a large bedroom, a bit more breathing room.
On a dresser I spot some old photos, two soldiers, possibly brothers, one served with the Royal Canadian Air Force, obvious by the RCAF on the photo and the other had “CAA” which we have gathered means Canadian Army Active, this man may have been Infantry, then there is a photo of the two young soldiers together.
Moving along, I spot a calendar from 2002, that is the latest date that I could find.
The Main Bedroom
Stumbling my way across I came to the staircase to bring me upstairs, the stairs would be no different than the rest of the house with debris scattered on every step. Making my way up I find myself with 5 rooms up here to explore, each filled with more books, magazines, furniture, dressers, beds, etc.
At one point as I enter room #3 as I walk to the far end of the room I spot a plump raccoon giving me the stink eye as he makes his way out of the room to a quieter place to do raccoon things.
Feeling overwhelmed and like I am barely scratching the surface with the treasures buried in this house, I slow down and catch my breath.
Entering room #4, this room seems to be a library and an office space, every wall is covered with books about wars, religions, travel, poetry, leadership, world history, real estate along with every single issue of National Geographic ever published during the time that this home was active.
As I scan the wall of books I spotted two boxes on the top of a shelf, boxes that had not been touched or disturbed in a very long time. They reminded me of the boxes that my Grandfather had where he kept trinkets and items from the war.
I reach up and bring down the boxes, opening the first one I spot a small white square box with the initials C.V.S.M. and another one that reads “War Medal 1939…”
I am immediately aware of what I have found, CVSM means Canadian Volunteer Service Medal and was granted to “Persons of any rank in the Naval, Military or Air Forces of Canada who voluntarily served on Active Service from September 3, 1939, to March 1, 1947”
War Medal 1939 is a “campaign medal which was instituted by the United Kingdom on 16 August 1945, for award to subjects of the British Commonwealth who had served full-time in the Armed Forces or the Merchant Navy for at least 28 days between 3 September 1939 and 2 September 1945”
I am now handling this box with much more care, looking through there are other items such as funeral pamphlets for the parents of this soldier as well as other items from his time working in unions, working with Asbestos.
I open the second, much heavier box only to have my jaw hit the floor. This box contains many more medals and items from the war. The following are what was pulled from this box:
- France and Germany Star
- 1939 – 1945 Star
- War Medal 1939-1945
- The Defence Medal
- Canadian Volunteer Service Medal with Maple Leaf Bar
In addition to these medals, I found a soldier’s pay book, detailing his weekly pay, what dates he received it, how much and to whom the pay would be sent to (his mother), there was also his kit list, outlining all of the items of kit he received upon being deployed.
Most shocking however were the souvenirs that this man had collected during the war and brought home with him, the blood-stained shoulder patch of a Nazi soldier, an official Nazi Party Membership Pin, a Nazi War Merit Cross, a Dutch stickpin commemorating the futile defense against the Germans in The Battle of Grebbeberg and numerous other souvenirs with swastikas that I can’t determine.
I found an envelope, inside it was full of German currency in various denominations, and in the bottom of the box were dozens of old coins from all over Europe.
Feeling the weight of what I have found I am now out of sorts, confused and shaken, wondering what to do. I quickly finish filming and make an attempt and handheld photos around the house, I’m not right in my head and I am debating what I should do.
Not wanting to remove the items, I place the boxes low, amongst a pile of books, somewhere less obvious and not at eye level. I plan to head home and see if I can locate family or whoever owns the property and advise them of what I’ve found and where they can go to retrieve them. It’s time to pack my gear and head home and make sense of all this.
Many friends told me I should have taken them home with me, find a new home, find the owners but don’t leave them there to be stolen. Over the next few days, my search for family comes up dry and my regret for leaving the medals at the house is eating at me. RiddimRyder was going to make a trip to the house and he would grab them for me, but those plans fell through. Then I saw a post from Noah Nowhere who had gone to explore the house just a few days after me, now I am getting worried about how many people will soon have access to the location of this house and the medals will surely go missing.
I went back to the house to get the medals and get photos of mail and any names/documentation that I can find to assist with my location of family, I head upstairs to the library and the boxes are gone.
The only things that remain are an empty CVSM box, the tissue that held the medal and some photos that were in the box. I also noticed that a knife was gone that had been in the hallway.
My heart sunk, this was my biggest fear, I immediately messaged Noah Nowhere to ask if, for any reason, did he see and remove the medals or hide them. He had not seen them at all and if he did, he would have surely photographed them. He did, however, get a comment on his photo gallery from a guy named Rob, who stated:
“I’ve been in this place too, you should see what I found in one of the rooms”
Thanks to Noah, I now had a starting point to find out where these medals are. With the help of a few others, we were able to determine who had been here and when. The list of people with this home was very small.
I left the home, no new photos, no family names, no medals.
I messaged Rob with a photo of the boxes “Did you walk off with these?”
Rob T replied,
No, I don’t take things when I visit abandoned places, I visited this house with my mother and sister, my mother found these medals but she’s really superstitious and makes sure to put things back in its exact location, I have however told a few people about this location, people I wouldn’t think would take things but if you say they are missing I will have to ask some questions because I can’t imagine many people have been in there since I was.
I am now very concerned and I decide to use my social media platforms to get whoever took the medals to come forward, I promised that there would be “no judgment, no public shame, I just want to get them back.”
The messages to Rob and the Facebook post were clear in my intentions, I want to find the family and return them – I am not selling them, they are not for my personal collection, they need to be sent back to a family member, a legion or the War Museum.
The post received enormous feedback and support, the next day I receive a message from Rob.
So, funny story, my mother was pretty upset at the thought of those pieces of history being swallowed up in that house so she went back the next day with my sister to get them, I think in her haste she must have left a box or 2 of the medals but she re-wrapped them and has taken good care of them, they have just been sitting on her dresser.
She has a premium ancestry.ca account and was positive she could track down the relatives….
….So now I have the medals and I would love to see them get back to the family, where are you located? Do you want to meet up today?
Rob and I arrange to meet the next morning, we have a short meet and greet in a church parking lot to chat and get the boxes back, then I thanked him with a couple of Tim Hortons gift cards, great idea as he was drinking what looked like an extra-large Tim Hortons coffee when he arrived!
Off I went, back to the house for a 3rd time to grab some names, get more photos and new video footage so I can properly tell this whole story once it all plays out.
I return home with the boxes and document the items found inside them
Inside the Boxes
I wasn’t able to find any family on the man’s side, nothing. The couple had no children and I wasn’t able to find any siblings on his side. There was a piece of mail in the house that had the name of the wife and a second woman’s name. When I searched that name I found her obituary, which listed the wife as her sibling along with this second woman’s children and grandchildren, all of the names lined up with the documents I had found in the house.
I thought this was going to be easy, boy was I wrong.
This is a really strange message to be sending so please bear with me!
I have a hobby in which I explore and photograph abandoned houses, most homes are empty and just interesting to photograph but on the rare occasion, I come across items that a family may not know were there, or should at the very least be placed somewhere safe
Well, it turns out that one of the homes I recently explored was one in your family, the home of your aunt and uncle from what I have gathered.
I would rather explain this all to you over the phone if you can call me, I do apologize if this feels like an invasion of privacy. I am also sensitive to the fact that this may stir up things that don’t need stirring, but I just want to do the right thing.
There were some valuable and important items in that house that should be held onto by family, two sets of medals from world war two, I have also reached out to several others in your family and will work down the line until I am able to make contact with someone.
I was able to work out who the surviving family members are from a piece of mail in the home that had your mother’s name as well as your Aunt. I found your mother’s obituary online and that was my key to finding out who I can contact to get this stuff in the right hands.
I’ll add that your aunt’s house has been left open and rifled through and these war medals really should be in someone’s possession and I just want to give them to you. I removed them so that they wouldn’t be stolen, they were in two boxes in a bedroom upstairs. I hope to hear back from you as I genuinely want to do the right thing.
Can you give me a call and I can fill you in?
This message was sent to seven members of the surviving family on the second woman’s side, of those 7 people:
- 2 of them blocked me after reading the message.
- 4 of them ignored the message.
- 1 person who I was able to find a phone number for hung up on me, ignored two further calls and a voice message.
It was safe to say that this family was not at all interested in saving and preserving these boxes, medals, and other items.
Now I have a decision to make on what to do with these boxes, medals, and war relics, I felt that I only had two options.
1. Return them to the house, put them in a safe place and not worry about them
2. Call my friend Matt Van Der Velde who is a dedicated war relic collector and offer them to him on a permanent loan to his vast collection.
Matt and I, while having not yet met in person, both seem to have a lot in common.
1. For starters, we both served in the Canadian Armed Forces and ironically, we both served for the same regiment, although at different times.
2. We are both very interested in military history and we have both traveled to visit the battlefields of Europe.
3. Lastly, we’re both photographers and urban explorers, which is how we came to know each other.
Having seen Matt’s collection in photos and his passion for war and history, there was no other option in my mind.
I made the decision to not put the medals back in the home and to give them to Matt on a permanent loan for his personal collection and display. If ever the family decides to contact me for the medals my friend Matt will give them back to me and they will be returned to the family.
Matt and I met up after a 3-hour drive, on a beautiful morning, we met in person, talked shop and exchanged the boxes with Matt’s word to me that he will display them proudly and care for them as if they were his own.
The Harvey Brothers war medals and memories no longer sit hidden in a run-down abandoned home, they are now proudly on display in Matts Van Der Velde’s home.
Should the family ever contact me to get the medals back, Matt and I have agreed to return them, but until that day, this is the new home of the lost and forgotten Harvey Brothers war medals.
About the author: Dave C. is an urban exploration photographer based in Toronto, Canada. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of his work and writing on his website Freaktography and on his Facebook. This article was also published here.