COLUMN: Sarnia man who escaped Red Ryan’s gun died saving another

Wilmer (Bill) Arnold. Photo courtesy of Marilyn Palmer

Phil Egan

Hearing the story of Wilmer (Bill) Arnold makes me wonder.

When did he learn about the tragedy he’d just missed?

As he strolled toward the river or waited at Ferry Dock Hill for the boat to Port Huron, could he hear the furious volley of gunfire behind him?

And what did he think when he found out three people were dead or dying at his workplace, just minutes after he left?

If Bill Arnold hadn’t left the Christina Street liquor store ten minutes before closing to catch the 6 p.m. Port Huron ferry that Saturday afternoon, he might have died.

Arnold would still have been working in the cashier’s cage on May 23, 1936 – the day Norman (Red) Ryan and fellow gangster Harry Checkley tried to rob Sarnia’s only liquor store.

Ryan shot and killed Constable Jack Lewis – Sarnia’s first-ever police fatality – before he and Checkley were gunned down in a fusillade of bullets fired by Sergeant George Smith and detective Frank McGirr – two of four responding officers.

Arnold’s daughters, Marilyn Palmer and Rita Silvestri, say their father was a courageous man who probably would have tried to fight Ryan, one of Canada’s most notorious gangsters. Their belief in their father’s bravery is borne out by later events in his sadly short life.

Four years later, Arnold joined the Royal Canadian Air Force, serving as a Warrant Officer and technical trainer until 1946.

When the Second World War ended, the lifelong Sarnian took over as manager of the liquor store, which had moved to Front Street.

In 1949, Bill Arnold was invited to join a group of Milton businessman on a trout fishing vacation on Hollow Lake near Dorset, in the Muskoka region. Invited back the following year, in May of 1950, Arnold’s boat with three onboard capsized in the frigid waters.

Arnold was a strong swimmer but was known to have a weak heart. He rescued one of the men in the water and returned him to the capsized boat, where he was later rescued.

He then tried to swim to the third man, also struggling in the cold waters, but failed to reach him.

Speculation was Arnold, 41, suffered a fatal heart attack in the rescue attempt, but that could never be verified.

The OPP conducted an extensive search of Hollow Lake but Bill Arnold’s body was never found.