A student pilot nearly killed him in a training accident in November 1942. While still an instructor in the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, during the Second World War here in Canada, he’d survived a head-on collision with another aircraft near Bagotville, Quebec. And overseas during combat operations flying Spitfires, RCAF airman Charley Fox also survived 234 combat sorties as a fighter pilot. And yet, it was a June evening in 2006, that Charley told me just about topped them all.
“Meeting Dame Vera Lynn,” Fox said, “was a highlight in my life.”
It’s one of the most compelling wartime stories I’ve ever encountered. And I almost missed it. There I was, up to my eyeballs in other stuff, when I got a call from two acquaintances. Jeremy Van Dyke organizes overseas travel tours and Frank Moore, a retired former banker, collects classic cars.
“Ted, we’ve got to meet,” Van Dyke said on the phone from Cambridge.
“I’m really busy,” I said.
“We’ve got a story you’ve got to tell,” Van Dyke insisted.
When I got there, members of our organization, including myself, clustered the meeting chairs into a smaller grouping. It appeared there would be fewer people coming today. Indeed, the president pushed the lectern closer to the chairs since there wouldn’t be as large an audience.
“Not very many here today,” one man said.
“Getting worse too,” said another, noting the recent passing of a friend and regular member.
One of rancher Art Hawtin’s closest friends, another rancher in Beaverton, Ont., told me that Art had two personalities. One personality Art exhibited around family and friends, when he was soft-spoken and easy-going. Then, whenever he herded his cattle, he exhibited the firmness and purpose required. When he moved cattle into pens or onto trucks, his friend said, Art seemed to be able to speak to the animals with his eyes and his body posture.
“It was as if the cattle figured that it was their job to get into the chutes or onto the truck,” Bob Robertson told me this week. “Art made them do whatever he wanted.”
With some people I know, there are delicious rituals enjoyed when we meet after not seeing each other for a while. For some it’s a real bear hug or a genuine slap on the back. With others it’s a heart-felt handshake. Then, there is one friend with whom I’ve established a unique greeting, in this case an exchange on the telephone. Depending upon who’s calling whom, our phone conversations always began the same way.
“Is this the famous Ted Barris?” he would ask.
To which I’d respond, “Is this the famous Howard Walker?”
He wasn’t wearing his medals when I met George Weber, this week. Had he worn the ribbons and gongs – for his service in the U.K., the Mediterranean and Burma in the Second World War – they’d have no doubt looked pretty impressive. But his blazer with its air force pilot’s brevet and fighter squadron crest offered ample evidence of his wartime service.
Still, one aspect of Weber’s life in the war was not so obvious. He came from a Mennonite home near Kitchener and the Webers, he told me, did not believe in the use of guns. But as it turned out he was able to reconcile his religious beliefs and his loyalty to Canada.
“I didn’t shoot people during the war,” he said. “I ended up shooting pictures.”
In 1941, very much against his father’s wishes, a 22-year-old George Weber went to a recruiting office in western Ontario and enlisted in the army. It became evident very quickly that his family’s “conscientious objector” philosophy (a general condemnation of war for the bloodshed involved) conflicted with his basic army training. A cousin assisted his transfer to air force. And for a while, all George had to worry about were his flight controls, navigation skills, takeoffs and landings.
Then, his Elementary Flying Training School was visited by none other than former WWI fighter pilot Billy Bishop, who’d arrived to ensure the young air cadets were up to snuff. Bishop (the instruction inspector) and Weber (the guinea pig student) took off in a two-seater Fleet Finch.
“Bishop took me up to a thousand feet and told me to do a slow roll,” Weber said. “Well, I’d never done any aerobatics … but I ended up doing some unexpected low flying. … and I guess that’s why I ended up doing photo reconnaissance [in an unarmed Spitfire].”
With your understanding of my preoccupation of such things (and since I’ve just come back from D-Day observances overseas) I’ve often wondered how some men and women served in the armed forces, when their religious convictions in life did not align with the demands of their service. In particular, religious groups such as Quakers, Mennonites and Amish (among others) have historically refused to participate in armed service. Generally, such religions have believed they should remain neutral in worldly conflicts, that they had greater respect for humanity as a whole, or that no government had the right to command its citizens to go to war.
“Neither shall [we] learn war anymore,” they might quote from the Bible.
I never asked my father about such things (and I should have), but I sense his service as a medic in the Second World War might well have resulted from a form of conscientious objection. He’d grown up in a non-violent family environment. I know there was never a gun in his mother’s house (as there was never one in the house where my sister and I grew up). And while he went to Greek Orthodox Church most Sundays, my father’s view of war I don’t think was influenced by his religion. Years later, when I came across his attestation (enlistment) papers, I noticed in the “occupation” box he had written “sewing machine operator.”
It never occurred to me until someone made the connection between his occasional piecemeal work sewing furs (like his mother and future mother-in-law) and his wartime role of patching people up, that maybe his needlework had landed him in the U.S. Army Medical Corps, not his anti-war sentiment. Whatever the reason, I sensed my father survived the war very much the way George Weber did, by coping with its realities and putting up with its inconsistencies until clearly the bad guys were put out of action.
As I suggested, RCAF pilot George Weber adhered to his family’s abhorrence of violence and the principles of warfare pretty loyally. On almost every operation – more than 70 photo reconnaissance flights during the war – Warrant Officer Weber never pressed the button on his Spitfire control column with any other intention than to capture images of enemy positions.
He did however admit, in our interview this week, that he carried a 45-callibre pistol on his hip, just in case. And when pressed he said he’d used it once. On one of his flights over Japanese military positions in Burma, he attracted the attention of a Japanese Zero pilot. Weber said he managed to evade the enemy fire. But in an act of frustration – to ward off the enemy pilot – Weber said he was suddenly alongside the Japanese fighter pilot.
“I opened my cockpit cover enough to fire a couple of shots at the guy with my 45 to scare him off,” Weber said. “But my dad never heard about it.”
I guess a few warning shots across the bow of an enemy fighter didn’t violate either his promise to his father or the tenets of his Mennonite faith.
When he was a kid at school, he dreaded show-and-tell days more than just about anything. Especially around Remembrance Day. When it came time to tell the class what his dad did in the war, sometimes he’d invent a fighter pilot dad. Other times, a bomber pilot dad. But just last week when he reconsidered his father’s wartime career, Rick Askew’s attitude about his dad had changed.
“I had him winning the war all by himself,” he told me. “In truth, he never fired a gun once in the war.”
Last week, Rick Askew, a semi-retired cosmetics salesman from Oshawa, travelled with me (and a larger Merit Travel group) in northwestern France. We toured key locations in Normandy where Allied armies had gained a critical toehold against the Nazi occupation of Europe beginning on June 6, 1944. I took him and the tour group to Juno Beach, Pegasus Bridge, Omaha Beach, Pointe du Hoc, where the men of our fathers’ generation had turned the tide of the Second World War. But unlike the history books, I explained to Askew and my other travel guests that it wasn’t the generals and politicians who’d achieved these objectives. It was the average citizen soldiers, such as his father and mine.
To emphasize the point, I offered a story I’d been told by friend Braunda Bodger. A dozen years ago, she’d informed me that her father, a stationery worker in Regina before the war, had come ashore in France in the clerical section of Gen. Bernard Montgomery’s 21st Army Group. I was curious about the role a clerk might have played during the Allied advance. And when I spoke to the man himself – Wally Filbrandt – my view of the entire Allied invasion of Normandy turned on a dime.
“There were reinforcement companies, battalions and brigades all ready to jump into action,” Filbrandt told me. “We would simply receive casualty reports and then assign reinforcements where they were needed.”
In other words, he kept the invasion army functioning in fact the way it was supposed to on paper. It was a remarkable turnabout for me as a documentarian of the war. In those minutes spent with Filbrandt, I’d come to realize that sometimes the least visible acts of service were among the most influential contributors to winning the war. Filbrandt’s dispatching the right replacement ultimately meant the difference between victory and defeat.
Like Filbrandt, Bill Askew (Rick’s father) had served King and country not with a gun, but with a behind-the-lines skill. Askew Sr. had played brass instruments in the RCAF band stationed at Goose Bay, Labrador (then technically “overseas” because Newfoundland and Labrador didn’t join Canada until 1949). He and his 30 fellow bandsmen had played for parades, dances and ceremonies; they were the sound foundation to every official event on base.
“I had him winning the war,” Rick Askew said. “It took me 50 years to figure out he was just as much a veteran as anybody.”
Actually, Rick Askew had joined my Normandy trip for a number of reasons. Initially, a few months ago, he’d decided to get his buddies at a club in Oshawa to autograph of Canadian Maple Leaf flag. It would be up to Rick to find the right veteran attending D-Day ceremonies in France to receive the autographed flag as a symbol of gratitude and remembrance. As we awaited the ceremony last week at Juno Beach, Askew suddenly ran up to me.
“I found him,” he told me excitedly.
“Who?” I asked, not remembering his plan.
“The vet to receive our autographed flag.”
He led me through the maze of vets awaiting the 70th anniversary ceremony in front of the Juno Beach Centre and introduced me to Bill Opitz, who’d served as a stoker aboard the Royal Canadian Navy minesweeper HMCS Bayfield on D-Day. Ultimately, that proved only half of Rick Askew’s quest in France. During most mornings, when he smoked a cigarette out on the balcony of our hotel in Normandy, he began to realize the diversity of service that Canadians had delivered that spring back in 1944, had actually included his father.
With the story of Filbrandt in his thoughts and with his autographed flag delivered to an ordinary navy stoker, Rick Askew perhaps sensed his father’s role as a bandsman had been more important than a son had given his father credit. As a bandsman, the elder Askew had given tempo to military parades, melody to receptions and often the correct somber atmosphere to station memorials. He’d learned that service in such a desperate time had come in all shapes, sizes, and contributions.
“This trip has changed my life,” Rick Askew told me on the last day of our tour. “I’m really proud of what my father did now.”
There’s generally at least one of these in every neighbourhood. This person is most often extremely well grounded in the community or has lived there for years. People next door or down the block all feel they could trust this individual with their mother or their kids. I had a proxy parent like this. Only I didn’t realize I needed her as a surrogate until I was a young adult.
I knew her as “Ma Ross.”
Actually her name was Betty Ross. She was born Helen Elizabeth Watson on July 11, 1920, in Toronto. When she was four, her father died. So, she was raised by a caring brother. Betty came of age during the Second World War, fell in love with an RCAF Spitfire pilot – when they danced on terrace of the Palais Royale on a night in 1940 – and waited for her beau, Richard Ross, to come home safely from the air war overseas. In the 1950s, I met Betty through her son, David, who’d become my closest friend in elementary school in Agincourt, Ont. But that’s not when she became my fill-in mom.
I sat elbow-to-elbow with history last Sunday. Many seated around me had piloted military aircraft in hostile skies. Others had gone aloft as Royal Canadian Air Force navigators, radio operators, gunners and flight engineers. But just as many had made history in the ranks of the volunteer association that gathers, preserves and celebrates the romance of flight in peacetime – the Air Force Association of Canada. Closest to me (and equally close to that history) sat Hugh Halliday, eminent Canadian air historian. We talked about current writing projects. It turned out he had research I needed and he offered it to me without question, without thought of compensation.
“The best way to preserve history,” Halliday said, “is to share it.”
Following a recent oldtimers’ hockey game at the arena Sunday night, my teammates and I made our way to the dressing room. The difference this night, however, was that we had won our game. For the first time in our Uxbridge Adult Hockey round-robin playoff, we had won – our first victory in four tries. We were all feeling pretty upbeat as we piled into the dressing room, where a teammate next to me suggested why we had won.
“We can thank Flying Officer Harris for this one,” he said.