Monday, 27 April 2009


(Written in 2003 on the loss of 7 astronauts)

     (This has great emotional value for me.  It was found on the internet in 2013 by Joanie Kennedy of Calgary for whom Flight Sergeant Bill Murphy was a great uncle.  I am now corresponding with members of an extended family of 32 from Calgary to Toronto, who never knew how Bill had met his death.
     As of 12 November 2018 there have been 861 call-ups, many of them recently from Carp, Ontario, home of Don Watson.
     David, my Ottawa nephew, who is a lawyer, world traveller, adviser to governments on actions that curb smoking, philanthropist, and avid cyclist, who cycles thousands of kilometres on back country roads, pausing in favourite cafés, advised Carp of the blog.)

                                                                     * * * * * * *
    Today, we have the luxury of mourning the loss of seven brave astronauts and eulogizing them. Permit me to take you back to the days when each squadron would lose 7or 14 or 21 or 28 on a nightly basis so there was no time to mourn or to eulogize. Young men, with great potential and promise, would vanish from the crew lists and be forgotten except for family and a few friends. Let me pick at random one of these crews and bring them back for a moment of remembrance and thanks.
    The weather on 9 January 1943 was foul, too foul for high level bombing. The cold was piercing and it was raining heavily this Saturday night, yet 419 RCAF Squadron, based at Middleton St. George, near Darlington, Durham, was ordered to load up five Halifaxes each with two 1500-pound mines and send them off to mine German shipping lanes off Spiekeroog in the eastern Frisian Islands. To avoid breaking up on impact these mines had to be dropped below 500 feet and at a speed just above stalling. They had to be deposited exactly where the Royal Navy wanted them which, as we had no precise navigational aids, meant flying at low level over defended islands that were continually changing their shapes with the tides, finding a positive pinpoint, then doing a timed run out to the dropping point. This was an occupation much more hazardous than high-level bombing. As we had just converted from Wellingtons to Halifaxes, each crew had two new members, a flight engineer and a mid-upper gunner who averaged about 10 hour in the air when they met their baptism of fire.
    It was only three nights since my wedding and I had better plans. However, my pilot, Pat Porter, keen and prompt as ever, pushed us to marshal our Halifax, “K” Kitty, first in line. The crew behind us, in “O” Orange, was made up of: WO2 Frank Barker, pilot, age 22 of Carbon, Alberta, Sgt Bill Cameron, air gunner, age 20, also of Carbon, F/Sgt Harvey Dunn, navigator, 21, of Fordwich, Ontario, F/Sgt Vincent Hugli, bomb aimer, 26, of Georgetown, Ontario, F/Sgt Bill Murphy, air gunner, 20, of Ardenville, Alberta, WO2 Don Watson, wireless air gunner, 21, of Carp, Ontario, and Bob Sackville-Green of the RAF, engineer. We had raced with them to be first in line, a mere game among friends, but with fatal consequences.
    The cloud deck, with dangerous icing, was at 1,000 feet, the waves were high, and we had to remain between the two all the way across the threatening North Sea. I alternated from the front turret to the bomb aimer’s position trying to spot the numerous flak ships in the inky darkness, and to keep Pat from flying into the sea as our altimeters were untrustworthy. Continued rain added to our problems and decreased visibility. Shadows on the sea looked like islands. Flak from flak ships missed us by millimetres. We stooged over the islands, greeted by more flak. Luckily, I made a good pinpoint and we flew out on a timed run to deposit our mines amid intermittent flak. As we turned for home, we surprised two flak ships as we flew between them at mast-top level. Their streams of fire were just above us and we were soon out of range. But, there was a terrific explosion behind us and we feared that one of our five had met its doom. Back at base, it was still cold and raining, but I was so grateful to be alive that I actually enjoyed getting thoroughly soaked cycling the mile home to Joan and a warm bed.
    “O” Orange failed to return.
    Much later we learned that Dunn and Hugli washed ashore on Spiekeroog, were buried locally, and later moved to the military cemetery in Oldenburg, Germany. Watson’s body floated 900 kilometres around the coast of Denmark and into the Skagerrak to wash ashore near Grebbtad, Sweden. He is buried in Gamlestaden. Barker, Cameron, Murphy, and Sackville-Green were never found. The cold and indifferent North Sea owns them.
    We had no time to mourn; there were more mining and bombing trips to make with more losses. New crews continued to be posted in to take the places of those we lost and had to be trained on squadron techniques.. The adjutant prepared the usual form letters to the next-of-kin and the CO signed them.
    So, please say a prayer and take a moment to think of these seven, the futures they sacrificed, and the emptiness forced upon their families. But, remember, we did not allow this loss, nor the loss of all the 73,741 Bomber Command casualties, to deter us from fighting a rare war we knew had to be fought. Neither should we let the loss of astronauts deter us from our role in space.
     PER ARDUA AD ASTRA! (Through Adversity to the Stars)

                                                                                                                                      Ye Olde Scribe                    



and, as my ancestry is 75% Irish, I am free to both praise and criticize the Irish, and they deserve great gobs of both. The Irish gene mixture is Scythian, Egyptian, Spanish, Celtic, Scandinavian, Norman, and Anglo-Saxon, so it is misleading to generalize.

Allow me first a little praise to, and selfish reminiscence of, my own family. My Mother, Alice McGirr, had an immense repertoire of Irish songs and a beautiful singing voice, the memory of which can still lull me to pleasant dreams. Her writing skills cleverly concealed information from Canadian, British, and German censors to keep me well informed while I was in the UK and in POW camps in WWII. My grandmother, Maude Brodie, taught me that “we will never know how much we have to know in order to know how little we know”. Her table was never empty of tasty morsels that had grandchildren and their friends inventing all sorts of excuses to visit her after school. When my uncle, Carl, a great story teller, cut off his finger tip accidentally, Maude rushed to the shed, grabbed a handful of cobwebs, replaced the finger, wrapped it in cobwebs, and it healed! On 2 occasions she brushed aside doctors who had given up hope and priests who were administering the last rites to return to health dying children. My aunt, Mames, was renowned in Toronto for her care of the sick and needy. My uncle, Norm, lost a leg in WWI, but remained full of energy, humour, and the ability to attract numerous women. My grandfather, Ned McGirr, taught me when to ignore the rule book. He was one of Northern Ontario’s best railroaders. When his supervisor was wasting precious time following the rules, Ned threw his lantern at him, got the call boys to round up rescue crews, and sped to the scene of a bad wreck north of North Bay where his generalship saved lives. Demoted for insubordination, he was later reinstated for results. Perpetuating Irish oral traditions, four of the above could recite with feeling numerous lengthy poems including my favourite - all 32 verses of Thomas Gray’s "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard", a poem that General Wolfe read again before the 1759 battle, remarking that he would much rather have been its author than the general to take Quebec. ("The paths of glory lead but to the grave.")

All this is fine from a family point of view, but what about the Irish nation? Ireland has never been united and they blame others, especially the English, when the basic truth is the Irish do not get along with themselves. With so many kings in Ireland, many Irish today can trace their ancestry back to a king. One of many tales from the battle of Moytura in 2000 BC: an Irish king was losing until his wife plunged into the battle, killed the enemy king, and won the day. They named the city of Enniskillen after her. The Irish were guilty of plundering Wales and England and returning with slaves including, in 401, Saint Patrick, who escaped after 6 years, only to return as a bishop, set up his see in Armagh, and convert the Irish to Christianity. Irish monks then went on to convert England and much of Europe. Instead of uniting against Viking incursions that started in 795, various Irish factions united at times with the Vikings against other Irish factions. When Brian Boru was making great strides in uniting Ireland, rivals joined the Vikings to defeat, then kill him, in 1014 near Dublin, a Viking stronghold. It was an Irish warlord, Dermot MacMurrough, who, in 1166, invited the English (actually the Normans) in to help him regain his crown as king of Leinster. Irish, such as Patrick Sarsfield and thousands of his followers, defeated in wars in Ireland fled to France in 1691 where they formed regiments that were of considerable help to the French in their European wars. Then, while criticizing Britain, the Irish built the British Empire. Sullivans alone provided 4 admirals for the Royal Navy. Irish clergy invented the traverse for Royal Navy guns and the use of limes to prevent scurvy. Irishmen fought on both sides during the American Revolution and the War of 1812. Generals Sir Guy Carleton and Richard Montgomery were born a few kilometres apart in county Donegal. Montgomery led the U.S. attack on Quebec City defended by Carleton (1775-76). Montgomery was killed and Carleton lectured the U.S. prisoners on the crime of molesting an honest man in his home. He then sent them all home with only sufficient weapons to safeguard against attacks from natives. Irish Fenians from the United States raided Irish settlers in Canada, 1865-1871. While beneficial in the rest of the world, British imperialism in Ireland was harsh although, during the potato famines, the British did more than others in providing help like importing large quantities of corn from North America. Early English settlers in Ireland became more Irish than the Irish and fought subsequent English settlers.

Ireland and England had the same population in 1700. Ireland had peat, England had coal and iron which permitted the Industrial Revolution. During the mass exodus in the 1840s, 17,000 Irish died en route, mainly of typhus. The U.S. enforced higher restrictions, so got the wealthier portion of the refugees. Canada got the disease-laden ships that killed many Canadians who tried to help in Quebec. Genealogy is made difficult because no records were necessary as the Irish were simply going from one part of the Empire to another.
The current problems in Northern Ireland have deep roots. The Celtic Scots lived in Ireland while the Celtic Picts, lived in Scotland, both escaping Roman rule. In the 400s quarrels in Ireland prompted a group from northeast Ireland to invade southwest Scotland in an area known as Dalriada, gradually expanding to give Scotland their name as well as the Scythian bagpipe they brought with them. Over a thousand years passed and the London government thought it a good idea to return many of them to plantations in Ireland as they were now Presbyterian Britons who could control the quarrelsome Catholic Irish.

The name the Irish prefer today, Éire, is Norse not Irish.

The Irish brought their quarrels with them to the New World. Every 12th of July the Orangemen would commemorate the 1690 Battle of the Boyne victory over the Catholics (King William III of Orange vs King James II). As their parade passed the Catholic church in my home town, Port Hope, the parish priest would toll the funeral bell. Humorous but sad. This practice did not fade out until after World War II.

Nevertheless, we forget all that to remember the wealth of Irish wit, literature, song, dance, humour, and pretty, vivacious colleens.


Wednesday, 22 April 2009

The bravest thing a person can do is to think. Knowing so little of what, where, when, how, and why we are, a wide variety of beliefs can be a good thing provided it sparks discussion and research and refrains from using such differences as an excuse to persecute. Diversity permits us to put ourselves in other peoples’ shoes if only briefly.

ANIMISM: This earliest religion is still embraced by 40% of the world’s people. Like all other religions it has been corrupted by dogma, bureaucracy, and self-aggrandizement. Basic animists are in tune with Nature. Every living thing has a spirit. So do many inanimate objects like streams, rock formations, clouds. In the morning you greet the spirit of the sun, of the forest, and of your canoe. You ask permission of the river spirit before launching your canoe, then, as you paddle along, you greet the spirits of rock formations, river bends, and so on. You ask forgiveness of the spirits of any animals you kill in order to survive. If you are an Inuit and kill a seal, you open its mouth to give it the treat of a drink of fresh water. Shamans, witch doctors, priests, and the like had to invent themselves to exploit these innate beliefs. Abuses led to animal and human sacrifices and the role of women from exaltation to exploitation.

ATHEISM: Disgust with religious differences and increasing doubts over their teachings are causing a marked increase in the number of world atheists. A leading guru, Richard Dawkins of Oxford University, is quite eloquent in arguing there is no god, no heaven, no hell, only science. To this scribe, Atheism is a dead end, unlike

AGNOSTICISM whose motto is “I do not know and you do not know either.”, has embraced many great thinkers. In this universe our lilliputian minds can grasp only a minute portion of reality, so an open mind is essential. Science belongs here, not with Atheists.

PAGANISM: I did know of the Druids, a few Witch Associations, and one Pagan magazine when I thought, for the sake of this article, I should do a little more research. After one full day of research I am amazed to be able to list 70 Pagan publications in Australia, Canada, England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and the United States. I have yet to explore the rest of the world. There are far more Pagans about than I had realized.

BUDDHISM: A contemporary of Zoroaster and the Hebrew prophets 2,500 years ago, Siddartha Gautama gave 84,000 sermons dwelling on the paths to Enlightenment. Two major divisions developed: Mahayana and Theravada plus various sects as Buddhism spread from India to Tibet, Persia, China, and Japan. Worldwide there are 164 different Buddhists sects. It died out in India but left its mark on Hinduism. Another great teacher, Vardhamana Mahavira, developed Jainism but it did not spread beyond India. Both embraced karma, reincarnation, and Nirvana (eventual escape from reincarnations) and both opposed the caste system, introduced by Aryan invaders, blood sacrifices, and the importance of priests. The Canadian magazine, with the greatest circulation in the United States, is Shambhala Sun, a Halifax voice of Buddhist wisdom.

CHRISTIANITY: There are 3,400 distinct Christian Associations, each one of which is the correct version, the others are all flawed. The majority of these are small congregations independent of any of the major sub-divisions. Adherents have run the gamut from bigotry and persecution to performing great acts of kindness. Very complex.

JUDAISM: For a small territorial religion, Judaism has enjoyed, through Christianity and Islam, immense world influence. The only religion tied to a specific piece of real estate, Israel, it still has deep divisions, the main ones being Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform. They range in groups that believe in peace, tolerance, justice, democracy, sustainable development, and care for the environment to those that see humanity divided by a clash of civilizations, competing for power, territory, and resources. Compromise is impossible so maximizing Jewish power is a supreme good wherever Jews settle. The largest concentration of Jews today is in the United States. There are 14 million Jews in today’s world while 3.5 billion follow religions directly influenced by Judaism.

ISLAM: While Christianity is in decline, Islam is enjoying a period of resurgence and is infiltrating Christian countries. It has 3 major branches: Sunni, Shi’a, and Sufi. Sunnis have 4 distinct schools of thought, Shi’as 6, Sufi 2. Then there are an additional 26 different schools, orders, movements, faiths, and what-have-you. Islam is not a centralized world threat as many fear but a widespread belief with many variants.

HINDUISM: Is, with a billion followers, a baffling array of spiritual traditions, with 4 main denominations: Saivism (at over 8,000 years the oldest of all religions after Animism), Shaktism, Smartism, and Vaishnavism. Within Saivism there are 6 main schools. Shaktism has 4, Smartism has 6, and Vaishnavism 5. All have more similarities than differences. All believe in karma, reincarnation, and in a Supreme Being who creates and destroys the universe in regular cycles - an early version of the Big Bang. Cremation is practiced to free the soul quickly to allow it to begin a new life.

ZOROASTRIANISM: An early monotheistic religion that grew and declined from 549 to 330 BC, it has many adherents in Persia (Iran) and India. It has survived many assaults that caused sects to develop. It did emerge healthy from long periods of Muslim occupation. A hereditary priesthood is causing a current decline. Life style changes in a modern world are today more threatening than past persecutions.

Considering all this, would you say it is a wee mite naive to expect any human association: family, team, town, or nation, to speak with a unified voice? Even in happy marriages, there are many differences of opinions. Our task is to embrace diversity, to outlaw the use of violence by any of these associations, to promote tolerance, to encourage discussions, and to value our own values with the flexibility to change them as our knowledge improves.

How World Decisions Are Made

Jim Cross of Victoria, BC, who earned a DFC in Bomber Command with 425 Squadron and who worked for the federal government after the war, sent this on receipt of our November newsletter:

“Your reference to the Aga Khan brought back memories of the 1972 expulsion by Idi Amin of Asians who had lived in Uganda for years, I was the acting Assistant Deputy Minister for Immigration, and chaired the inter-agency committee set up for the crisis. I felt that, if our vaunted policy of non-discrimination was to be followed, we had to do something about the refugees. We obtained the OK of the minister. The Aga Khan came to offer his support. We entertained him at a luncheon which took place during that famous USSR-Canada hockey series which some of us were watching in the anteroom prior to going into the dining room. Alan McGill, a friend of mine from External Affairs, wondered how we could keep current with the game. I told him that I would ask the steward to keep me posted and that I would relay the score by hand signal, the left for the Soviets and the right for Canada. His Highness was part way through his speech when the steward told me that it was a 2-2 tie. Up went both my hands. The Aga Khan caught this and said "Then you agree with me Mr. Cross?"

I like to say that at that point we agreed to take 6,000 refugees from Uganda. They turned out to be among the best qualified immigrants we ever had. 25 years later the Aga Khan sponsored a reunion in Ottawa. Many of the attending Ugandans were now successful lawyers, doctors, and businessmen. I choked up when two of their daughters sang “O Canada" in both official languages.”

Heaven, Purgatory, Hell


Investigators have discovered a weird universe containing a weird planet on which there are weird creatures. It appears to be a strange laboratory that doubles as a huge prison, but we are just in our initial stages of investigation. It is an unique place, hidden in a relatively quiet zone of a violent universe on a tiny ball that is part solid, part liquid, and covered in a gas of many components. This tiny ball circles a nuclear furnace that showers it with a relentless stream of dangerous particles from which it is partially shielded.

Originally it was seeded with unique acids that learned on their own to replicate and to produce the most bizarre forms, all from one common ancestor. These structures are everywhere on the planet and in a bewildering variety of shapes. We are not sure yet why or how it is done but, at a very early stage in the growth of these forms, spirits are injected, even into the flawed ones, to grow with them and to serve out sentences. Some for a brief reward, others for chastisement, but most for sheer torture. It seems that economy is served by having all of these conditions on the one ball. Provision is made for the condemned to find ways of changing their lot during their tenure. But, no instruction are provided. It is all trial and error. A cruel sense of humour hid means of sustenance here and there, but these had to be found, understood, and modified.

All spirits condemned to this prison are stripped of any past memory and are saddled with receptors for pain and pleasure but, again, no instructions are allowed, so they experiment. An even stranger burden is the need to ingest other life forms in order to extract the energy required to perpetuate this existence which they deem desirable only because knowledge of any other existence is denied. To a certain extent inmates can learn from forebears and from each other. This often eases their existence.

Gradually these beings learned that co-operation was beneficial yet tempered by the cruel necessity to eat and the fact that scarce resources could be monopolized by the strongest and most ruthless. Members of the apparent dominant species keep getting together to build only to destroy, then to rebuild. It is a meaningless cycle, full of hardships.

From afar it presents a fascinating spectacle. An endless stream of spirits are forced into it and they interact in such diverse ways. All must endure pain in varying degrees and pleasurable sensations are rationed and temporary. All sentences are soon terminated and by a wide variety of means, many accompanied by intense and extended pain. Millions of those sentenced to this jail are goaded into terminating each other, but replacements are more than adequate to continue the show. In fact, all of these creatures have the ability, and an insatiable desire, to manufacture new frames in their own image for yet more spirits. None of these spirits is ever given a fixed sentence. They can be terminated early or late, rapidly or slowly, peacefully or violently.

Actually, there is much to admire about many of these spirits. With primitive means they are trying so hard to understand where, when, why, and how. They do make progress but, alas, they have such a long way yet to go. Under such circumstances their only recourse to retain a sense of humour, recognizing the joke is on them while they wonder if all of these spirits are actually only one with a multitude of expressions concealing the ironic twist that what they appear to be doing to others they are simply doing to themselves. Perhaps, that is why so many care for others.

This jail, or laboratory, is but a passing phenomenon. It will end in spectacular violence. Peace and quiet will not ensue. For a long time Violence is scheduled to reign supreme, but will eventually die itself only to be reborn in new violence. It is definitely not a stage for the purpose-oriented, or for those who desire tranquility.

Applying a large enough magnifier, the whole scene is nothing but an immense conglomeration of endless vibrations, each in itself quite innocent, and subject to temperature. Most of these vibrations have been harnessed by Nature who controls this universe, but these fascinating and clever spirits are learning to control an increasing number for themselves. Nature appears quite ruthless, uncaring, and indifferent, yet it tolerates those who adapt to its whims.

We will continue to monitor this phenomenon to determine if it serves any purpose, but really, can all that violence be in any way desirable? Yet, somehow, these poor, imprisoned mortals attract our interest.

Pax Vobiscum!

Monday, 20 April 2009


We need to pause, more often than we do, to ponder the state of human intelligence. Too often we think we know more than we do and we all love a good discussion to display our knowledge, so tag along while I pretend to know what I am talking about. First, remember that life exists only within a tiny 12-mile air and water depth on this globe and that naked humans can survive in about half of 1% of this - immeasurably less than our constituent atoms.

Now, consider the Evolution vs Intelligent-Design argument. Evolutionists have the facts but cannot explain why. Intelligent-Design people have few facts but believe they know why. But, have they been looking for a Supreme Being in the wrong place? Perhaps, instead of the skies, they should look inside ourselves into the world of the very small, even though the human brain is not yet wired to understand the fuzzy, cloud-like atom where real power lurks. We have found strong and weak forces there, but even the weak force is trillions of times stronger than gravity. This is power that not even a hydrogen bomb can fully exploit. Can we even begin to understand it, even with computer intelligence?

There are 45 billion billion molecules in every cubic centimetre and at least double that for atoms which are extremely durable for billions of years and recycle after our deaths. Every atom has been through several suns and through millions of organisms, so it is quite probable that millions of your atoms once made up a sun, a leaf, a slug, a dinosaur, Cleopatra, Attila the Hun, or Eric the Red. It does take atoms time to recycle so do not look for any recent celebrities in you.

Increasingly, we are finding that the tiniest forms of life exhibit what can be interpreted as intelligence. They match our intelligence in nullifying our defences. Human intelligence saved millions from starvation by developing wheat strains resistant to rust, but now rust has re-designed itself (with intelligence?) into a new fungus strain, Ug99, that surfaced in Uganda in 1999 and has now spread via Kenya, Ethiopia, and Yemen to Egypt and Iran, threatening wheat crops so vital to millions. Teeming bacteria, that need to disperse, will launch themselves (with intelligence?) into the atmosphere where they latch onto dust particles and assist in the condensation of water vapour to form water droplets or snow flakes that will deposit them back to earth in far-off locations. Our bodies house 3 million bacteria per square inch. What does our behaviour and intelligence owe to them? We do have 100 billion brain cells and 100 billion nerve cells that do communicate with our livers and toes but neglect to give us any summaries of the conversations. Yet, if they are part of us, why do they not inform us? Their few pain or pleasure messages are insufficient for our curiosity. But, then, we do not even know what "us" is.

We have done wonders to reach into the vastness of space, travelling back in time for over 13 billion years, discovering in the process that we are aware of only 4% of what actually exists. We are capable of theorizing on “dark matter” that could be composed of WIMPS (Weakly Interacting Massive Particles), trillions of which must pass through the earth every second. And, we are capable of building instruments such as the French-Swiss Large Hadron Collider which, later this year, may detect them. While looking deeply into the vastness of space we can also look deeply into the vastness of atoms, finding over 150 different particles with 100 more suspected, divided among quarks, leptons, and bosons. Then there are DUNNOS - Dark Unknown Non-reflective Non-detectible Objects Somewhere.

All this ability reveals our inadequate intelligence. We do have a huge repertoire of beliefs that we call religions which demand faith which is why we have so many of them. Humans have a longing to know why but too many of us are so mentally lazy that we accept the arguments, gods, and customs of selected others with insufficient questioning. This laziness, or selfishness, is not restricted to the least intelligent among us but flourishes among the highest intellects. Scientists, economists, politicians, and the like are noted for holding in disdain the arguments of fellow “intellectuals”.

If, within each of us, human or otherwise, liver cells, kidney cells, blood cells, nerve cells, and so many other cells can co-operate with each other and with all those bacteria and atomic particles to function together while maintaining a defensive immune system, to deny their innate intelligence is folly in the extreme. To go along with E = MC2 we need other formula: Intelligence needs to be linked with consciousness and also with neurons, synapses, and surroundings. If a cell can take, or borrow, bits of DNA from different cells and if they can evolve to flourish in formerly-deadly environments then there has to be an intelligence of which we are totally ignorant.
Would you mind looking into all this, then explain it to me? PER ARDUA AD ASTRA ET ATOMUS.

Armistice, Remembrance, Veterans' Day

(A talk given as guest speaker in Memorial Park, Colorado Springs, 11 November 2005)

It is a pleasure and, indeed, an honour to address such a large group of caring people.

This hour is one of the very few in the year when we pause to remember, and to honour, all of our countrymen - and women - who have sacrificed their lives for us.

I find it painful to realize that there are no words that I can use that have not been said over and over again at least ever since Pericles, almost 2,500 years ago, so eloquently praised those who had died in the defence of Athens. In all that time our species has failed to really honour our dead, and our living veterans, by eradicating the root causes of war.

I remain haunted by memories, not only of the 125 friends of mine who lost their young lives in wars, and whom I can still name, but also of the people I have killed and the destruction that I have caused. Correcting this gross human failure is a subject too vast for my few minutes at this podium, so forgive me if I digress to just toss a few facts and figures at you.

Canada and the United States have exchanged over 150,000 warriors, mainly during periods when one has been at war while the other was neutral. During two world wars Canada was fighting for 5 years longer than the U.S. During these years, tens of thousands of US citizens joined Canadian forces. We were together in Korea and the first Gulf War. We thought it unwise to go into Vietnam, nevertheless over 35,000 Canadians joined US forces to fight in Vietnam, and many died. We are together in Afghanistan. In Iraq, Canadians were with the British who freed it from Ottoman rule in WWI, but the UK lost 10,000 men trying to make it a united, modern, and democratic country after WWI, so we thought military force was still questionable this time. However, some Canadians are also serving with US forces in Iraq.

In the Second Civil War in the United States - you will recall the first one was fought in the 1770s - 19-year-old Calixa Lavalee was one of 40,000 Canadians fighting for the North. His platoon had suffered many casualties in bloody battles, and were weary and ragged as they advanced towards yet another skirmish. With his cornet Calixa played a 1750 British tune "To Anacreon in Heaven". It was not known as such to the U.S. troops as someone had taken the tune and changed the words to make it a US tune called "The Star Spangled Banner." Calixa's performance rejuvenated his platoon and they pressed on. Later, in 1814, Francis Scott Key wrote new words for it as the British burned government buildings in Washington in retaliation for the US burning such buildings during their invasion of York (Toronto). Surviving the war, Calixa went on to write a musical comedy and worked with Broadway before returning to Canada where he composed what was to become Canada's national anthem, "0 Canada".

For you from the Southern States, Canada also looked after Confederate wounded ignoring a warning that the North would launch yet another invasion of Canada because of this. Actually, there are many lessons on the futility of starting wars. King Zaggesi of Umma, in Iraq’s Fertile Crescent, learned it almost 5,000 years ago. He built a military, looted nearby cities, but was eventually defeated to end his days in a neck stock. Napoleon learned it in 1815; Hitler, Mussolini, and Japan in 1945. Today Canada honours and puts on postage stamps Louis Riel whom they hanged in 1885, now realizing that the military force used to quell his so-called uprising was unnecessary; and the US when its military, in spite of numerous invasions, was unable to conquer Canada, now sees its businesses and its media being successful in conquering large segments of the Canadian economy. The Germans, Italians, and Japanese have all conquered more economically than militarily.

Because Canada has been a major exporter of fighting men, its military contributions have not had their deserved publicity. We have contributed over a million men to British forces, over 80,000 to U.S. Forces, and the highest number of any country to the UN, although we have slipped recently. During WWII we had 78 RCAF squadrons, 46 of them overseas, yet 60 % of Canadian aircrew (17,111) flew on RAF squadrons. In addition to the 15 Canadian squadrons in Bomber Command, Canadians manned 25% of RAF bomber squadrons. We just did not have enough of our own squadrons to accommodate all those who flocked to the colours. In WWI Canada had more air aces, with 35 or more victories, than any other country except Germany yet this is largely unknown as they flew with RFC/RAF squadrons (Germany 17, Canada 8, UK 7, France 5, Australia, Ireland, and South Africa 2 each, Austria-Hungary and Belgium 1 each). In WWII, Canada trained 308,000 aircrew for the UK, Australia, New Zealand, itself, and 14,000 for the U.S. We also trained several thousands in ground trades for the United States.

The training schools in the UK, Canada, Rhodesia, and South Africa were not enough in the early years of the war, so the RAF sent the overflow as civilians to train in the neutral US. On 7 December 1941, people here were surprised to see the sudden appearance of RAF uniforms on their streets as these trainees were now allowed to extract their uniforms from their duffle bags and wear them.

It has been a 2-way street. Over 60,000 US citizens have served in Canadian forces. In fact, so many from the southern states joined the Royal Canadian Air Force in WWII that they called it the Royal Confederate Air Force.

Canadians have won 57 Medals of Honor while serving in US forces. Canada is not as generous in issuing medals, but 6 US citizens have won the Victoria Cross, Canada's highest award for valour.

Some of you will remember Bill Dunn. When Canada went to war in 1939, he rushed to Canada and joined the Black Watch, but soon transferred to the RCAF. Flying Hurricanes and Spitfires he became the first U.S. ace in WWII and, much later, flew 378 combat missions in Vietnam. Retiring in Colorado Springs, Bill rebuilt a WWI RAF SE5 biplane which he flew. He was an active member of our RCAF wing here and we referred to his SE5 as our Air Force. While it was operational, North America was never invaded! Unfortunately, Bill died in 1995 at age 78.
Also, during this time of US neutrality, there were numerous questionable US activities. In both WWI and WWII the first Canadian convoys left Halifax a few days after our declaration of war in 1914 and 1939. U-Boats were a serious threat. We never lost a troopship, but we did lose 1,146 merchant seamen while the UK lost 25,000. The Royal Canadian Navy and the Royal Navy were hard pressed to protect these convoys. The neutral USN would leave Norfolk on peacetime manoeuvres. Belonging to a neutral nation they would have to stay well clear of our convoys. Their navigation was so terrible that they would blunder into our convoys then, for days, could not figure out how to get out, and kept going around in circles. This was most frustrating to U-boat commanders who would get fat merchant ships in their sights only to have a US destroyer cross the viewing scope, preventing torpedo launches for fear of provoking the US into the war. This saved many of our ships and men - so, thank you.

Another problem was aircraft. For the most part, Canada used British aircraft, built either in the UK or Canada, but we did need thousands of such aircraft as Harvards, Dakotas, Hudsons, and Catalinas. US law dictated that combatants could purchase war equipment in the US by paying cash on the barrel head, but, with aircraft, could not fly them out of the US. US manufacturers would fly these purchased aircraft to the flat prairies and park them along the border with brakes off while taking a coffee break. Canadians then lassoed them and pulled them across the border.

During the Korean War, we made use of US bases in Tacoma, Anchorage, and the Aleutians. The squadron I flew with, 426, made 600 round trips from Montreal without a fatality - a far cry from my Bomber Command that suffered 73,741 casualties.

There were low points in Canadian - US relations. The lowest point came while I was serving in the NORAD underground site in Cheyenne mountain.

One month, when the PLAYBOY magazine arrived, one of you stamped it NOFORN - No Foreign Eyes. However, we forgave you - - eventually - - and when KATRINA came along:

The first Search and Rescue team to reach St. Bernard's Parish where 30,000 homes were under water was from Vancouver, Canada. Air Canada used an Airbus to ferry, 166 at a time, refugees (politically incorrect - evacuees preferred) to San Antonio, Texas. It was a first flight for 90% of them. Canadian Forces aircraft ferried 24 Canadian Red Cross officials to stricken areas. One destroyer, two frigates, and 1 Coast Guard ship left Halifax loaded with supplies and 3 helicopters to ferry them to shore. One thousand military personnel were offered to help where needed; a navy diving team from Esquimalt was sent; Alberta increased oil shipments to the US to make up for what was lost. Two Canadian helicopter squadrons donated a helicopter each. And, to top it all off, politicians of all parties organized a BBQ in Ottawa and raised $thousands to give to the US ambassador for hurricane relief.

We have had, and will continue to have, differences of opinion - but these are minor compared to the depths of friendship between our two countries. Let us work together so that our grandchildren will have no need to set aside special days to remember the dead of recent wars.

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Beyond the Call

What prompts humans to act the way they do? In the spring of 1945, I was sympathizing with sardines while I was packed into a box car being taken to we-knew-not-where, but feared it was to a fortress where we could be held as hostages for a negotiated peace. We stopped in a huge marshalling yard which we inferred could only be Munich. We were not overjoyed at learning we would park there overnight because, sure enough, Bomber Command made another of its frequent visits just to increase my tally of terrifying friendly-fire encounters. In the morning our guards unlocked the box car doors to give us fresh air as we would have to wait for an engine replacement because an RAF Mosquito had disassembled ours into its component parts. An amazing and dangerous low-level surgical strike at night and a nightmare for us. Somehow our string of box cars was undamaged. On the next track was a similar string of box cars. We could hear moans and groans, so six of us (2 Britons, 2 Canadians, 1 Australian, and 1 Rhodesian) slipped over to unbar their door. We recoiled in horror as we saw a pile of creatures that had once been human. Their bony hands begged for food. We had very little, but gave what we had. Their sunken eyes screamed for revenge.

Several cars away a young SS guard was supervising a group of women slave labourers filling in bomb craters and replacing track damaged in last night’s raid. When he saw what we were doing, he came racing towards us, shouting and raising his weapon to fire. Never experiencing such an urge to kill, the six of us held our ground determined to rush him if he opened fire. Our Australian, who spoke good German, stunned him with a volley of choice German words to describe what we thought of him and warning him to start treating his prisoners like his best friends to escape the hangman’s noose that was waiting for such as he. He yelled back that they were Jewish criminals who had no right to live and that we would now join them. By this time SS guards were racing up from the opposite direction. We had good reason to fear we were about to die. Three of our Luftwaffe guards, common soldiers, emerged from our box cars. One was well into his 70s, another was a frail youth, the third was middle-aged with war wounds. They dreaded the SS and had more to fear from them than we, yet they positioned themselves, unarmed, around us and argued with the furious SS louts that we were high-ranking prisoners of Reichmarschall Göring and were, under no circumstances, to be harmed. Very grudgingly, after a long harangue with them by our guards and our voluble Australian, the SS louts agreed to let the Luftwaffe herd us back into our box cars. Our guards were trembling as they leaped into the box cars with us. They knew they had risked death in what could have been a futile attempt to save us.

This was only one of many occasions where the Luftwaffe saved us aircrew prisoners from the SS and Gestapo and is another reason why I can never condemn a whole nation for the sins of its leaders.

Saturday, 18 April 2009

About Me

    During WWII I served in the UK with Bomber Command in 419 Squadron, Royal Canadian Air Force, flying Wellingtons and Halifaxes. In 1942 I met and married Joan Saunders of Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, but we had only a few weeks together when I was shot down on my 17th operation, spending 800 days as a POW and playing a part in the Great Escape. After 72 years of happy marriage she passed on, in April 2015.  We have five wonderful daughters.
    Staying in the RCAF after the war, my numerous assignments included 3 years, 1946-49, with a USAF/RCAF crew flying B-29s all over northern Canada including the Pole and Alaska, the Korean airlift from Dorval, Quebec, the DEW Line (Cape Parry sector), tours in Personnel and Training Command,  Air Defence in St. Hubert, Quebec, and in Colorado Springs.
  After retirement I taught World History, US History, Physical and Political Geography, International Relations, and Algebra in Colorado Springs, 1970-82. From 1986 to 2014 I was the editor of the bimonthly 971 RCAF Air Marshal Slemon Wing of the Air Force Association of Canada newsletter (
     In 1981 I published a book, "It's All Pensionable Time" on my RCAF career then updated it to e-book format in 2014.  In 2010 I donated 10 years of research on 2,000 veterans, from the United Empire Loyalists to Afghanistan, to the Historical Society of my home town, Port Hope, Ontario.

THE GREAT ESCAPE - 24 March 1944

*** Having watched yet another re-run of this MGM movie, I am compelled to voice a few comments: ***

FACT: What transpired in the North, one of 5 compounds of Stalag Luft III in Sagan, Silesia, Germany, is a reminder of human courage, ability, ingenuity, endurance, and several other attributes. It is a story that has been told accurately in several books, but the film has flaws. For 22 months our Sagan commandant was Oberst Fredrich-Wilhelm von Lindeiner-Wildau, a WWI pilot wounded 3 times while earning 2 Iron Crosses. He married a Dutch baroness, remaining a staunch German but very anti-Nazi. He was a gentleman who treated all prisoners, including Soviets and Jews, well. He had coped with 262 escape attempts, including 100 by tunnels, a severe challenge to his small Luftwaffe staff, and he had to resist Gestapo/SS pressure to wrest command of aircrew POWs from the “incompetent” Luftwaffe.
(1) NATIONALITIES were introduced by MGM. We considered ourselves family, all speaking English. Two of the main characters, played by James Garner and Steve McQueen are made out to be US whereas they were, in large measure, Shag Rees from Anglesey, Wales, and Red Noble from Penetangueshene, Ontario, but also with bits borrowed from Keith Ogilvie of Ottawa who stole a guard’s wallet with vital documents and Barry Davidson of Calgary, the scrounger. So, it is difficult to estimate that, in March 1944, of the 2,000 aircrew in the North Compound, there were 1,000 Britons, 300 Canadians, 200 Australians and New Zealanders, 200 Poles, and 300 made up of Dutch, Norwegians, Belgians, French, Danes, Greeks, South Africans, Rhodesians, Czechs, and Lithuanians, Jews included. All had flown with Commonwealth Air Forces. Our USAAF had been moved to the new South Compound in Sep 43. Some had contributed to North Compound escape activities and were moved much against our ‘family’ wishes.

(2) SUCCESSFUL ESCAPERS: We had planned for 250 but only 76 got out. All were recaptured except for two Norwegians who made it back via Sweden and one Dutchman who made it back via Holland, France, and Spain. All three spoke excellent German. In the film, the Dutchman, Bram Van der Stok, is depicted as an Australian.

(3) TOOLS: Most were home made, many from the large Klim (powdered milk) cans from Canadian Red Cross parcels, and from stolen pieces of iron. Some of the yellow tunnel soil was mixed in with the darker soil gardeners were digging, here and there, but there was no mass raking as the film depicts. Items like rakes and ice skates were distributed at times by the guards but on a very controlled basis. As they could be used as weapons, they were carefully collected after each loan of a few hours. The Germans did provide a few tomato plants and each room of 6 to 9 men could request about four. Sand was effectively dispersed in the scrimmages of rugger games and under the theatre we built.

(4) MOTORCYCLE CHASE: While there were many astounding, but undepicted, escape attempts, there was no such motorcycle chase. Steve McQueen wanted this included and MGM ignored the advice of Wally Floody, our Canadian chief tunneller, who, as advisor, wanted accurate scenes, sticking to Paul Brickhill’s (RAAF) account. He clashed with McQueen over several depictions. McQueen won. Movie goers, and Steve, liked chases.

(5) BLIND ESCAPER: We did have a few men go blind, both naturally and from wounds, but they endured the slow process of repatriation. Two RAF pilots did make an earlier escape, did get to a Luftwaffe aerodrome, and did get into an aircraft, but were caught when the engine would not start. The shooting of the forger was phony. I have had Canadian and British friends shot and killed by approaching troops after crash landing, but they were in RAF/RCAF aircraft. This was a Luftwaffe aircraft so those rushing to the scene would have expected German survivors.

(6) CAFÉ SHOOTING: The bartenders would not have remained at the scene to celebrate with a toast as the knownGerman reaction was to quickly round up those nearby and to shoot at least 50 for each German murdered.

(7) NIGHT TRAFFIC: Leaving our huts at night was rare and dangerous as dogs prowled the night compound. One night, when we were slow to lock shut our room wooden blackout shutters, a dog leaped at our windows. I can still see his fangs. After the last roll call on the day of the escape, still in daylight, many normal residents of hut 104 ambled into the vacated bunks of the escapers who slowly and casually crowded into tunnel-hut 104. A few made it after dark.

(8) GERMAN ACCOMMODATION was not in, or adjacent to, our compound. Their compound was out of sight behind numerous trees. Luftwaffe soldiers, usually rifle-armed, would take several minutes to reach and assemble in our compound and never in the numbers depicted in the film. Except for searches or roll calls, when all 15 huts, each with 17 rooms, had to be proven empty, and the number in each block on parade counted, the average number of Germans in the compound was about four. My job was to keep track of them. For many hours there would be no German in the compound. The guards in the perimeter towers, of course, had us under constant surveillance.

(9) FOURTH OF JULY: Only the USAAF celebrated their national day, but this was in 1943 when some of them did make a limited amount of booze from potatoes and raisins. Two, made up as one horse with a rider, did gallop to the parade ground during roll call to urinate (the man making up the rear of the horse had a concealed can of water), with the rider shouting “The British are Coming!” Luftwaffe Hauptmann Hans Pieber, usually the only officer we would see, went along with the prank and, in counting the assembled block, shouted to the recorder, “Zwei und achtig und ein pferd.” (82 men and one horse). The booze was then distributed to a selected few after which the top-ranking Commonwealth and USAAF officers were thrown into the large pool of water that was designed for fire-fighting.

REFLECTION: It averaged about 2 weeks from the time of the very traumatic experience of being shot down until we found ourselves in a room with 6 to 9 bunks, double or triple stacked, in a permanent camp. We all had endured evasion, capture, many searches, a week’s solitary confinement during interrogation, transport to a permanent camp, and more interrogation, this time by established prisoners who needed to know we were also bone fide prisoners.

It was not until then that we fully realized our amazing good fortune: we were among the 17% who survived being shot down (we had known the odds); most had been well treated by the curious civilians who captured us; the police and Luftwaffe to whom we were handed were also courteous and respectful (we had feared rough treatment); we were in a large camp that, although primitive, was much better than expected; and there was some Red Cross food, but we were always hungry. Freed from operations we could cease contemplating how few hours we had yet to live. The war still had years to go and we were safe for at least a few months. Our taught nerves could relax.

Several weeks passed before we were gradually informed of all the escape activities that were in progress. Of course we all wanted to get home. Barbed wire is so confining to the human spirit. Having been loose for 2 days in March cold and rain with blood still trickling from wounds, I had learned how difficult it was to travel any distance in a country of 90 million enemies who guarded every road, bridge, rail yard, and waterway. Nevertheless, I joined X (the escape committee). I was assigned to Security, responsible for keeping track of, and recording, every German in the compound during my shifts. It was soon evident we were doing much more harm to ourselves than to the German war effort. This was a new camp in the midst of a pine forest. We cleared the stumps after Polish and Russian prisoners had cut down enough trees to make a large clearing for roll calls and for sports. Our guards soon learned that the remaining trees were concealing our escape activities, so those trees were also removed, making our ‘resort’ camp turn quite dreary and dusty.

We had a good library, ever increasing with books sent by next-of-kin. While most of us were high school boys many of the British and Europeans were older professionals and many conducted classes in a wide variety of subjects. I took several of these courses and I was able to enrol in a political science course with books provided by the University of Saskatchewan. We got daily BBC news via a radio we built with smuggled parts and we had a variety of German newspapers and magazines. We knew much more about the war than the people who were still fighting it.

Winter months were cold so I was grateful when RAF airmen’s greatcoats, captured in France, were distributed and my parents sent me a blanket to supplement the 2 provided by the Germans and made from the hair of murdered women.

As the war progressed, differences in philosophies increased. We all wanted to get home. We all knew that escaping and harassing the enemy war effort was a duty, even if increasingly risky. Many remained adamant in their desire to get outside the wire if only for a few hours of freedom. I had growing doubts about the wisdom of escaping.

German newspapers were displaying increasing anger over the destruction of civilian lives and property our bombers were causing. When a USAAF crew was shot down wearing jackets labelled “Murder Inc.” (After the Dick Tracy comic characters) pictures were published all over Germany as proof that we were Luftgangsters revelling in the slaughter of women and children. Hitler then ordered troops not to interfere to save downed airmen being beaten to death by irate civilians. Our worried German Commandant kept warning us that the climate for escaping had changed.

In the relative comfort of our Luftwaffe camps, few of us gave the Luftwaffe deserved credit for risking their lives in putting a shield around us to protect us from the Gestapo and SS. While we recognized our plight if the Luftwaffe lost control, we failed to understand how precarious Göring’s husbandry of aircrew POWs was. He saved thousands of us by convincing Hitler that RAF aircrew who came from occupied Europe should not be shot as he wanted because Churchill had made them all British citizens (which Göring knew was not true). Most of us, however, did feel that escapes should be low key and small scale in an environment that could promise little success, but would not explode in bloody reprisals. I argued we should work to enlarge the gulf between the SS and Luftwaffe as we would need them in a post-war Germany.

BIG X (Sqn Ldr Roger Bushell, a South African barrister and Spitfire pilot, shot down May 1940), retained an intense hatred of Germans of all stripes and was able to command a following who worked for an escape of hundreds that would involve millions of Germans neglecting war work to hunt us down. I, with most of the camp, believed that March 1944 was too early in the year to steal farm food and too late in the war for a mass escape that was sure to bring harsh reprisals. Survival was our main goal. We knew the Soviets would reach us before British, Canadian, and US forces and whether they would treat us as friend or foe was unknown, but there was still safety in numbers. I joined the group studying commando tactics around our remaining useable tunnel should the Soviets consider us undesirables.

Our mass escape did harm the German war effort in that 5 million people spent weeks hunting for those who were ranging far and wide across Germany. Three got back to Britain, but in reprisal the Gestapo shot Van der Stok’s brother in Holland and tortured his father to death. I remember shaking the hands of young friends as they left for the tunnel and seeing their ashes returned to us. Hitler ordered all 76 to be shot but Göring, who wanted none shot, persuaded him to limit it to 50. I also feel for our commandant. Our escape left him disgraced and impoverished. His family also suffered heavily with loss of homes and lives. He received rough treatment as a prisoner of the Allies, not allowed to see his destitute wife for 2 years. He had never handcuffed a prisoner but was handcuffed himself. Göring lost control of us to Himmler who gave the job to Gottlob Berger who, along with Eva Braun, failed to carry out Hitler’s harshest orders. I owe my life to them, but that is another story.