My Remembrance Day Memory: Meeting a WW2 bomber crew
In my public school days, I didn’t have hockey or baseball trading cards; I had Second World War cards of fighter and bomber planes and all the horrible stuff associated with war. That interested me. I have also watched every war movie made and some movies like “The Longest Day,” about the Allies’ D-Day invasion, I watch every time it’s on television.
Stories my father told of his experiences in Holland during the war made an impact on me. I heard about airmen parachuting out of airplanes and burning aircraft crashing down on our small farm in Holland. Back then I never thought I’d meet the brave men who flew the aircraft.
When I went to the Canada Aviation Museum in Ottawa in 2001, all I expected to see were the many different types of old aircraft on display in the massive building.
That summer afternoon, about a dozen people took the 45-minute guided tour of the building, which houses one of the world’s best collections of vintage aircraft. The aircraft included a full-scale replica of the 1909 Silver Dart, the first powered aircraft to take flight in Canada; the powerful Spitfire, the most famous British fighter Second World War plane and the Messerschmitt 163A Komet, the first jet-powered German fighter, developed towards the end of the war.
But there was a huge four-engine bomber — an Avro Lancaster X — in the far side of the Second World War section that caught my fancy. The massive bomber, in a dark green colour, intrigued me. I kept glancing over at it.
When our tour group finally got to the bomber, I was amazed at the tiny glass-enclosed place where the rear gunner would sit among machine guns and ammunition. It was hard to imagine that someone could fit in that place and sit there for eight hours on bombing runs.
Some well-dressed elderly gentlemen in blue jackets, with their wives and family, suddenly joined our group as the tour guide told us the details of the aircraft.
The tour guide explained that the rear gunner sat in a very precarious cramped quarters.
“She’s damn right!” said one of the elderly gentlemen. “I should know. I sat in there during the war years!”
The elderly gentlemen were the last living bomber crew. A daughter of one of the men had brought them together. She wanted a painting of her dad and his war chums together before it was too late. The Canada Aviation Museum, upon request, jumped at the chance to get a picture of the last remaining bomber crew still intact and still alive.
The tour group moved on and I stayed and swung into reporter mode, introduced myself and talked with the airmen about their wartime experiences and asked them to pose for a photo. I had a camera, pen and notebook and couldn’t believe I was in the right place at the right time. The photos are a treasure.
The men flew a British Wellington bomber, which is smaller but similar to the Lancaster. William Pettit, of Ottawa, was the rear gunner, Eric Hodgson, of Winnipeg, was the front gunner, Mike Manning, of Oshawa, was the radio (wireless) operator and Ralph Stutt, of Ottawa, was the pilot. The navigator, Roland Dube of Grandmere, Quebec, was killed in 1950 in an RCAF air crash in Alaska.
For nearly a year (from November 1942 to August 1943) they flew together in night raids over German cities and later from North Africa to Sicily. In spite of nightly anti-aircraft fire and attacks from German fighter planes that sometimes left their Wellington bomber so full of holes that a ground crew had to replace the wings before it could fly again, no crew member was ever injured. After August of ’43, they trained other aircrews.
When I met the men, Stutt was 89, Pettit was 83, Manning was 85 and Hodgson was 90.
A portrait by artist Elaine Goble was made from a photo taken that day and donated to the new War Museum in Ottawa.
That’s my Remembrance Day memory and one I’ll always treasure.
Maynard van der Galien is a Renfrew-area farmer and a long-time columnist with Farmers Forum.