Tragedy close to home struck some of those who trained at Royal Canadian Air Force Station Patricia Bay during the Second World War. (Courtesy of Tom Wagner)

Tragedy close to home struck some of those who trained at Royal Canadian Air Force Station Patricia Bay during the Second World War. (Courtesy of Tom Wagner)

T.W. Paterson: At last — honouring the lost airmen of the empire

How ironic that these young men gave their lives without ever coming under enemy fire

How ironic that these young men gave their lives without ever coming under enemy fire, thousands of kilometres from the Asian and European war zones.

Ten o’clock tomorrow, June 1, a memorial 62 years overdue will be unveiled at Victoria International Airport.

It will honour The Lost Airmen of the Empire, the 179 young men and three women who died in the line of duty — ‘on active service’ — while in training at what was then Royal Canadian Air Force Station Patricia Bay. Today’s busy international airport was the second largest of three British Commonwealth Air Training Programme air bases in Canada during the Second World War.

The saga of these long lost aviators who, sadly, have been all but forgotten over the decades, is a subject particularly dear to my heart, one that I’ve been researching for more than 10 years. If ever there has been a case of due recognition being better late than never, this is it!

My hat is off to the Victoria Airport Authority, the District of North Saanich Council Heritage Advisory Committee and volunteers for bringing this about.

In keeping with its special significance, the memorial is unlike any other that I know of. Designed by Victoria sculptor Illarion Gallant, it consists of 25 3.6-metre-tall steel Cooper’s Hawk feathers bearing the names, etched into the steel by water-jet, of the lost airmen and women. (In keeping with the theme of airmen training to go to war, the Cooper’s Hawk is a predator noted for its agility in flight and ferocity in hunting.)

One thousand bricks salvaged from the previously demolished administration building have been incorporated into the memorial and rows of red maples have been planted on either side of the path leading to it. Visitors, according to a press release, will “find interpretative signage and seating areas constructed from the salvaged bricks”. Too, there’s a time capsule to provide “community members the opportunity of placing sealed letters to veterans within”.

Even the memorial’s siting on the north side of the airport is historically significant, being located on Mills Road where the RCAF Medical Facilities were located.

Giving tomorrow’s ceremony a personal touch is the scheduled presence of Wallace G. du Temple whose father, George Wallace du Temple, and crewman Cpl. W.S. Hopper, landed the first RCAF plane at the newly-commissioned Pat Bay on Oct. 22, 1939. A year ago he “applaud[ed] the VAA for establishing the working group and for assisting its dedicated members to develop and choose a fitting tribute to the men and women who served in Canadian Armed Forces at the airport during the Second World War.”

In speaking of his striking creation, acclaimed sculptor Gallant recalled growing up in postwar Toronto in a neighbourhood of immigrants from war-torn Europe. “Memories of the Second World War,” he said, “created a quiet background to the hope and optimism of starting a new life in Canada. The presence of veterans and their memories from both world wars were an indelible influence in my early life.

“The Lost Airmen of the Empire has given me the opportunity to create a visual dialogue which articulates the community’s heartbreak for those who sacrificed their [lives] for what they believed in: their country.”

The VAA commissioned the memorial “to recognize the pivotal role that Victoria International Airport played during the Second World War by honouring those who lost their lives while training for their duties,” VAA President and CEO Geoff Dickson said in April 2016.

An astounding 10,000 young Canadian, British, Australian and New Zealand service men, and some from occupied countries, trained there to be pilots, navigators, wireless operators, bomb aimers, gunners and flight engineers, as well as fitters, mechanics and armourers.

As the new memorial makes so poignantly clear, not all of them made it overseas. Almost 200 of these tyro aviators died without leaving British Columbia, lost in bad weather, in crashes on isolated mountain peaks, over the ocean, in mid-air collisions or they simply went missing under circumstances that were never determined.

Seventy years later, some are still missing. Likely, as Lake Cowichan poet David Boeckner lamented, “On some bloody mountain in the middle of nowhere.”

Some bloody mountain like Cowichan Lake’s Mount Bolduc where, during the night of April 25, 1944, six men died in the crash of their Ventura bomber. Three years earlier, a pilot was killed when his Bristol Bolingbroke bomber crashed on the Cowichan Bay mudflats. Ten more lives were lost when their B-24 Liberator caught fire and crashed in Sansum Narrows. These were just 17 of 179.

British Columbia skies are challenging at the best of times; during the Second World War, limited navigational aids and blacked-out coastal lighthouses and communities coupled with air crews’ inexperience while operating sometimes unproven aircraft proved, too, often, to be a lethal combination.

How ironic that these young men gave their lives without ever coming under enemy fire, thousands of kilometres from the Asian and European war zones.

How sad that — for 62 long years — they’ve been overlooked by most historians. Tomorrow, this tragic oversight is to be corrected for all time.

www.twpaterson.com