Ken McKinnon was the recipient of a Duncan Cowichan Chamber of Commerce Lifetime Achievement Award, just one of the many milestones in his life. (Citizen file)

T.W. Paterson: Lifetime Achiever Ken McKinnon passed away in June

“I remember looking down and wondering how anyone could survive the situation down there…”

“I remember looking down and wondering how anyone could survive the situation down there…”—Ken McKinnon as a teenaged tail gunner of a Lancaster bomber.

Cowichan has lost one of its best known and most respected businessmen with the passing, in June, of Ken McKinnon, founder of Cobble Hill’s Pacific Builders Ltd.

That much I knew about Ken from the day I moved to Cherry Point in 1974 and my daily travels took me by way of Fisher Road and the Trans Canada Highway. It was pretty hard not to notice the large building supply store, the truss manufacturing shops and the lumber yards.

What I didn’t know about Ken was his wartime career with the RCAF. That didn’t come until 2010 after he’d published his memoir about serving as a tail gunner in a Lancaster bomber.

As it turned out, I didn’t review his book as originally intended, but serialized it in the Chronicles. And a great read it was, telling as it did of what it was really like to serve in Bomber Command in the skies over occupied Europe and Germany itself. Mortality was so high that air crews fatalistically accepted an operational survival rate of just six weeks!

Now, I’ve read a lot of books on both world wars but I found Ken’s First Up, Last Down to be one of the best because it’s one of the most informative — written by a man (actually he was still a teenager) who’d experienced everything he told about, firsthand. It gave a freshness to his book, an insight I’ve seldom experienced from all of my previous reading because he was a tail gunner not a fighter pilot. Talk about a change in perspective from the thousands of other wartime memoirs and movies…

And it made a darn good series in the Citizen to boot.

Born one of 13 children in New Westminster in 1925, Ken grew up on the family dairy farm at Cloverdale and enlisted with the RCAF in November 1943. Just five-foot seven, 119 pounds and 17 and a-half, he caught a bus in Cloverdale and headed for Vancouver without his parents’ knowledge.

The RCAF welcomed him but, he recalled, “My parents were not as excited as I was about my going to war,” perhaps because two of his brothers and two sisters were already serving in the armed forces. “There were no tearful goodbyes. In our family, whatever happened, we were matter of fact about it.”

He was off to Edmonton Manning Depot, arriving to begin basic training in the midst of a prairie blizzard — “marching, target practice, bed-making, barracks cleaning and such” — under the stern direction of hardened drill instructors who were determined to make men of them all.

Ken endured and moved on to Initial Training School in Regina where he posted the highest marks of his class in navigation school despite his not even liking the subject. He wanted to be a pilot, of course, which was the goal for most young airmen. When that was denied him he became a gunner rather than a navigator and flew dozens of missions in the last year of the war; missions in the deadly glow of searchlights in flak and fighter-filled skies that killed many of his comrades. But he and B-Baker crew survived.

In a rare moment of reflection even as the adrenalin was flowing, the young gunner looked back at a German target they’d just bombed: “We could see the flares and the fires on the ground for 150 miles… I remember looking down and wondering how anyone could survive the situation down there…”

Such, regrettably, is war. With peacetime and repatriation Ken returned to Cloverdale, married Marie in 1949 and moved to Port Alberni to work in construction. In 1958, in Cobble Hill, Ken started Pacific Builders’ Supply — another fascinating story he later wrote about (although he only took it to 1995) and one that I’ve wanted to expand upon.

Still in the family, the firm now includes Pacific Truss and Pacific Homes.

After Marie’s death he remarried, to Sandra, in 2004 and spent much of his retirement volunteering with Providence Farm and supporting Queen of Angels School and St. Edward’s Catholic Church, Duncan. Other interests included gardening and travelling, invariably after beginnng each day at 5 a.m. with a 10 kilometre walk.

Ken was honoured with a lifetime achievement award by the Duncan-Cowichan Chamber of Commerce in 2012.

Ken McKinnon made it to his 92nd year after a lifetime of achievement. All that for the former wartime tail gunner whose life expectancy was once measured in weeks.

www.twpaterson.com

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Caps nipped by Bulldogs in OT

Cowichan remains unbeaten in regulation in January

Shawnigan group challenging assessments, claiming soil dumps have lowered values

Neighbours raise water quality, property value issues

Editorial: Curbing urban sprawl a laudable goal

We did not agree with the motion put forward to put a moratorium on development.

Lake Flashback: Haiti relief pours in, political kerfuffle has deep roots, and BCFP acts quickly on PCP leak

We’ve also included a picture of Lake Cowichan Kinsmen rescuing the Duckpond dock

Chris Wilkinson column: Perspective matters now more than later

The point here is that priorities matter. All the time. Every month.

Fashion Fridays: The basics you need for your body type

Kim XO, helps to keep you looking good on Fashion Fridays on the Black Press Media Network

Couple wonders who’s in a photo that’s been hanging in their Cariboo home for years

Charles and Lynn Dick believe the image was taken at the 70 Mile Road House

Here’s what Canada is doing to stop the coronavirus from getting in

Health officials are monitoring multiple possible cases in Canada

‘I would not go’ to China says B.C. traveller concerned about coronavirus

Alice Li said she goes to China every other year but would scrap any travel plans

Royal Canadian Legion expels B.C. member for wearing unearned military commendations

‘Stolen valour is stolen service and it’s just totally wrong’

‘Latte-sipping urbanites’ need to realize value of mining in B.C., association head says

Industry generates a total of $3.9 billion in sales of goods and service across the province

Uber, Lyft approved for ride-hailing in Lower Mainland

Kater Technologies Inc.’s application was rejected

B.C. man rescued after getting trapped headfirst in well as water level rose

The rescue involved crews from Oak Bay and Saanich

Most Read