“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.