Pilot, POW, father, professor. Born on Sept. 27, 1920, in St. Boniface, Man.; died on June 28, 2016, in Guelph, Ont., of natural causes, aged 95.
Tom Lane was a Manitoba farm boy. When the Second World War broke out, he enlisted and became a Halifax pathfinder pilot for the Royal Air Force. Tom and his crew were charged with flying deep into enemy territory to release flares that lit up targets for the hundreds of Allied bombers that followed. It was dangerous work.
After nearly 40 successful missions, a burst of machine-gun fire from a German fighter plane crippled Tom’s Halifax. With engines in flames, he kept the plane steady so his crew could bail out. When it was his turn, he realized that he was trapped, held in his pilot’s seat by a harness and a release pin just out of reach. “I can’t find my harness pin,” Tom cried over the intercom. Flight Sergeant Roy Macdonald, at the door just about to jump, risked his life to fight his way back to the cockpit, where he found and pulled the pin. With no time to lose, Roy jumped out without looking back. Seconds later, Tom jumped and deployed his parachute.
On the ground, in the darkness, Tom found himself alone somewhere in the Netherlands which was German-held territory. He was captured and became a prisoner of war at Stalag Luft III, the camp made famous by the 1944 Great Escape. Conditions were very difficult; Tom and his cabin mates once had to eat dog’s-head soup for sustenance.
In the last months of the war, he was among the 80,000 Allied POWs compelled to make a torturous, forced march toward Germany in extreme winter conditions. Tom trudged, cold, wet and tired, mile after endless mile with almost-certain death waiting at the end. He survived it all.
When he finally got home to Canada, he discovered that his entire flight crew had survived the war as well. Settling in Guelph, Ont., he met the love of his life, Celestine Fantinato. They married in 1946 and had four children: Tom, Mary, Jim and Carolyn. After graduating from the University of Guelph he became a professor of land resource science there for more than 35 years. An esteemed soil scientist, he was instrumental in developing and implementing soil-conservation practices in Ontario.
Tom taught his children to love and value the simple things in life: being warm and dry, having access to good food and drink, and above all, the importance of family. He taught them that time waits for no one – so enjoy every day. He did just that: in addition to his role as father and professor, he was an avid horseman, bridge player, golfer and curler.
And the man could sleep anywhere. He recalled how in the prison camp, at night, Allied bombers sometimes flew low over the area and dumped their remaining bombs to lighten their load before the flight back to England. The cabins would shake, men would hide under beds and tables. But Tom would stay sleeping in his bunk. In the morning his mates would say, “How could you sleep through all that? If a bomb came through the roof it’d land right on top of you.” Tom replied: “If a bomb comes through the roof there isn’t a damned thing you or I can do about it, so I’m not going to worry about that. I’m going to get the best sleep I can.” He applied that philosophy for the rest of his life.
We can still hear his voice and the wisdom of his words. We smile and think: He was a good man – a true gentleman. He taught us much.
Christopher Dodd is Tom’s son-in-law.Report Typo/Error
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