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Former fighter pilot, John "Jock" Williams poses for a portrait at the grave marker of his friend, a former pilot Captain Paul Rackham at Holy Cross Cemetery in Thornhill, Ontario, Canada. (Deborah Baic/Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)
Former fighter pilot, John "Jock" Williams poses for a portrait at the grave marker of his friend, a former pilot Captain Paul Rackham at Holy Cross Cemetery in Thornhill, Ontario, Canada. (Deborah Baic/Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

Remembrance Day

Accompanying a fallen airman, the highway's first hero Add to ...

Jock Williams of Toronto served in the Canadian army and air force from 1961 to 1996. Over the years, he was a tank commander, a fighter pilot and an artillery officer. He met Paul Rackham at 414 Squadron in Ottawa. Mr. Williams was posted to Baden-Soellingen, Germany, in 1970, and Mr. Rackham followed shortly after. They served together until Mr. Rackham's death on May 10, 1973. He was 24 years old.

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I drive it often, sometimes a few times a month. On most days, it’s a four-lane ribbon of asphalt like any other – the scenery eclipsed by the traffic. But every time I travel the 401 between Trenton and Toronto, I return to that dreary night. It was the spring of ’73. I was in a hearse with my buddy Captain Paul Rackham.

It was Paul’s last journey, and it was a lonely drive along the stretch of road now called the Highway of Heroes. What I didn’t realize then was that Paul was the first of many fallen heroes for whom that drive would be their last.

After many decades of a policy of burying casualties where they fell, Paul was the first Canadian serviceman whose remains were sent home. His arrival was unceremonious. No dignitaries met the plane at CFB Trenton when he arrived. No crowds with flags lined the route.

He was a CF-104 Starfighter pilot, a proud fellow member of 439 Tactical Fighter Squadron stationed in Baden Soellingen, West Germany. He held a sword at my wedding. He often slept on my living-room couch. He flew on my wing, or I on his, for years. He died proudly wearing a U.S. flight helmet that I gave him. (They looked sexier than our Canadian-issue model.) He was my best friend.

I remember getting the call just as I was leaving for a vacation to Rome. I was summoned to the base and told that Paul had crashed, fatally. The news of his death shattered me, but I was asked to accompany him on his last trip to Canada. I was chosen because I had met his parents a few times, and I was proud of this last service I could offer my friend.

Paul was killed in Bodo, Norway, where our squadron was participating in an air combat exercise. The ’104 was a magnificent performer, beloved by all its pilots. But it was unforgiving. Paul lost control of his fighter due to a mechanical failure. He ejected, but was too close to the ground for his parachute to fully deploy.

When they finally retired the CF-104, 37 young men had given their lives flying it. All those who had died in Europe before Paul were buried in the French village of Choloy. Canadian policy regarding repatriation of the fallen had just changed, and Paul’s parents wanted him back in Toronto. He died on May 10, 1973, about a week before his 25th birthday.

It was raining as we drove to Toronto. I rode in the hearse with Paul. The Hercules flight from Lahr to Trenton had been a long one, and meeting Paul’s mom on the ramp in Trenton was a heart-wrenching experience. My own mother was there to meet us. Her help was invaluable, as was that of Captain Mary Romanow, the officer assigned to make funeral arrangements.

The military funeral two days later went smoothly, marred only by a few intrusive members of the media seeking a sensational story that simply wasn’t there. The only glitch was that the temporary grave marker, a plain white wooden cross with Paul’s name, rank and squadron, had his name spelled incorrectly. A first attempt to fix it yielded a replacement within hours – again misspelled. The third try was successful.

I now live in Toronto and have visited Paul’s grave a few times, although not often enough. I have a constant reminder of him, though. My elder son, Paul, a military officer himself, is named after him.

In the years since, I have driven the same route countless times – and once, by coincidence, just minutes ahead of the official cortege. It was absolutely heartwarming. I was amazed at the size of the gatherings on the bridges, at the flags and at the people ready to salute the passing hearse. I cried unashamedly at this outpouring of feeling from the Canadian public.

I was horrified that the Canadian government paid so little attention when guys like Paul died. They died for Canada’s freedom as much as anybody in Afghanistan. I wish that the same understanding of the sacrifices of our troops had existed when I made the lonely journey with Paul, but I am delighted that it eventually materialized. Canada has always been reluctant to show its collective emotions. We are not generally inclined to wave the flag. But we are learning, and I am proud.

Both my sons are professional soldiers who have served “outside the wire” in Afghanistan and come safely home. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve prayed I wouldn’t ever take that journey with them. And like all Canadians, I pray for the day when the sacrifice can stop forever.





A hero’s homecoming

If there is one image from the home front of the Afghanistan war that every Canadian has seen, it is of crowds of people lining the Highway of Heroes, holding flags and home-made signs, saluting the funeral cortege of a fallen soldier.

Every one of the country’s war dead makes the 174-kilometre journey from Canadian Forces Base Trenton along Highway 401 to the Ontario coroner’s office in downtown Toronto.

The route was chosen for simple logistical reasons, but it would be hard to pick a better spot for the spontaneous outpouring that accompanies each procession. The 401 passes through one of the most densely populated parts of the nation and its numerous overpasses provide plenty of places for well-wishers to pay their respects.

The first Canadian soldiers died in Afghanistan in 2002, and the death rate escalated sharply in 2006. By the next year the term “Highway of Heroes” had come into widespread popular use, and a London, Ont., man petitioned the province to make the name official, which it did that summer.

It wasn’t always thus. During the First and Second World Wars, Canadian military personnel killed overseas were usually buried close to where they died. During the Cold War, Canadian airmen killed in Europe were often interred at Choloy War Cemetery in the Lorraine region of France.

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