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Pilot Don Cheney (bottom row, center) with the crew of his Lancaster before their ill-fated 1944 mission to bomb Nazi submarine pens on the coast of occupied France. Top row, left to right: Radio Operator Reg Pool, Flight Engineer Jim Rosher, Rear Gunner Noel Wait, Mid Upper Gunner Mac McRostie. Bottom row: Navigator Roy Welch, Pilot Don Cheney, Bomb Aimer Len Curtis. Only four members of the Lancaster's crew survived after the plane was downed by German anti-aircraft fire: Pool, Wait and Welch parachuted from the Lancaster, but died of their injuries. All three were buried in France.
Pilot Don Cheney (bottom row, center) with the crew of his Lancaster before their ill-fated 1944 mission to bomb Nazi submarine pens on the coast of occupied France. Top row, left to right: Radio Operator Reg Pool, Flight Engineer Jim Rosher, Rear Gunner Noel Wait, Mid Upper Gunner Mac McRostie. Bottom row: Navigator Roy Welch, Pilot Don Cheney, Bomb Aimer Len Curtis. Only four members of the Lancaster's crew survived after the plane was downed by German anti-aircraft fire: Pool, Wait and Welch parachuted from the Lancaster, but died of their injuries. All three were buried in France.

Remembrance Day

Life and death in the sky: a war hero's story Add to ...

He ordered the crew to bail out. The tail gunner called over the intercom, “Wait for me!” He needed time to escape. Don fought with the controls, and kept the Lancaster flying at it fell apart. One of the hatches jammed, but five of the crew got out. But radio operator Reg Pool was stuck in his compartment, critically injured by flak. Don left the cockpit to help Reg. But as he pushed Reg toward the door, the bomber started plunging into a steep dive. Don climbed back into the cockpit and pulled the plane’s nose back up. Then he returned to Reg, put Reg’s hand on the ripcord, and pushed him out the door.

The Lancaster was dropping into another dive. Don climbed back to the cockpit yet again. Now he was alone. The instrument panel was starting to melt, and a tornado of wind ripped through the disintegrating plane. Don squeezed through a tiny hatch in the top of the cockpit and flashed by the Lancaster’s tail into open air. He deployed his parachute and landed in the ocean, where he had to dodge Nazi machine gun fire. The French Resistance pulled him out of the water.

For the next three months, he was hidden in the home of Resistance leader Aristide Quebriac. Don showed me photos of Quebriac, who later was given the Croix de Guerre by Charles DeGaulle. Don and Quebriac stayed in touch for the next 55 years, until Quebriac’s death 10 years ago.

As he told the story, I realized that Don must be one of the luckiest men ever born. He survived the crash, evaded the Nazis, made it back to Canada, and married his sweetheart, Gladys. (They celebrated their 66th anniversary last April.) Three of his crewmen weren’t so lucky. Tail gunner Noel Wait and navigator Roy Welch both died after escaping from the Lancaster. So did Reg Pool, the radio operator Don helped out the door – Reg got his parachute open, but died of his flak injuries.

It was dark by the time we finished going through my great uncle’s logbook. He had told me the story of a time far different than my own. Their war had lacked the political complication of the ones that characterize the current age. I went to two wars as a journalist (Iraq and Afghanistan) and didn’t understand either of one of them very well. But no one questioned the need to defeat Adolf Hitler.

Don had fought his war. Then he came home to marry Gladys, get a degree from Queens University, work on his cottage, and raise four children. And now he had finally told me the story I always wanted to hear. Before I left, he gave me a book that profiled a series of Canadian veterans, including him.

“We felt no remorse and took pride in service of those who needed us,” he told the author. “…. three of my crewmen were killed in action, and that’s with me every day. They’re with me every day. They’re still alive and they’re still 22 years old.”

I headed back from Ottawa the next day on the old Trans Canada, a highway I used to drive with my dad. I twiddled with the radio, trying to find a channel that reached out into the Canadian Shield. A voice came through my car’s speakers – it was a peppy-sounding young announcer talking about self-absorbed reality star Kim Kardashian. I snapped off the radio and rode past rock-edged lakes and forests turning red and gold with late autumn. The only sounds were the hiss of air and the thrum of the engine, pulling me forward through time and space.

For more from Peter Cheney, go to facebook.com/cheneydrive (No login required!)

Twitter: Peter Cheney@cheneydrive

E-mail: pcheney@globeandmail.com

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