Each family has its legends. And in the Cheney clan, one figure always loomed above them all – my father's uncle Don, a pilot who made history with the 617 Dambuster Squadron in the Second World War.
I met him for the first time in the 1960s, when my dad loaded me into our Mercury Comet and drove me out to Don's cottage on the Gatineau River. It was a hot summer day, the windows were down, and my father told me Don's story as we followed the road along the river.
I was a teenager then, so I often tuned out my parents. Not this time. This was the kind of narrative that cuts through teenage self-absorption. In August, 1944, Don and his crew were shot down after bombing Nazi U-boat pens on the coast of occupied France. Three died. Four lived.
One of the survivors was Don, who stayed with the burning bomber and dragged an injured crewman to the door before bailing out. As my father described Don's long-ago mission, I was transported from the Mercury Comet to a Lancaster over the French coast. The worst things that had ever happened to me were bicycle crashes, not getting the new Beatles album, and getting turned down by a girl. Don's story took me to a parallel universe where young men lived and died in the skies above Europe.
When I met Don that afternoon, I was in genuine awe. This was a man who fought one of the toughest wars in history, and earned a Distinguished Flying Cross. But when I asked him about his experiences, Don gently shifted the subject.
"It was a long time ago," he said.
I didn't see Don for a quite a while after that. My dad was a military officer, and his career took us around the world. When my father died in the 1999, I gradually lost touch with his part of the family. I assumed that Don was long gone. But he and his Lancaster still flew through my imagination, and I never forgot that sunlit day when my dad told me Don's story.
Even though I hadn't seen him for decades, my connection with Don endured in unexpected ways. I rented the Dambusters movie so many times I lost count, and when I encountered tough situations, I often thought of what Don had faced at the age of 22. My problems always seemed insignificant by comparison.
In 2008, I got to fly with a restored Lancaster thanks to a pilot friend. There are only two airworthy Lancaster bombers in the world, yet there I was, up in the air with an airplane just like Dark Victor, the one that Don had almost died in more than six decades before.
But that was that. Or so I thought. Then I got some unexpected news a few weeks ago through my brother Rob, who lives in Hong Kong. Rob heard that Uncle Don was still alive. I was astounded. I tracked down Don's daughter. My brother was right: Don was still with us; so was his wife, Gladys.
I drove up to Ottawa last week, not knowing what to expect. My great uncle was 89 years old, and the deeds that earned him his DFC were 67 years in the past. Would he remember them? Would he remember me?
I pulled up to a senior's home not far from the Parliament buildings. It was a surreal moment that I had never expected – could my great uncle and childhood hero really still be here?
He was. And Don looked much like he did when I first met him back in the 1960s – a trim, compact man with an ever-ready smile. He was about six inches shorter than me – the perfect size for a pilot who had to squeeze into a Lancaster's confined cockpit.
We shook hands, and the years melted away. Don's memory was impeccable (among other things, he remembered the name of the dog I had in the 1960s). We talked about family for a while. Then Don brought out his hand-written pilot's logbook. It was time for me to finally hear the story of the Second World War.
My great uncle joined the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1939, the year that the war began. He was 17 years old, the only child of a senior federal official, and almost every young man he grew up with was enlisting. Don learned to fly in the Fleet Finch, a biplane with a wooden airframe covered with stretched cotton. He soon realized that his fighter pilot ambitions would not come to pass – instead he was streamed into the bomber-pilot program, training on a heavy, twin-engine Cessna called the Crane.
By 1943 he was in England, where he transitioned into the Wellington, and finally the Lancaster, a gigantic machine powered by four Rolls-Royce engines. As Pilot-in-Command, Don presided over a six-man crew, and flew from a tiny, cruelly exposed greenhouse cockpit that left no room for a co-pilot.
Bomber crews had a short life expectancy. Don and his crew were instructed to write their wills, which were kept on file. Many of Don's friends died when their planes took direct hits from the Germans' new radar-guided flak systems. Others were shot down by Messerschmitt fighters. Some died when they ran out of gas coming back from missions over Europe – the Lancaster was a heavy plane that needed power to keep flying, but the long missions pushed their fuel reserves to the limit. On one flight, Don's Lancaster ran out of gas the moment the wheels touched the runway.
Many of Don's logbook entries were written in red ink, which signified a night operation. Don described flying thousands of miles in pitch black, using guidance systems little different than the ones that Christopher Columbus once had. Don's planes were shot up so many times he lost count. Engines failed. The cockpit filled with smoke. On one mission, his tail gunner bailed out, assuming that they were about to crash. (Don and the crew made it back to England in their damaged plane, but the gunner landed in occupied France, and was taken prisoner.)
In February, 1944, Don was asked to join 617 Dambuster squadron, a unit known for innovation, precision, and brutal risk – the Dambusters got their name by dropping skip-bombs on German dams, which required them to fly just 60 feet above the water at night.
Don's assignment was to drop Tallboys, massive, torpedo-shaped bombs that fell at supersonic speed and penetrated through hundreds of feet of earth or concrete before exploding. Tallboys had to be delivered with pinpoint accuracy from an altitude of several miles – Don had to keep the Lancaster perfectly straight and level on the final bomb run, which made his airplane a sitting duck.
On Aug. 5, 1944, Don took off on his 40th mission. Against all odds, he had suffered only a single injury so far, when a tiny, red-hot fragment of German shrapnel ripped through the Lancaster's aluminum skin and hit him in the ankle, knocking his foot off the rudder pedal as he flew. Don said it felt like a bad bee sting. Don always made it back.
Now his luck was about to change. The mission that day was to drop a Tallboy on the Nazi U-boat pens at Brest, on the coast of occupied France. As they made their final approach to the target, the air was filled with flak shells that exploded around them like giant black cauliflowers with flaming centres. Don gritted his teeth and followed the bombardier's instructions – to hit the submarine pens, they had to go straight through the worst of it.
Their bomb hit the target, but Don's Lancaster took at least half a dozen direct hits. One of the engines blew up. The wings were filled with holes, and the fuel tanks were on fire. The airplane nosed over into a dive. Don knew that the wings would probably rip off soon, their structure eaten by fire. Or the entire plane might go up in a final ball of fire.
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.
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