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Second World War bombers get a special honour

John (Jack) McLean can now wear a unique commemorative bar for his Bomber Command duty in the Second World War.

Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

John (Jack) McLean survived 32 missions fighting the Nazis as a gunner in a heavy bomber and now, almost a lifetime later, it seems, Canada is awarding veterans such as him a special distinction to mark their service.

The Harper government took the wraps off a commemorative bar in Ottawa Monday to honour the 50,000 Canadian veterans who served in Bomber Command. Of the 55,000 Allied men and women who lost their lives in the bomber forces, more than 10,000 were Canadian.

As the mid-under gunner in his Halifax bomber, Mr. McLean had a bird's eye view of the devastation of war.

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"I was looking right down at the target: the explosions, the fires. It was just pandemonium and it's something you don't forget," said the veteran, who served as an 18- and 19-year-old and is now 87.

"So many nights, Allied air crews flew into the dark, cold and lonely skies over occupied Europe, knowing their odds of surviving their tour were barely 50-50," Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney said Monday as he unveiled the bar with veterans such as Mr. McLean in attendance. "They had every reason, every right to fear that their next mission might be their last. And yet they answered the call to duty night after night, day after day."

Mr. Blaney acknowledged the long delay in recognizing Bomber Command vets. Canada, he said, was offering vets a "thank you the way we always should have done."

The Allied bombing raids were controversial because of the large number of German civilians killed by the attacks. "For long stretches of time, the air was the main and almost only weapon we had to fight the occupying forces on the European continent," the minister said.

Mr. McLean said his aircraft was "one of the lucky ones." It caught lots of flak during the six- to seven-hour missions, but never sustaining a major hit as it carried up to seven tonnes of bombs and incendiary devices to targets mostly in Germany's heavily industrialized Ruhr Valley. "The flak was very heavy. The Germans had their night fighters. They had good aircraft but they didn't get us. We had a good pilot."

The constant noise in the aircraft left its mark on him. "That's why I have hearing problems," Mr. McLean said.

He lost two good friends – both bomb aimers – who were killed in training exercises in Scotland and England. They were on his mind during the ceremony Monday.

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Mr. McLean, who lives in the Ottawa area, has no regrets about his wartime experience. "I've never been sorry I had it," he said, adding his best memories are the camaraderie. "We were young Canadians, flying together and taking our chances together."

Only two others of his 11-member bomber crew are still alive.

The veteran says he's grateful for the honour, despite the wait. "It took around 70 years to get this, but it's nice to get it in the end."

Of the 50,000 Canadians who served with the Royal Canadian Air Force and Royal Air Force in Bomber Command, relatively few are still drawing breath today. The government is not offering official estimates but expects perhaps less than 2,000 veterans remain.

The new commemorative bar will be offered to veterans, or their surviving spouses or "loved ones" of deceased veterans, the government said. The only criterion is one day of service in Bomber Command, either in the air or on the ground as support crew.

Mr. McLean says the scariest part of the mission for him was takeoff for the heavily loaded bomber. "Anything could happen and once it did, down you came."

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He says the best part of the mission – during which he wore electricall –heated suits to brave the cold at 20,000 feet – was landing safely.

"It was always good to get back and have a cigarette, a cup of coffee and be debriefed before going to bed, getting ready for the next one," Mr. McLean recalled.

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