SILENT SENTINELS: A tradition in Taber, Alberta where members of the local air cadet squadron salute veterans’ gravestones on November 11, 2016 - Photo courtesy of The Taber Times
My name is Burns Wood. I am a veteran of the Second World War. Not all veterans are as old as you see some of us here today. Veterans of the Korean and Afghan Wars, Peacekeepers, R.C.M.P., Policemen, Firefighters, Emergency First Responders are all veterans. Each group has their alliances and memories of their service. On November 11th, each year, we honor all these people who have given us their service and kept us safe. I honor my fellow living veterans and consider it a privilege to be counted among their ranks. Today, however, we especially honor and remember those who have given their lives while protecting us.
I have lived amongst you for most of my 94 years. In fact, I was born in Taber in a house in the northeast part of town that is still occupied. My Mother said that my birth was the longest day of her life. It was in fact on June 21st, which is the longest day in any of our lives.
At the start of the Second World War when a young man was approaching his 21st birthday, he received a letter stating that if he was not in one of the services by his birthday, he was to report to the Army Recruiting Office. Five of my friends and myself received that letter in the summer of 1942. We all decided to join the Royal Canadian Air Force. Two of the boys were turned down because of medical reasons. We remaining four started our training as pilots and received our Wings in October the following year. We graduated from Fort McLeod, Alberta and were assigned to different units. Two were sent to train other airmen in Canada; one was sent overseas to Bomber Command; and I was assigned to the Royal Air Force (RAF) Ferry Command based in Montreal. For one month I was trained on how to fly different aircraft. My duties were to ferry airplanes from the factories in the United States and Canada any where in the world where they were needed.
The first week in December 1943, five pilots with our crews were assigned to deliver five B-25 Mitchell, twin engine, low level bombers from Montreal to Scotland by the North Atlantic Route.
We all arrived in Goose Bay, Labrador in very bad weather. One of the English pilots—who wanted to make sure he would be home for Christmas—insisted on leaving against the advice of the weatherman. He left in the midst of a storm. Unfortunately, he and his crew and his plane were never seen again.
Four crews of planes left for Greenland and Iceland when weather permitted. As we approached Reykjavik, Iceland, one of the planes in our group had lost one motor. That pilot asked for an emergency landing. As he approached the runway, his other motor quit, and his plane crashed on the beach near to the runway. Three men and the plane were all lost.
As I approached the runway and could see what had happened before me, I came in too low and snagged one of the barbed-wire rolls surrounding the runway that had been set up to protect the airport from a feared attack. Some of the wire wrapped around my undercarriage and broke my brakes. Thankfully, the wire also slowed me down enough so that I did not crash into the greenhouses that were just off the airfield. It took two weeks to repair my plane. While my crew and I waited, the bodies from the crash were retrieved, and we buried those boys on the day after Christmas.
When the remaining three planes took off for Scotland, one had engine trouble and had to make an emergency landing on a glacier in Iceland. That crew was rescued, but the plane was lost. At the end our first assignment, two out of five planes arrived in Scotland on New Years Eve. I had left Montreal as a 22-year-old boy but arrived in Scotland as a 22-year-old man. I asked myself, “What have I got myself into? Six of my friends gone and three planes lost!”
But when we had joined the Royal Canadian Air Force, we had sworn on The Holy Bible to serve God, King, and Country. We had solemnly promised that we would obey and do our duty even if it cost us our lives. So, I carried on in fulfilling my sworn oath.
My crew and I were shipped back to Montreal, and in two weeks we were on another delivery to North Africa. In the next two and one half years, I flew to 34 different countries.
Every veteran of the Second World War has some kind of similar sad stories. It is especially those fine young men who died in those planes and on other battlefields whom we are honoring today. Over 6000 young men died in the liberation of Holland and Italy. 43,000 Canadians died in all World War II. One out of seven of us assigned to the RAF Ferry Command lost their lives.
War is terrible, but there are legitimate reasons for going to war. When the peaceful lives of our wives or children are threatened, or when our liberty or freedom is in jeopardy, or when the lives of our friends are in danger, we should fight back. (Alma 46:12)
Canada was faced with this dilemma in 1939 and chose to defend our families, our peace, our liberty, our freedom, and our friends in England. In 1939, there were only 11 million Canadians. By 1945, six years later, there were one million of us in uniform. Another million—most young women—were working in factories in war production. The girl whom I had left behind, Nena, worked at the Dominion Iron Works in Calgary as a clerk during the war.
Those two million young men and women learned important lessons during those six years. We learned responsibility; we learned obedience; we learned to trust one another; we learned to work as a group; we learned commitment. And I learned how to wait and hope that my girlfriend would not marry someone at the Iron Works while I was away. She waited, by the way.
Going to war was one of the great defining moments in my life, and in our nation’s life. We learned a lot of good things out of a bad situation. We came back, and we married, and we had babies—millions of babies. And without embarrassment or apology, I say that the youth of my World War II generation had the honor of helping to keep this great nation—Canada—a country and a homeland that continues to be safe and free. As Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae (1872-1918) said in the great poem “In Flanders Fields,” those who did not come back passed “The torch” to us. I think we held “it high.”