Posts Tagged World War II

Survivor Stories

Not many patients stand out in my memory from my days as a student nurse.  They gradually teach you to be professionally distanced. There is one though, that I remember beyond all others.  She was in the latter stages of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.  She could only talk and breathe,  but she loved the sensation of movement and of having her arms and legs put through range of motion.  Once I brought in some of the purple cones growing on an evergreen outside our dorm to show her.  We would talk.  On one arm she had blue tattooed numbers- she was a survivor of Auschwitz.  One day another nurse on the floor said to me in exasperation.  “You are spoiling her, now she’ll want that from the rest of us.”  I was speechless. How could you “spoil” someone who had been through that hell.  Didn’t she deserve an extra measure of care and kindness in this new imprisonment?

I was roaming the blogosphere today and came on this video by other Survivors. It is not good to forget these things.

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By God’s Grace and grit

Dad finished a full tour of duty, flying bombing missions over Germany.  The war ended before he was sent on a second tour. He never was inclined to talk much about it, and didn’t keep up his pilot’s license after being discharged.

Back in Canada he was entitled to a Veteran’s scholarship.  Even with his new commitment to God he couldn’t see himself up behind a pulpit,  so he decided to become a  doctor.  Apparently there hadn’t been a whole lot of incentive for the son of a poor farmer in the dirty thirties to put a lot of effort into his academic career. The folks at the University took one look at Dad’s high school marks and laughed at his medical ambitions.  However, they also gave him an IQ test. He said, “Never before or afterward, have I scored so high.”  He made it into pre-med on the strength of that test.

There wasn’t much hazing on the University of Saskatchewan campus that year.  The entering class of war vets weren’t about to be pushed about by juniors who had come fresh from High School.

Part of the first year curriculum  was a course in Bio-Chemistry.  It was specifically designed to thin out the class.  Dad said that there were four large blackboards.  The Professor would come in, start writing on one board, cover them all with notes, wipe them clean and start over.  By the time Christmas vacation rolled around Dad was foundering deeply in the course- he said he didn’t have a clue.  However, the Prof. handed out  a ten to twelve page course summary, just before he dismissed the class for their break.  Dad started memorizing it by rote, starting with page one and working through.  By the time he had memorized half the sheets the material started to make sense, and when he wrote the final in January he had the second highest score on the exam.

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The last training mission

Dad ran away from the farm at seventeen. and went west, He worked at a hospital as an orderly (and later assured me that the experience in no way positively influenced him toward his eventual career). He also spent some time catching rivets at the Vancouver shipyard and thereafter blamed any difficulty with hearing on that experience.

When the war broke out he enlisted at nineteen and became the pilot of a Halifax bomber crew.  I’m indebted to, Roy Collins, who mailed me some of his reminiscences.

He wrote, “I greatly appreciated your telephone call to tell me that Norm had passed away. . . His death marked the end of a very special friendship for me, forged in the dark days of World War II.

” I was trained in the R.C.A.F. as a Wireless Operator and posted to the UK. In January 1944 I was posted to an air force base at Honeybourne in Worcestershire.  All the various flying “trades” were sent there at the same time – pilots, navigators, wireless operators, bomb aimers, and gunners. Unlike the usual air force procedures in which we were told what to do, we were left to choose crew mates with whom we would be with for the rest of our active flying duties. Each pilot was given two days to submit the names of his crew who had “chosen each other” so to speak.

“The morning we all arrived at Honeybourne there was general confusion. We were on a base we had never been on before and no one knew to whom, or where, or when we were supposed to report. In the middle of the muddle I was a aware of a tall blond pilot who got to a telephone, called the Adjutant, and was able to tell the milling mob that a bus was coming to take us to a drill hall.  When we were confronted with the instruction to “crew up” I thought of this pilot because he seemed to be someone who was able to take charge and get things done.

“We met up later in the day, over a mug of tea, and he told me his name was Norm Streight, and at the end of our conversation he asked me if I was interested in being part of his crew. I jumped at the offer and we shook hands on it.

The tall blonde captain- third from left

The tall blonde captain- third from left

“I always remember after one of our cross country training flights we landed back at base and taxied around the perimeter track to our aircraft’s home pad. As the engines were shut down and quiet returned to our aching ears I heard Norm’s voice on the intercom saying, ‘You know, I was just thinking, back home I’m not old enough to drive the car.'”

It was the last of their training flights that changed the course of my father’s life permanently.

I was raised on my father’s telling of the tale. It was their final cross-country training flight before starting their tour- a night flight.  They were coming in home on three engines because on had proved faulty on the flight.  Dad asked the young engineer to switch  the fuel tanks over to the fullest ones, but somehow he managed instead to move the switch to empty tanks.  Everyone had disconnected their headsets as the plane came in.  First one engine died and then another. Only Dad knew the plane would crash and he sent up a foxhole prayer, “God, if you will just get me out of this. . . ”

Roy wrote the morning after,

“The port wing hit the ground first and was immediately torn off along with the two engines. The rest of the plane hit the ground sideways about 100 yards farther on, and then slid for about 500 yards until it slammed sideways into a row of trees along the edge of a farmer’s field.

For those of us in the rest position all we knew was that suddenly there was an explosion of horrible sounds as the wing hit and ground and was torn off, the remaining engine went roaring out of control and our aircraft was torn apart as it went careening across the field. The terrifying noise seemed to go on forever and then . . silence.  Absolute silence.

For a moment I was stunned and sat on the floor in the pitch darkness struggling to figure where I was. I heard a low moan nearby and they Hugh’s voice asking dazedly, “What happened.”

I’m not sure how long it took for my mind to emerge from the fog and realize we had crashed. Once that came into focus I began to function again. I somehow got hold of a flashlight and in its light beheld Hugh on his stomach trying to turn over. Gord was sitting beside him and was holding on to his leg. I couldn’t see Bud.

“Next I stood on the bench and put my head out through the opened hatch just above us. When I swung the flashlight towards the front of the aircraft. I could see that the whole nose section was a crumpled mess. The pilot’s cockpit was all caved in. There was no sign of life and it was pretty clear that Norm and Stu had been killed.

“I was still taking in the horrifying scent when the light from my flashlight picked up Norm down on the ground, charging around the crumpled nose shouting, “Call the roll! Who’s hurt and who isn’t?”  Stu was close behind him.”

Smitty, the young engineer was killed, two members of the crew were seriously injured and never flew with them again, most of the rest had bangs and bruises.  Dad always said that he “walked away without a scratch.”

Roy concluded, “I feel strongly that we owed our lives to our pilot, who struggled for those final hopeless minutes, as the aircraft fell out of the sky, to have it land as flat as possible rather than go in nose first.”

Dad however,  always finished the telling of the story differently. He said that a couple of days later a fellow officer approached him and said, “Norm, did you make a deal with God?  If you did, you need to honor it.”   Acknowledging God’s intervention in the matter he re-aligned his life accordingly.  It has made a large difference to my own.

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