Month: February 2021

Another Brief Chapter

The e-mail was brief, to the point and received the day after I published an account of RCAF Pilot Officer Reg Price’s death-wrestle with a grievously wounded Lancaster bomber staggering just above the black night waves of the north sea.

My story — or rather FO Prices story – had opened catastrophically as seconds after he ordered his four Merlin engines to “full thrust” for take off on ambing mission to Dusseldorf, Germany – one engine burst into flame. As the flames were extinguished and the propeller “feathered” a second prop exploded and flamed, the fire conquered, the prop feathered.

And the once mighty, still fully loaded Lancaster with a heavy – 4000 pound high explosive bomb and a multitude of incendiary explosives roared into night just a few unsafe feet above the runway surface. So close that FO Price would later admit “I didn’t want to know how close.”

Once clear of land and over the North Sea FO Price turned the Lanc for home, jettisoning bombs, guns and anything else to lighten the aircraft and maintain safe altitude. Readers not yet nodding off can refer to last weeks offering if they want more memory freshener for detail. If, on the other hand, you prefer to find out how the opening words of today’s observations tie-in with today’s pre-amble, carry on:

The e-mail: “After reading your post today I shall go to bed tonight grateful in the knowledge that during the night of November 3 rd 1943 at least two guardian angels had their hands at play. One above the English coast safely guiding home pilot Reg Price’s Lancaster bomber and his crew. The other one was stationed over their intended target Duesseldorf (cct) guarding twelve year old Carl Heinz who with his family was taking shelter from the bombs some of which were now resting on the bottom of the ocean. It is undecided as to which angel is responsible for this turnout.”

Being “undecided” on guardian angel decisions is a wise precaution especially when dealing with a battlefield like Dusseldorf on Nov.3/4,1943 when a staggering 598 aircraft, including 344 Lancasters and 233 Halifaxes covered the skies and guardian angels were in short supply.

Of interest is the first casualty count in the early morning hours as daylight ended the fearful night. Twenty six dead, they said and later revised the total to 118, and then on further reflection, 622 dead with 942 injured and an explanation that after such massive, explosive, destruction it was difficult to count the dead. They could never really be sure.

To end on a brighter note it is a comfort that I can find some in the fact that a native born Canadian and couple of aging immigrants to Canada from war-mongering nations can share a friendship in their declining years. All three are in their Nineties, have lived full lives, enjoy good company and still figure our glass is half full.

And by sheer coincidence former FO Price and I are residents of Berwick Royal Oak Retirement centre while Carl (Charles) von Muehidorfer, formerly of Dusseldorf resides just across the the highway.

A Ninety Minute Lifetime

It was just before 17:25 hours, November 3, 1943, as the summer of wartime England faded from deep purple to the black embrace of a Lincolnshire winter night.

Snuggled down for the night was the small village of Kelstern, one of many similar English villages that found themselves central players in the Second World War as air warfare created new battle zones in once pastoral places.

In 1943, Kelstern was the home of RAF Squadron 625. On November 3, some 15 four-engine, heavy-duty Lancaster bombers were lined up at one end of the main runway awaiting permission to take off for a several-hour flight to Dusseldorf, deep in Germany.

At the head of the queue when we begin our observation of this night’s operation was Lancaster W4833. Pilot for the flight is Flight Sergeant Reg Price, 22, born in Lloydminster in 1921. He joined the RCAF in 1941. Tonight’s flight is his second in command, his third in combat. On the two earlier flights, he was “second dickey” to the pilot on the flight deck.

The night we catch up with him, he’s in the lone seat upfront watching the oil lamp runway lights mark a path through the dark and waiting for a green “take-off” light signal.

Logbooks tell us this was a raw crew on their second op after an initial grind to Kassel a few days earlier. This would be a flight to test their mettle … their battle-fatigued aircraft was at its maximum gross take-off weight with fuel and bomb load, including a 4,000-pound high explosive “cookie” and a full load of incendiaries.

Given the green light, Price “applied full boost to the four Merlin engines and accelerated down Runway Six in almost total darkness. And the flight engineer, standing beside the pilot because there never was a seat on the flight deck for a co-pilot, reported flames spewing from the starboard inner engine. The fire was extinguished, the prop feathered. The Lancaster faltered as fire broke out in the port inner engine. It, too, was extinguished, and the prop feathered. But the Lancaster flying on two engines with its full load of bombs was still in grave danger.

The order was given to lighten the aircraft, and everything that could be discarded was. The 4,000-pound “cookie” and the heavy clusters of incendiaries fell into the North Sea. So did ammunition and the guns. And even the navigator’s sextant.

Still several miles from the English coast PO Price held his course until he caught a glimmer of air strip lights. “It wasn’t difficult landing,” says. “We still had two engines and confident control. My tail gunner later told me it was a nice landing….but then all successful landings are.”

The fight to get home had taken one hour and 15 minutes from take off to safe landing. Chatting with me over coffee in Berwick Royal Oak close to 100-years later Reg said “at the time it seemed to last for ever.”

Pilot Officer Price was awarded the distinguished Flying Cross. The official citation notes that he completed 31 sorties comprising 213 operational flying hours as the captain of a Lancaster aircraft. “This officer has carried out his tour of operations displaying quiet persistence and a cool, determined endeavour over a long period sometimes under the most trying circumstances.” The citation noted his “cool and skilful” handling of a double engine failure.

But maybe his own citation is the one that really counts, the one where he says, very quietly: “Well, I got the medal, and I cherish it, but it was the crew that won it. We knew what we had to do, and we did it.’’

It’s a frame of mind we could all profit from.

Sounding Brass and Crashing Cymbal

Scavenging in the mudflats of the Internet a few days ago, I stumbled across the promise of a PBS documentary on a once infamous USA gangster named Al Capone. It was a little late in the day for an old guy but, being a fan of PBS – and its Canadian twin the Knowledge Network for their commercial-free programming – I poked the appropriate buttons and, presto, there full-screen was the pale, slightly-smirking face of a long-dead gangster and the program title “Al Capone – iconic.”

“Iconic” sounded a little out of sync, although I’ve used it many times over the years without much thought. Better check the Oxford Dictionary: “Being a famous person or thing that people admire and see as a symbol of a particular idea, way of life, etc.”

Had to think about that for a minute before sadly concluding that the Oxford definition of “iconic” was, in this instance, the description of a man without morals, a cunning manipulator of easily led malcontents and the mastermind behind the mass execution of rival gangsters – Al “Scarface” Capone.

Capone was conveniently in Florida on St. Valentine’s Day, Feb.14, 1929, when seven members of a rival gang lead by George “Bugs” Moran were executed by Capone shooters in Chicago. Moran had been Capone’s chief rival for control of the lucrative criminal activities in the Windy City.

It was estimated that at the time of his eventual arrest and trial for tax evasion, Capone’s income from crime was more than $60 million a year. He was sentenced to 11 years in jail but was released on November 6, 1939, after serving seven years, six months and 15 days. At the time of his release, he was suffering from incurable venereal syphilis. Severe brain damage from the disease had reduced him to a childlike state.

He died in seclusion in Florida on January 25, 1947.

So, these past few days, while adding fractionally to my less than iconic sum of knowledge, I’ve been wondering if I know anyone who rated iconic pied-piper leadership credit – someone “famous” and admired by easily-lead, thoughtless followers who like to break things and make others fear their bullying wrath.

I don’t think Donald Trump is as frightening as Capone, who “owned” police and powerful politicians and bent them to his will. But, there’s little doubt he would like to be; that he believes he is rightly billed iconic when he is, in fact only sounding brass and clashing cymbal signifying nothing.

We Thought We Knew Better

The bronze plaque tells a simple story: 50 Dallas Road, Historic Site of Victoria Immigration Building:

“Known simply as ‘The Immigration Building,’ the imposing red-brick building that once stood at this site was a symbol of hope, often a difficult hope, that new life in a new land would be better than in the old.

“The Immigration Building was opened in 1907, and until the late 1950s, any immigrant landing in Victoria had to pass through its doors. Depending on their country of origin, some immigrants were detained for a very long period of time, and many were forced to pay an entry tax. This monument acts as a reminder of the enormous courage it took to set off on a journey to an unfamiliar land. Although often entered with trepidation, The Immigration Building offered promise new; a chance to become a part of the vast mosaic called Canada.”

The plaque does indeed mark a spot on Dallas Road where hope may once have sprung eternal but quickly died in a new nation consumed with the evil belief of white supremacy.

Called “the new Immigration Hospital” when it replaced the old centre, it was a two-storey structure with racially segregated wards, medical inspection areas and administrative offices. It was designed to accommodate 96 Hindus, 36 women, 24 Chinese, 48 Japanese, “and 16 others.” Care had gone into the “facilities,” with one administrator explaining the difficulty of “providing plumbing suitable for immigrants accustomed to washing themselves with water rather than using toilet paper.” At the same time, he said he could “assure white people that care is taken that they shall not commingle with Orientals at any stage of their stay.”

While the bulk of inhabitants at 50 Dallas Road would be Chinese or Hindus, it was clear from the outset that any white immigrants confined for whatever reasons would have “privileges.”

In July 1908, more than 30,000 passengers from foreign ports were processed in Victoria by immigration officials and doctors. And that was at a time when massed arrivals of gold seekers and labourers to build the Canadian Pacific Railway were on the wane, and Victoria was no longer Canada’s chief port of entry for immigrants or “travellers.”

It had been the busiest immigration port in the early 1880s, first with the gold rush. That was followed by CPR hiring 17,000 Chinese labourers to blast and tunnel a railway track through the great mountain ranges blocking land routes from what was rapidly developing as a new country to be called Canada and the Pacific coast.

The railway workers were not the first Chinese imports. That distinction goes to a few brought out earlier to work in newly discovered coal fields. They had impressed mine owners with their skills, work ethic, the fact that they could be cheaply fed on a diet of fish and rice, and that they were happy to work for low wages. At least their employers were happy. It is doubtful if a Chinese worker immigrant was ever asked if he was happy with his dollar a day pay.

The cheap labour made Chinese workers welcome and desirable until November 7, 1885, when “the last spike” was driven at Craigellachie at 8:30 in the morning, and the vast number of Chinese labourers became redundant and far from welcome in the province where they had helped build a vital rail link. In BC, the disenchantment had been growing for a couple of years; mutterings about the “yellow peril” were rife.

In 1884, a Royal Commission was established “to make inquiry into and concerning all the facts and matters connected with the whole subject of Chinese immigration, its trade relations as well as the social and moral objections concerning to the influx of Chinese people into Canada.”

On August 9, 1894, the Commission met in Victoria with the recording secretary reading a terse but clear history as to how the Commission came to be: “British Columbia has repeatedly by her Legislature as well as by her representatives in Parliament solicited the Executive and Parliament of Canada to enact a law prohibiting the incoming of Chinese to British Columbia.”

BC was not the only province expressing fears about the growth of the Chinese immigrant community, but it was possibly most aware that immigration laws in the province were not well written. During the gold rush and the railway building years, it hadn’t been too careful in framing sound legislation to welcome workers from other countries. It was estimated that Chinese workers with their low wages – roughly half a white man’s pay – and the fact that Chinese workers had to provide their own food while the white crews were provided meals had reduced railway building costs between $3 million and $5 million.

The fact that an estimated 600 to 2,200 Chinese lost their lives didn’t seem to enter the debate – possibly because no one has ever been able to come up with definitive records. It is a sad fact that Canadian attitudes at the time did not rate Chinese deaths as important as a white man’s. Coal mining disasters were commonplace a hundred years ago. On Vancouver Island coal mine casualty lists, white men are often named with their birthplace noted. Chinese workers are just noted by a number. No names, no place of birth. Just a number.

So, in the year the last spike was driven, The Chinese Immigration Act explicitly designed to address the “Chinese problem” became law. The Royal Commission had recommended the imposition of a $10 head tax on Chinese immigrants. In its wisdom, and probably encouraged by BC, the federal government upped the head tax to $50 – a massive amount of money for a labourer to raise. The new law quickly became nicknamed the Chinese Exclusion Act because, although not as openly hostile as the USA “Exclusion Act” of 1882, which banned Chinese immigration entirely, the new Canadian law effectively excluded a class of immigrants for ethnic reasons. Their place of birth rather than their health or character decided their fate.

To make sure would-be Chinese immigrants understood, successive governments boosted the head tax from $50 to $100 in 1900 and then to $500 in 1903.

And then, to make sure everyone understood which way Canada was leaning, in 1923 – the year I was born, so not yet a lifetime away – Ottawa passed a new Chinese Immigration Act. It was appropriately tagged the Chinese Exclusion Act because that is precisely what it did – ban for the next 24-years the entry to Canada of anyone born in China. There were four exclusions: Diplomats, students, merchants, and Canadian born Chinese returning from education in China.

A Canadian born Chinese was allowed two years for an educational stay in China. Failure to return to Canada on time would result in barred re-entry. There was one other penalty for every person of Chinese descent. On passage of the Act, whether a citizen of Chinese descent was born in Canada or was a legal immigrant accepted as a citizen years earlier, they would be required to register within 12 months for a photo identity card. Failure to register so would result in imprisonment or a fine of up to $500. The Act was repealed in 1947 after the world saw the ultimate results of racism and genocide in the Second World War.

In the 1950s, Victoria’s Immigration Centre became the target of many complaints about inmates’ care. The building, too, was suffering from neglect. It was finally left empty and stood that way for 20 years, a haunted house, gaunt and falling apart until in 1978 the wreckers’ ball finally ended its life.

All that’s left is a plaque and, since the 1970s, the dedication of February each year as the month to honour black immigrants fleeing rampant racism in the USA following the civil war that promised to end slavery and racism. A worthy honour for black immigrants who brought with them many talents to help build Canada.

But let it also remind us of what we Canadians once were when racism was acceptable, bigotry encouraged and at times protected as a “right” by new laws. We should have known better.