A few weeks ago on picturesque Lake Muskoka, the rusted remains of a Second World War plane saw sunlight for the first time in nearly 74 years.
The remains of the airmen who perished inside the A-17 Nomad aircraft had been recovered two years earlier. They died along with two others on Dec. 13, 1940, when two planes collided while searching for a flyer who had gone missing earlier.
Those four young men were among nearly 3,000 Canadian and Allied airmen who lost their lives — mainly in flying training accidents — in this country between May 1940 and March 1945.
Red Deer’s Lester Battle was one of those young flyers and remembers vividly how often word came in to training air bases about a plane going down or reported missing.
“There was always some mishap occurring as far as training aircraft were concerned. We’d be sent out on square searches to try to locate these things.”
On more than one occasion, he came uncomfortably close to adding to those statistics.
Among the flights forever etched in his mind was a routine training run in an Avro Anson from their base in Chatham, N.B., to Charlottetown, P.E.I.
In a flight that the 95-year-old former navigator calls a “little bit of fun,” he remembers how the plane shuddered after the pilot trimmed his controls (adjusted flying flaps and rudder to keep the plane flying true).
“I looked out the window and saw flames out the back of the engine,” he said. Twice more, he saw little bursts of flame from the port side of the two-engine trainer. Not sure what it was and reluctant to appear the panicky sort, he kept it to himself.
“You never admit you’re afraid when you’re up there, for damn sure,” he says.
It was only on landing that he casually mentioned what he saw to the pilot, who immediately called over a couple of mechanics to check out the engine. They found the automatic fire extinguisher system had emptied itself in flight because the engine had indeed been on fire and a near-disaster had been averted.
On another flight, the unexpected non-appearance by one of two navigators and his charts left Battle in charge of directing the plane using less accurate charts based on topography.
That meant they had to fly from landmark to landmark, a route that put their plane over a huge forest fire that created violent updrafts.
“On the way back, we hit a bunch of pockets. A couple of places we dropped 500 feet.”
As navigator, Battle needed to move around the cabin and couldn’t buckle himself in. As the plane dropped, his head smashed into a sextant above his head.
“It had set screws and every time the damn aircraft went down, I hit my head on those set screws. I ended up with 13 openings in my scalp,” he says with a chuckle.
“I was bleeding. The pilot got sick and was throwing up in his hat, and the other two crew members threw up.”
Other memorable flights involved being sent out to find a German U-boat that had surfaced off New Brunswick and been spotted drying the crew’s laundry.
“At that time, that was a real hornet’s hive of U-boats in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. There had been a tremendous amount of sinking by the U-boats and they became pretty daring.”
They would not spot the U-boat on this day.
Working at a flying base around often fully armed aircraft always had an element of danger.
One day, he heard a huge boom from his home just off base, in Mountain View, Ont., near Belleville, where he lived briefly with his wife and three children before he was posted to New Brunswick.
It was only the next day that he found out that a bomb had gone off during an unloading mishap, blowing the wing off a plane and killing a ground crewman.
Wartime duty took a toll on the young men called to serve in many ways.
A friend of his from the one-room schoolhouse he attended near Delia never got over one of his wartime experiences.
He was among a group of air force men who searched for and found the scene of a fatal crash by a sea plane in mountainous terrain on Vancouver Island. It was too late to do anything that day and Battle’s friend was ordered to stand guard over the wreckage on his own all night.
The experience haunted him for life and he was never the same. Today, he would likely have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, says Battle.
“He couldn’t get it out of his mind.”
Growing up on the family farm near Delia, which is between Hanna and Drumheller, Battle was one of eight children.
He had left the farm and was working in Vancouver when the war started in the fall of 1939. Almost right away, he marched down to the recruiting office to join the air force, but was told they didn’t need anyone at that time.
Months later, he got the call but by that time he had found a good job at a sawmill and was reluctant to give it up. He deferred his service at that time, but joined in 1943 with an eye on sporting the wings of a pilot.
“Everyone who joined wanted to be a pilot,” he says. That was not the air force’s plan, however, and he was trained as a navigator with stops in Edmonton, Mountain View and Chatham.
Battle said he wasn’t overly disappointed. “I think I was satisfied I was going to be air crew. I was serving my country.”
In late 1944, he was transferred to the reserves and returned home to Delia for a spell before getting called up for regular service again. He was sent to Calgary and was to go on to Abbotsford, B.C., where he was to be trained to fly in B-25 twin-engine bombers based out of Burma.
“I was just about ready to leave Canada to do that and they decided I wouldn’t be needed.”
With the war now winding down, the now father of four was demobilized in March 1945. He returned to Delia, where he ran his own insurance, income tax and real estate business before retiring in 1964, and later moving to Vancouver Island.
He and his wife Betty, who passed away three years ago, spent the next decades travelling extensively around the world.
Battle now lives in Red Deer at the Pines Lodge.
On his wall, his younger self stares back at him in his air force portrait: crisply uniformed, moustache impeccably trimmed, the very image of the jaunty airman.