Wednesday, July 27, 2016

World War Wednesdays: From the Roost of the Thunderbirds

John "Chic" Neill flew in the 426 (Thunderbird) squadron as a wireless operator and gunner, along with fellow Parkwood resident Lorne Spicer who was the navigator during the Second World War. Spicer said they mainly flew the Halifax and only had a few flights in the Lancaster. They were on 5 days leave when the portrait of their group was taken at their base in Linton-On-Loise, England. Mike Hensen/The London Free Press/Postmedia Network

     If you're from Elgin County, you'll likely recognize the gentleman from this story. The London Free Press published a fantastic article this week featuring Lorne Spicer, a local celebrity and Second World War veteran, which I thought would be interesting to cover this week with added information. You can find the original story here, including a video interview with Mr. Neill and Mr. Spicer:

     The article describes the remarkable reunion of the last two surviving members from a Second World War Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) flight crew. After having served alongside each other in the skies over Western Europe, the Southwestern Ontario farm boy and Toronto kid went their separate postwar ways. Then, almost a lifetime later, 87-year-old Lorne Spicer had a bad fall and broke his hip, resulting in his move to the Parkwood Institute in London. Now 89, he was surprised to find three weeks ago that his former comrade, 90-year-old John Neill, moved into a room right across the hall. 

     “I think it’s wonderful to have him here. We speak a different language (from the war), but we understand each other,” said Spicer.
     “Even my roommate was in the war, and before he came here he was a lost man. But he found himself again when he moved in with me and could talk about the war with someone.”

     The two men had been part of a crew of seven, with Spicer as the navigator and Neill the wireless operator. They flew a total of seven bombing trips, which were all completed with a 100-per-cent success rate. 

     Raised on a farm outside of Woodstock, Spicer joined the RCAF in March 1943 when he was just 15 years old. In order to enlist, he had to doctor his birth certificate. Toronto native Neill was also young at his time of enlistment, but at 17 was a year older than the minimum age. The two crewed up with their other members in September 1944, during the final phase of the war, in what had been had been one of the first RCAF bomber squadrons formed two years previously. Before that, Canadian crews flew with the British Royal Air Force.

     Even today, both Spicer and Neill are firm in their conviction to joining up in service of the nation. “We were patriotic Canadians, that’s why,” Neill said sternly when asked why he served. 

     Readers of my previous air-related posts will remember the dangers associated with the long bombing runs from England to Europe and back, and how many ways there were for things to go wrong for the crewmen. Having been posted overseas for three years, Spicer and Neill recall watching other bombers catch fire mid-air, seize up in the bitter cold, and drop from the sky or get shot down by the enemy. Still, their crew never lost a man in the skies.

     “We survived on our control of the aircraft and the skies,” said Neill. “We all had a different job to do and do it right, and that’s exactly what we did.”

     Spicer had the second-most important job on the plane, after the pilot, whom he directed in cross-country flights and bombing trips over Germany. Under his navigation, the crew never got lost once. He never spoke over the radio while navigating in the air, for security reasons, and instead recorded all flight routes and times on maps he'd give to the pilot. 

     Spicer still has one of the maps from a trip they made to bomb a German airport. 

      “I wanted to burn the darn thing, but my mom wouldn’t let me,” he said, fighting back tears as memories and horrors from the war flooded back. “I hated everything to do with war.”

     Now, all these years later, the map is among the numerous other wartime souvenirs that decorate the walls of his room at Parkwood. 

     Both Neill and Spicer are adamant that they were never heroes, just ordinary boys with a love for their nation. They are among a dwindlng number of military veterans at the Institute, operated by St. Joseph's Health Care. The veterans' area at Parkwood is home to 135 veterans, the oldest age 102.

     Those who do recognize Mr. Spicer will remember him as an active naturalist and admirer of our local landscapes. He was a driving force behind numerous projects including the wildlife reserve on the site of the former No. 4 Bombing and Gunnery School in Fingal, creating guides for heritage trees in West Elgin, and the establishment of our very own nature trail here at Backus-Page House Museum, which was named in his honour. In all his accomplishments throughout his life, he has made his home community incredibly proud, and we are thrilled to have seen him featured in this wonderful piece. Many thanks to Hailey Salvain and Mike Hensen at the London Free Press for their article and photographs.

     Thanks for reading, 
     Delany (@DLeitchHistory on Twitter)


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