Reprint, with permission, of an article written by Chris Munkedal,
November 9, 2004, "The Fort Record",
Fort Saskatchewan Alberta
W hen Wendy Flemming's father first started to talk about his time in WWII, he told her, 'it wasn't all good times.' She never understood his comment. The Fort Saskatchewan resident knew her mother and father met during the war, and was married shortly there after--a classic love and war story.
H er mother Mary Frances served meals while enlisted in WAAF (Women's Auxiliary Air Force) to airmen on a base in Waterbeach, Cambridge, England. Mary Frances, 17 at the time,called England home. She met Wendy's father, Ross Flemming on the base.
A fter the war, Ross married Mary Frances and brought her back to his home in Canada, where the two started a family. At 53 years old, Wendy's mother had a heart attack while on vacation in England with Ross, Wendy and her husband. The family was touring the sites of Ross and Mary Frances' WWII days--it was the first time Wendy truly became interested in her parent's airforce careers. That interest has spawned a personal quest to reunite a whole airforce squadron, where at any given time, there could have been up to 500 airmen on the base. So far, she has compiled a database of 250 names, while reuniting 25 crews she found by making searches on the Internet, telephone calls, and attending various Remembrance Day reunions.
W hen Ross lost his wife, he found it difficult to talk about the war, and Wendy never had the chance to really hear the details of his past before he died. Nor did she press him for answers out of respect for his feelings over the delicate subject. "With my parents, I think that there was such a strong bond between them because they had seen the worst...and survived," says Wendy. "And I think that is why my Dad found it so hard to talk about mum after she passed away."
B ut months before her father died, he started to talk about the war, while only barring mention to the seven-man bomber crew he flew with as a navigator in the RCAF (Royal Canadian Airforce). Ross served with the British RAF (Royal Airforce) 514 squadron. He was 27 at the time, and was considered the 'father' of the Lancaster Bomber crew, with some of flyers no more than 17 years old.
R oss wondered what became of his comrades. He remembered some of them only by nicknames, though the seven men were like a close family, notes Wendy. When the battles were done, and the war was won, the crew went their separate ways.
T he information Ross passed on to Wendy was enough for her to start a passionate search to seek out her father's comrades in hopes of reuniting them one day. She made dozens of calls, while tracking down the numbers from name searches on the Internet.
B efore Wendy could find the first of the seven airmen, her father passed away. Six months later, an older man named Doug MacLaughlin called her from Ontario. He was the tail-gunner of the Lancaster her father navigated. "Sadly, I had to tell him that Dad was gone," recalls Wendy. She told MacLaughlin she wanted to meet, while hoping to learn more about her father's experiences in the war. In 2001, Wendy went to Ontario--armed with a video camera--ready to get some answers. "I learned so much from him," says Wendy. "Over the past six years we became the closest of friends."
M acLaughlin passed away from Cancer earlier this year. But, it was after meeting him that her father's comment began to make sense. "Doug explained that you stayed close with the seven guys in your own crew. You knew if they came back, you would be back with them. But in this big hut, (on the base) of 40 to 50 beds, there might be seven lined up across from yours that never returned." "'You were like family,'" she remembers him saying. MacLaughlin left Wendy with a box full of WWII memorabilia, including a logbook of the missions the crew completed. He also gave her the wings that he had earned during his time at Waterbeach.
T he time she spent talking to the veteran inspired her to continue the quest. And Wendy tracked down 250 airmen, and reunited 25 crews with their comrades from RAF 514. "Maybe not all seven in a crew, but a few from each one," says Wendy. "Not all are still alive. Sometimes I find their families, and then they become interested to find out more."
R oss flew in 31 missions with the Lancaster crew--a feat that airmen in the airforce took pride in, but as Wendy knows from her father, they seldom bragged about it. After completing 30 missions, airmen got their wings, says Wendy. "He always wore his wings on every jacket he owned. I knew that that pin must have been very important to him." "I've always been interested in how my parents met, but you know, you think your parents are going to be around forever, so you never ask those questions," says Wendy. "I think our kids need to know what veterans did for this country. It's being lost. Veterans are in their 80's, and they're dying. There's no one there to fill in the gaps and get it all down on paper."
T o date, Wendy has found four out the seven men from her father's crew. And she has no plans to stop yet.
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