Friday, 6 June 2014

Per ardua ad astra

 For my dad, on D-Day

My dad, George Hartford
On D-Day 70 years ago my dad was 21 years old, just a little older than his grandson Hart is today. As part of Operation Overlord, Dad piloted his Lancaster bomber "S for Smitty" over the skies of Normandy, dropping bombs on German coastal defenses, protecting the troops about to land on the beaches below. Among the 14,000 he protected on Juno Beach that day was a man he had never met, medic Sam Martin, a man who would become my uncle. Dad and Uncle Sam and their fellow young Canadians helped turn the tide of the war, leading to the liberation of Europe and the defeat of fascism.

340 Canadian soldiers died on D-Day. Nearly 2,000 Canadians died in the invasion of Normandy. They lie buried not far away in Beny-sur-Mer cemetary. A few years ago, together with my husband and three kids, I visited those quiet graves. It was humbling to walk among the tombstones, reading the epitaphs. We did not say a word. Because what is there to say in the presence of such loss and sacrifice? Would we have been so bold, so selfless, so daring? The unspeakable gratitude for what they provided for future generations hung heavily upon us. 

When the crew of S for Smitty returned to Canada, they were not treated as heroes, nor did they think of themselves as such. My dad was loathe to wear his medals and rarely did he talk about the war. He knew his actions led to peace. He also knew that war causes civilian deaths and he made his peace with that. I know the war shaped those young men in ways I can never understand. 

My dad, known as Ginge to his crew, went on to become an engineer, teacher, school principal, healthcare administrator, mayor, volunteer, dad and granddad. His navigator Doug Johnston became comptroller of McGill University and father to three beautiful girls. McGill offers a scholarship in his name. Bomb aimer Burns or "Fuzz" Foster was a pharmacist with two kids. Dad and his crew maintained contact throughout their lives and I still get emails from Burns and his son Doug. When my dad found his career as an engineer unfulfilling, he wrote to Doug, "Navigator, chart me a course." Doug suggested education and that is where dad spent the bulk of his working life. 

Dad, Doug and Burns were Canada's finest. They along with 1.1 million Canadians risked their lives and then came home and helped build the Canada we love today, with its human rights, free healthcare, first rate education system and opportunities for all. 

I look at today's youth and I wonder who among them would have the courage of those young men. Who would be willing to risk their own lives to preserve the way of life they take for granted? But then I look at my dad's eight grandchildren and I know we will be in good hands. He helped build their country to be a place that is worth fighting for.

Per Ardua Ad Astra: Through Adversity to the Stars
Motto of the Royal Airforce

Burns Foster, Doug Johnston, George Hartford
Paul Piotrowsky, Sig Teit 
The aircrew.
Back row left to right (Unknown, Dick, Wilf, SIg, Dad, Pete, Smitty (he is the boss of the kite), Herb, Pat
Front row Phil (Engine Chief), Doug, Ted,Hank, Johnny, Fuzz
From Dad's writing on the back :How do you like our girl? She never complains of the cold either. Each bomb on the "LOVE" is one trip. We on about 20 of them. Altogether I did 40 and the rest 38.
The ground crew
 The air crew of S for Smitty

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