Lest We Forget

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On June 6, 2014, before Vera left on her odyssey, the CBC’s news anchor, Peter Mansbridge, himself the son of a Lancaster navigator, Stanley Mansbridge, DFC, flew from Hamilton in Vera to honour his father’s memory. Waiting on the ground was Flight Sergeant Shanks, a spry 91-year-old former Lancaster tail gunner. Wherever Vera flew during her overseas trip, aging World War II veterans, fewer in number every year, waited to meet her crew, some in wheelchairs, others standing and alert. One of the crew members, touched by the enthusiastic reception they received, remarked, “We weren’t just visitors; we were family.”

Vera herself is known as the Mynarski Memorial Lancaster, in memory of Pilot Officer Andrew Mynarski of Winnipeg, whose self-sacrificing bravery in the last minutes of his doomed Lancaster’s flight over France on June 12, 1944 earned him a posthumous Victoria Cross, the last to be awarded a Canadian airman. Vera’s call letters, VRA, are the same as those of that aircraft.

The late poet Randall Jarrell, an American airman who also served in the Second World War, was well aware from personal experience of the terrible cost to us of the air war. The last line of his famous short poem ‘The Death of the Ball-Turret Gunner’ reads, “When I died, they washed me out of the turret with a hose.” The fifth word in that line makes it all so horribly clear. Another artist deserves the last word, a tribute to the bomber crew’s steadfastness, sense of duty, and courage.

Caroline Marshall lives in rural Quebec. Her painting ‘Eternal Guardians,’ is of Vera herself at rest on an airfield against a backdrop of evergreens. Above her, as if floating in the air, are the seven shadowy figures of the uniformed aircrew of the Lancaster. The painting, she says,

depicts the ever-watchful spirit crew of the Avro Lancaster. This painting offers a suggested perspective, a point of view normally beyond our visual grasp. It alludes to precarious moments between presence and absence, between life and the ultimate disappearance, death. Inasmuch as it is haunted by echoes of the past, and by a sense of irretrievable loss, it offers continuity, for when we remember and honour the past, we enrich the future.

She has not forgotten. Neither should we.

P. A. Scotchmer, Ottawa, Feb. 19, 2015

Peter was born in England, spent his childhood there and in South America, and taught English for 33 years in Ottawa, Canada. Now retired, he reads and writes voraciously, and travels occasionally with his wife Louise.
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