The following piece of my writing originally appeared in the Katharine Susannah Prichard (KSP) Past Tense Anthology in June 2016
The Supreme Sacrifice
My grandfather, Herbert Baggs, came through the Great Depression with his job intact. He was blessed. By 1939, his daughter (my mother) Marg had joined the workforce and her younger brother Gerald was in high school. At the end of the decade Grandpa and Nana Mollie settled into a grand new house in Toronto and life was rosy. But, with the war clouds drifting across Canada, his greatest crisis was on the horizon.
Herbert's only son Gerald was born in 1922, ten years into their marriage, when Mollie was 39. He was the longed-for son, who was always affectionately known as Bud. There was a gap of seven years between Bud and my mother. Marg doted on her adorable little brother. Bud grew into a tall lean lad, with brown wavy hair and hazel eyes. He was a superb swimmer and won several medals for the school swimming team.
Bud enlisted with the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) in 1941, at the tender age of 19. He had no previous flying experience but, like many others, was keen to contribute his youth and energy to the cause. At his recruitment, the interviewing officer singled him out as potential officer material. He was streamed into the pressure-cooker pilot training program and worked his way through the system, serving 15 months at six different training locations in Canada. On 4 February 1943, Herbert and Mollie were proud to see their son's name printed in the daily newspaper – he had graduated as a RCAF pilot. No sooner did he have his wings, when he was assigned to train other recruits.
On 21 February 1943 Gerald wrote to his sister Marg:
Well here I am, still trying to be an instructor. What a job! All we do is fly around in light little biplanes which always feel like the motor is about to drop out. After flying twin engines at Brantford it is quite a letdown. But I am beginning to get used to them.
I got both your letters and your telegram. You will have to excuse me for not answering them sooner but they keep us pretty busy on this station. I always seem to be rushing somewhere ...
Has the weather been any better in Toronto lately? It has been pretty nice here for the last few days and today the sun is really warm. I sure hope it stays like this. Last week it was down to about 40 below and I just about froze to death.
Well, I have to start flying right now so I'll see you next weekend if the air force doesn't change its mind again.
P.S. how do you like my snappy personal stationery.
The Air Force posted Bud to the number Ten Elementary Flying Training School at Pendleton, Ontario in March 1943.
On the afternoon of 20 April 1943 Herbert and Mollie were at home listening to the radio, when there was a knock at the front door and Herbert went to open it. A solemn young military man was standing on the porch, with a telegram in his hand. With a sense of panic and dread an ashen-faced Herbert accepted the telegram and by the time he did so, Mollie had rushed up to his side. He closed the door behind the messenger, and somehow managed to steer Mollie into the lounge room.
The telegram confirmed their worst fears – Bud had been killed in a flying accident. There were no details, just the bare facts. His Tiger Moth plane had crashed on a training flight at 10.25am on the previous day in Curran, Ontario.
Herbert stared mutely at the telegram; his eyes scanned back and forth across the printed words, trying to take it in.
Mollie wailed, 'oh no, this can't be. My sweet boy.'
Herbert turned the telegram over in his hands. Such a small piece of paper.
'It doesn't make sense. He's only been up there three weeks.'
They sat in silence in the lounge room, until the light outside faded and the room grew dim. Herbert got up and went over to the front window and peered out. The ghostly blue spruce stood sentinel on their front lawn and beyond that their neighbour's granite wall glowed under the street light. He heard the low growl of an automobile engine starting up. Headlights shone and a car pulled out of the driveway opposite. Life in the neighbourhood continued on regardless. Herbert knew if he was to support Mollie through this, he would need to mine a deep reserve of inner strength.
Several days later, on 24 April 1943 the name of 21-year-old Sgt Herbert Gerald Baggs was printed in the Toronto Globe and Mail among the list of air casualties. He and four other Canadian airmen had made the supreme sacrifice on that day.
In May 1943 a Court of Inquiry investigated the flying accident. The enquiry provided no solace at all to Herbert and Mollie. It found that Bud was the pilot at the controls in the front seat of the Tiger Moth at the time of the accident. His student was in the back seat. The report laid it out bluntly:
On a practiced forced landing approach, the aircraft was put into a steep side slip and it stalled at a low altitude, and struck the ground before control could be regained. The pilot was killed and student seriously injured.
The cause of the accident, according to one witness, was – 'pilot error on part of instructor in allowing the aircraft to stall at a low altitude.'
We tend to hear about war deaths that result from combat; however a staggering number occurred as a result of accidents. My uncle was one of 856 persons to be killed or seriously injured during their air training in Canada. Wartime exigencies meant that everything about the air training program was conducted in haste. It seems incredible that two months after receiving his wings in February 1943, Bud was a trainer himself. But that was an indication of the pressure of training during war time.
Bud never married or had children and there are few around to tell his story. As one of his remaining family members, I am left with a deep sense of sorrow at so much unfulfilled promise in a life cut short. His young face is frozen for me in time – the bud that never flowered.
My grandfather never recovered from the catastrophe of losing his only son and a pall hung over the household. His health went into a decline and on 31 March 1946 Herbert died of a stroke. He was only 60. If he drew any comfort in his last years it must have come from knowing that his son had played his part in delivering supremacy to the Allies in the air war, which ultimately gave them victory. Sgt Herbert Gerald Baggs' gravestone carries the familiar inscription – 'at the going down of the sun and in the morning we will remember him'.