Remembering the price paid
By Darren Lum
Nov. 8, 2016
Forget the glory and the honour. Remember the young men and women.
Many in their late teens, children really, who volunteered to fight or serve their country.
Veterans will often say they were lucky to return. In the Second World War even those who survived did not escape war completely, returning with mental and physical reminders. Reminders and the important lesson to never forget how war can leave a toll on everyone: the victors, the losers and their families.
Earle Casey, a resident of Haliburton who died several years ago, was a flight sergeant with 428 Squadron (also known as Ghost or Bomber Squadron) in the Royal Canadian Air Force. He survived the war, but carried the scars.
His military story starts when he enlisted at 17 to fight a war thousands of miles away. Being under 18 he needed his mother to sign for him. Without work at home, the farm boy from outside Peterborough was like many who joined because others were doing it, he told former Echo editor Martha Perkins in an article in 1989. Earle settled in Haliburton, working for the telephone company, the butcher and running Birch Point Lodge with his wife Jean Gould, mother to his three children Tim, Dennis, both of Haliburton, and Nedean Bull of Brockville and Florida.
They reflected on their father, a tail gunner in a Lancaster bomber starting on July 12, 1944 in England. Positioned at the back of the plane, he was the most vulnerable, sitting for hours in the cramped space. He was like a bird out on a limb; regularly the first to be targeted with only two pairs of .303 guns and a thin dome of plexiglass standing between him and the fighter planes, intent on shooting down a bomber. The first 11 missions bombing Germany went without incident. However Earle would later tell the Echo about things he will never forget.
“We were attacked on a daylight raid. Our crew shot down this plane and I can still see the pieces, it just cartwheeled. That pilot had a family just like we did. But you can’t dwell on things like that. You’ve got to put it in the back of your mind,” he said.
It was said the average lifespan for bomber crews in the war were 24 to 48 hours and these odds were tested when Earle’s plane was shot down while returning from a mission flying over Heligoland in the North Sea on Friday, April 13, 1945 – yes, Friday the 13th. They survived the impact thanks to the skills of pilot “Doc” Payne, who managed to keep the plane from flipping. Payne would continue flying for the air force until the Cold War. He was famous in Haliburton for performing flyovers with fighter jets just above the treetops in the 1960s. Earle’s children were told that Payne said when he saw Earle swimming from the crashed plane to the dinghy, named Suzie Q, he swam like an Olympic swimmer.
All of his children remember how their dad was fearful of them learning to swim and how he never swam before or after the war. Earle was like most in the war when it came to survival, he did what needed to be done.
One member of the crew who didn’t surface to join the five others in the dinghy was Earle’s good friend Bert Vardy. They went to basic training together in Trenton before going overseas. Vardy was not discovered missing until it was too late. After the war, Earle and his wife visited Vardy’s parents and family regularly. The loss was felt greatly by the crew, but survival was on all of their minds. Earle had sustained a broken shoulder, leg and tip of the spine. With 25-foot waves, their dinghy bobbed along uncontrollably. There wasn’t much to sustain them. For close to 12 days the crew survived on two escape kits and three ration kits. Hunger and pain can be tolerated, he said, it’s the thirst that really bothers you when surrounded by nothing but water. When two crew men drank the seawater it was a strong reminder to avoid that option. One of them became delirious and passed around an imaginary cup. The other, who was six-foot-six, didn’t stop talking. Panic set in when the dinghy started to deflate. The crew spent hours taking turns blowing it up until the air took and then the crew spent the rest of the time bailing it out.
The crew’s rations were powdered and required water so when their purification tablets for the seawater ran out they resorted to using their urine. Just another thing they had to do to cope with the situation.
There was still hope wrapped in a leather-bound book. Every night close to 5 p.m. they read from Earle’s pocket-sized New Testament given to him by his mother, which had somehow survived the crash. (The same book now lives in a picture frame with his medals, identification tag and squadron patch.)
Needless to say, sleep did not come easily rolling on the open sea.
“On the one night I did manage to fall asleep, I dreamt I was home, sitting on the chesterfield, just smothered by soft cushions. Then a wave broke over the dinghy and I woke up,” he said.
After close to a dozen days on the sea they were desperate. Things did not look good for the crew.
However they were spotted by a German man in a rowboat and taken to shore. Earle said they wanted to escape once ashore, but couldn’t because of fatigue and their trench foot had left them weak.
Tim Casey, Earle’s eldest child, said the first thing his father saw after being rescued from the sea on the wharf was a German soldier shoot a six-year-old boy – a reminder of the precariousness of life was for everyone during the war.
Subsequently, the crew was put in a wagon on the dinghy and paraded down the street in Breman as the prized captives.
His youngest daughter, Nedean, only remembers snippets of what her father endured, mainly by the stories told by the surviving bomber crew, who made a point of meeting up with Earle at the Birch Point Lodge every year on the day they were shot down.
She said the crew was separated. Earle went to a medical facility and the rest went to a prisoner of war facility.
“They said my dad was lucky because he had a broken leg and a [hurt] shoulder or something so he was put in the hospital and they really didn’t talk about what the other guys went through,” she said.
“Like bringing them out, lining them up and letting on they were going to shoot them and then they didn’t.”
Tim said the building where his father was held might have had a red cross on its roof to avoid being bombed, but it did not provide any medical assistance to his dad and actually served to house munitions in the majority of the building.
During this ordeal, Earle’s mother thought he had died after receiving a telegram on April 17, 1945 that said, “It is with deep regret I must confirm our recent telegraph informing you that your son, Flight Sergeant Earle Robert Cecil Casey, is reported missing on Active Service.”
Seven days after their rescue they were liberated by the British Eighth Army, known as the Desert Rats.
Up to that point, Earle had not seen a doctor. When he was transferred to an Allied hospital in Brussels he was given medical care. From there he was flown to Woking, then Bournemouth and on July 14, 1946, he was flown home.
While in transit, Earle sent a telegram to his mother, which read: All well and safe. Writing. Love to all the family. Earle.
Tim, who got to sit in the tail gunner seat at the back of a Lancaster while it was being restored decades ago, is still in awe of his father after all of these years.
“All of the stuff he went through ... it’s unbelievable to me,” he said. “I can’t think of any 19-year-old that could do that now.”
Dennis speaks fondly about his father, who chose to fight.
Unlike the conscription in the U.S., he said, the Canadians chose to serve.
“All these guys said, ‘I’ll do it,’” he said.
He calls it a shame how veterans are sometimes mistreated or forced to fight to receive and acquire services from the government.
“The way veterans are treated today is terrible. What makes it really terrible is that they were not conscripted. They volunteered like my dad did. They didn’t have to do that. They took it upon themselves of their own free will and put their lives in danger. Every time I hear these war stories about veterans not getting enough health care it reminds me of my dad,” he said.
Nedean calls her father her hero. It wasn’t so much for his military background as much as it was for him being her father.
She remembers fishing for suckers on Lake Kashagawigamog behind the house close to Birch Point Lodge.
Nedean used to tag along with her dad when he collected money from the pay phones as the manager with the Dysart telephone system. He let the coins fall through her hands, making it seem to her like she was a pirate with her loot.
“He was the nicest, kindest man I think I’ve ever known so far,” she said.
Remembrance Day has a special place for the Caseys. Tim is a history buff and believes strongly in learning from the past.
“I’m a firm believer in knowing where we’ve been to know where we’re going,” he said. “It becomes a smaller and smaller thing I think as generations unfold ... I think it is critical that kids have an idea of what went on to be able to have wonderful country we have now.”
Dennis knows his dad was affected by the war, losing friends.
“Some of the lucky ones were the ones that got killed. A lot of veterans had a lifetime full of psychological issues,” he said. “In those days you weathered the storm and carried on.”
There was a physical toll. Earle had issues with his feet and had back trouble all his life, Tim said.
He said his father also suffered from trench foot. Sitting in a wet boat in cold weather for more than 12 days will do that. The entire crew had it.
“It didn’t slow him down any, but he [at times] would have his feet go numb and tingle,” he said.
Remembrance Day pays respect to men like Earle. It also stands as a reminder of the optimism held by Tim.
“It further backs up my firm belief: It doesn’t matter what situation ... good will always overcome evil,” he said.
Earle didn’t like to speak to groups, but one-on-one it was a different story. It was important to share, he said. Earle’s words from the archived Echo article still ring true years after he spoke to the paper.
“If more people know about it, maybe they wouldn’t be so anxious to start another one ... I often wonder what those men feel like who made the atomic bomb. When we let the bombs out, I always thought about the women and children below. Sometimes I look at my own grandchildren ... It would be terrible if it ever happened to them. War is terrible. It is just awful.”