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Thursday, April 11, 2013

Al Purdy goes to War

The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan put Trenton, Mountainview and Picton on the 1939 map. A creative and ambitious international project born of wartime shortages (the loss of too many young flyers over WWII Europe) the BCATP graduated more than 130,000 air crew from Australia, New Zealand, the UK and Canada.

BCATP gates at CFB Trenton, beside Highway 2

In 1959 these commemorative gates were installed to honour the country which had hosted the wartime training plan. In 2009 we attended the rededication. My 60's era ambivalence about things military vanished in the collective memory of a free world in peril, young men and women who answered the call to serve, the presence of so many dedicated military who do the same, daily.

We can travel back to those times anytime thanks to the faithful recorders of the war years. One such survivor was Alfred Wellington Purdy, who describes his dreams of high flight in 'Reaching for the Beaufort Sea'.

"That summer of '41 it was decided that I might make a pilot, navigator or gunner, given sufficient incentive and training. I took the air crew medical twice. Both times my blood pressure shot up nearly as high as an eagle can spit. I'd been excited about the idea of hobnobbing with Billy Bishop and the ghost of the Red Knight of Germany. Sadly the realization came to me: shit, now I'll never be able to slip the surly bonds of earth."

Earlier Al records meeting the poet John Gillespie McGee, who had written the poem 'High Flight', containing those stirring words. Purdy pronounced the poem "pretentious crap."

the checkered water tank towered over the base in 1939 as today
Bay of Quinte in background

water tank centre right, highway 2 in background

During WWII Trenton Air Base was a much smaller establishment. Photos courtesy of Quinte West Library and Archives.

The view at right is what Al Purdy would have enjoyed, when his old friend sergeant-pilot Harold Wannamaker took him up for a 'flip'.

"My maiden flight was in a two-motored plane...not a monster bomber like the Lancaster or Flying Fort. And while Harold was strapping a parachute on my back before takeoff, I noticed a mischievous look in his eyes. ...Then in the skies over Trenton Air Base, I discovered I was upside-down, quite suddenly, trying to keep my lunch in its proper place."

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for these pics of the local air bases circa WW2. My dad was a Brit, & took his Royal
    Air Force (RAF) training at Picton & Trenton. He
    became a squadron leader, flew the Lancs over
    Burma. Never told me much about those times, &
    I never pieced together the family connection until I moved out here from TO 24 years ago.

    My Dad & his buddies dated my mother & her 2 sisters, who lived in Ancaster. This area is
    a major part of my roots, & your blog has given
    me visual images I'd never seen before.
    Chris Faiers