Friday, November 11, 2011

One Airman Who Didn’t Return

As we knocked on the door of the tiny stone cottage in the village of Vesles-et-Caumont in northern France, my brother Chuck and I finally pondered what we would say if the door opened. We had just come from the cemetery in a neighbouring town—the final resting place of an uncle we never knew—and we had decided to stop by the home of the sole living eyewitness to the plane crash that claimed his life during World War II. It was only when an elderly man came to the door that we realized we were facing an insurmountable language barrier, or so we thought. “We’re from Canada,” we blurted out. We all stared at one another until my brother thought to add “avion” and the man’s eyes lit up! The door swung open and Paul Tambouret stepped out into the yard, speaking excitedly and pointing to the air.

A traveling companion who spoke French arrived just in time to interpret as Mr. Tambouret described what he saw in the night sky above his home in the early hours of April 17, 1943. Yet words hardly seemed necessary as he remembered the sight of the Halifax bomber on which our uncle was the mid-upper gunner. It exploded in the air and then crashed in flames, a couple of kilometres east of the village, but not before our uncle and another crew member had ejected from the plane. The bomber was already too close to the ground, though, so their parachutes failed to open and both men were killed upon impact, while the other five crew members died in the fuselage of the burning aircraft. Mr. Tambouret and some of his neighbours arrived at the crash site but found no survivors. The site was quickly secured by French police until German troops arrived and took control twelve hours later.

Our uncle, Sgt. Leonard N. Jonasson, was possibly the youngest airman of the Royal Air Force Bomber Command killed in action during World War II, according to military historian Peter Cunliffe. The second child of Ottó Jónasson and Ásrún Vopnfjörð, Len grew up in St. James (then a town west of Winnipeg) with his brother Victor and sister Olive. He attended Assiniboine School and St. James Collegiate, where he excelled in mathematics and science. A few months before Len’s twelfth birthday, his father died unexpectedly and, like so many young people in similar circumstances, he was forced to grow up quickly. He eventually dropped out of school and worked as an errand boy at the Winnipeg General Hospital before moving to Pilot Mound, where he lived with his uncle while returning to his studies. Len enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force on August 5, 1942, having altered his birth certificate to boost his age, since he was only sixteen at the time. Years after the war, his girlfriend Joyce Landerkin confessed that she didn’t know why he had enlisted, saying only that he “probably wanted to fly—he was quite adventuresome.” Joyce remembered him as quiet, serious and intelligent, but also a lot of fun, a gifted conversationalist—and “dreamy.”

Following his training at MacDonald, Manitoba, where he qualified as an Air Gunner, Len proceeded to England in January 1943. At 8:49 on the evening of April 16 that year, Halifax DT-575 of the 76 Squadron took off with a crew of seven from the Royal Air Force base at Linton-on-Ouse. It was on a mission to bomb the Skoda works in Pilsen, Czechoslovakia. This was Len’s third and last mission over Europe in a combat career that lasted just a single week! At 3:38 the following morning, his plane was shot down by a German night fighter over France, while returning to base. Len was killed three months to the day after his seventeenth birthday, the only member of the crew whose body could be positively identified. They were buried together in the Liesse Communal Cemetery, thirteen kilometres east of Laon.

Paul Tambouret seemed as excited to see us as we were to meet him on that overcast autumn day, more than sixty-four years after he had hurried to our uncle’s crash site in a field near his home. He invited us into the kitchen of the small cottage where he and his late wife had raised six children. He shuffled through some papers on a tiny desk and found an envelope. Reaching into it, he pulled out a photograph of our uncle, which had been given to him by a military historian some time earlier. Yes, this was the airman from so many years ago who had brought us together in that moment. Mr. Tambouret told us that he had often visited Len’s grave and it was strangely comforting to think that there had been someone in the vicinity, all these years, who remembered the young airman from that fateful day and took the time to keep watch over his grave. He invited us to stay for a drink and we sat around the table in his kitchen, raising a toast to our Uncle Len and his crew, to Mr. Tambouret himself, and to the peace that now reigns over this once-troubled land. An old war story had come full circle for all of us.

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