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Till we meet again: Second World War photo comes home to North Vancouver family

20-year-old Robert Goldney's plane went down over Germany in 1943

In a way, Flight Sgt. Robert Goldney has finally come home to his family.

At just 20 years old, the young North Vancouver man was killed, along with his entire crew, when their Halifax bomber went down in a raid on a German port city on the Baltic Sea in April 1943.

Goldney and his six flightmates are buried in the Kiel War Cemetery, not far from where they were last seen. “Till we meet again,” the inscription on Goldney’s headstone reads.

Now, 78 years later, the young man is being remembered anew thanks in part to the discovery of a long forgotten photo.

While researching for his award-winning biography "That Lucky Old Son," Regina author Mark Cote came across a photo of his father Leonard standing next to a tall stranger on the day they graduated from their Royal Canadian Air Force training.

“I was blown away by the fact this picture even existed and I was so happy, but of course I was curious about this guy that my father was standing beside,” he said. “I was looking at the faces of these young men and it just amazed me. These are kids.”

Cote wrote the book because he wanted to better know his father, who died when Cote was just eight, but also because he wanted the wider public to have a better understanding of what life was like for airmen in that time. Cote’s father’s plane was also shot down. He survived and spent time in a prisoner of war camp where, because of poor conditions, he contracted tuberculosis leading to his death at the age of 45.

Goldney was a member of the Vancouver 405 Squadron. He was the tail gunner, a particularly dangerous position.

“It was risky stuff,” said Jerry Vernon, president of the Vancouver chapter of the Canadian Aviation Historical Society.

On the day of the Kiel raid April 5, 1943 10 bombers made it to their primary or secondary targets, but Goldney's was the only one that did not return, records show. By the end of the war, more than 22,000 RCAF personnel had been killed, many of them from the bomber command Goldney served in.

“They were probably losing people every day or every few days,” Vernon said.

The official diary entry from the raid filed in the RCAF archives reports there was thick cloud and strong winds over the town, making it difficult for Pathfinders to mark their targets. It was also reported that decoy fires lit by the Germans may have drawn off some bombers. Kiel reported very few bombs in the town – eleven buildings destroyed, 46 damaged and 26 people killed, Vernon said.

Coming home

With the photo, which came from the RCAF archives, was Goldney’s name and a Windsor Road address. Cote figured Goldney’s hometown museum and archives was the best place to start. He contacted MONOVA: Museum of North Vancouver, which shared the photo and put the word out on their social media channels. Canyon Heights resident Jennifer Duholke saw the photo and wondered if he was any relation to a fellow member of her church who has the same surname. She quickly made the match with Mariette MacLeod, the daughter of Goldney’s surviving sister, Eileen, now 92.

With some trepidation, Cote got in touch to offer them the picture and a copy of his book.

“Sometimes you're worried about whether it's going to be opening up old wounds or dredge up painful memories,” Cote said. “Hopefully this photograph means something to somebody, because I know how it made me feel to see my father.”

The offer caught Goldney’s relatives by surprise. MacLeod presented the photo and book to her mom on her 92nd birthday in June. Despite Cote’s worry, the family was in fact pleased to see that Goldney hadn’t been forgotten, MacLeod said. It also brought a sense of closure as the family knew very little of his life in the air force or how it came to an end.

“My mom didn’t know that there was a cemetery, that there is remembrance of him,” she said. “She had never seen such a photo. She doesn't have many pictures of her brother.”

'We called him Bobby'

In an interview, Eileen Goldney said the photo and the book have been a chance to get to better know her brother, who was seven years older.

“By the time I got to know much about him, he was gone,” she said.

Growing up on a small farm in Lynn Valley, they called him Bobby. The family grew cherries, which kids from the neighbourhood liked to steal. They had a musical family who threw great parties.

“I remember life was a good time until the war happened,” she said.

After Goldney left for training, the family started to refer to him as simply Bob. It became difficult for them to talk about him, Eileen recalls.

“I knew it was terrible to talk about war because people didn’t always come back,” she said.

It was only eight months after the photo was taken that Goldney’s plane failed to return from the Kiel raid.

“It felt like the next day,” Eileen said. “I was going to school and people were upset. It was terrible… It finished my mom off. Her whole life was family.”

Had her brother been able to come home and live out his life, Eileen believes he would have been a natural entertainer like their father was.

“He was very, very, sociable. He played music. He played harmonica,” she said.

It was the first time Eileen had seen a photo of her brother in uniform with his wings, which he received upon graduation.

“He was getting where he wanted to be. That was his aim – to get those submarines and that’s what they did,” Eileen said, gazing at the photo.

It was not the first time her family had been touched by war. As a teen, Eileen learned to drive so she could take her father to the hospital for treatment for the damage poisonous gas did to his lungs in the First World War.

“I think about war and what it does to people,” she said. “And they keep coming up with another one.”

In the family

The return of the photo to his North Vancouver home and relatives has done something to re-establish Goldney’s place in the family, especially for the next generation who knew very little about him, MacLeod said. Her sons, who she has not been able to see since the pandemic began, are now keen to learn more.

“They want to read the book. They want to look at the picture. To them, it's totally foreign,” she said, adding that one of her sons bears a striking resemblance to his great uncle. “I find that just heart wrenching, you know. There's a thread of how people look the same through the generations. It will be important to our family. It’s in our collection of pictures now.”

Anyone who wants to pay their respects to Goldney has an opportunity every time they pass the Victoria Park cenotaph, where his name is among those etched in the stone.