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Remembrance Day: West Van 101-year-old recalls service in bomber squadron

There are few people left who can share their story about life in the Second World War. Gordon Cowley is sharing his.

Gordon Cowley knows there aren’t many folks left who can share stories like his own.

The 101-year-old West Vancouver resident served in the Second World War and still dons a poppy.

“I’m probably one of the very few that are still around,” he said. “I’ve lived a long, long time.”

Cowley was born in Winnipeg in 1922, although most of his growing up was in North Vancouver. He remembers an idyllic childhood, despite the Great Depression.

“Nobody had very much money and everybody was very happy,” he said.

After war was declared in 1939, Cowley recalls life at North Vancouver Secondary became a “quasi-military” experience, involving training and drills. At 17, he was his cadet platoon’s commander.

When they were of age, Cowley and three close friends all went to the Royal Canadian Air Force recruiting office together to enlist to be flight crew. At the time, volunteering to serve was more of a fact of life than it was a decision made out of patriotism, he said.

“We were all swept up in the war effort and so you wanted to be a part of it,” he said.

Cowley’s friends passed the Air Force physical exam but he did not. The military assessed his lungs weren’t up to the standard.

“The war was on and we all wanted to fly. That’s what we were going to do,” he said. “And that really upset me.”

Dejected, Cowley went to work for BC Electric but in less than a year, he felt compelled to go back, even if it meant serving on the ground.

“I thought I can’t just not be a part of this,” he said.

He shipped off to St. Thomas, Ont. for training before being assigned to No. 10 Bomber and Reconnaissance Squadron at the massive Air Force base in Gander, N.L.

No. 10 Bomber and Reconnaissance

Over the course of the war, the squadron logged about 30,000 hours of patrol work in the air, eight to 10 hours at a time, escorting Allied convoys, scouting for German U-Boats and attacking them on sight, according to Jerry Vernon, president of the Vancouver chapter of the Canadian Aviation Historical Society.

But for every hour in the air, many more were spent on the ground, keeping the planes in flying condition and prepping them for their next mission, which was Cowley’s task. Cowley remembers it as a busy time but not overly difficult.

No. 10 Squadron was a relatively safe posting for the war, but not without risk. They lost seven aircraft and 25 crew members. Other squadrons at the same base would have lost more, Vernon said, noting that Gander has its own cemetery just outside the main entrance.

“It’s rather sad, because quite often you can see they’ve got the remains of a pilot and a navigator, quite often in the same grave,” he said. “Most of those were lost at sea and never found again.”

Soon after Germany surrendered in May of 1945, Cowley and the rest of the squadron were told they were to be redeployed to the Pacific theatre. While they were on their way to Halifax and then Singapore, they received word that Japan had surrendered.

“Our whole crew was disbanded and our crew went home,” he said.

In the years since, Cowley, like a lot of veterans, sees his role in the war as small.

“I was just part of a big contingency,” he said. “I can’t say I felt proud. I felt thankful it was over.”

Vernon said No. 10 Squadron and those like them were critical in the Battle of the Atlantic, keeping shipping lanes open and allowing supplies to reach the Allies in Europe.

A relatively small group compared to other squadrons, No. 10 had three confirmed U-Boat sinkings, although their mere presence on patrol would have sent submarines diving for safety, making them less of a threat, Vernon said.

“The convoys were very, very important, of course,” he said. “The Battle of the Atlantic was quite a battle, and the Air Force had their part to play in it.… The convoys, I’m sure it felt very reassuring to have an airplane circling over them.”

After the war

All three of Cowley’s friends he tried to enlist with were sent to different theatres of war, and all survived.

When he returned home to North Vancouver, he quickly returned to his old job with BC Electric. He married his wife Peggy in 1946 and they started a family.

Cowley said he sometimes thinks of the chapter of his life spent during the war and the members of his squadron, all of whom are gone now.

If you’ve attended a Remembrance Day ceremony on the North Shore, you’ve more than likely been in Cowley’s presence.

“Oh yes, I wouldn’t miss them. My father was in the First World War and I used to go to the cenotaph in North Vancouver every Remembrance Day with him. That activity was quite important to me,” he said. “After the war, I made sure I went to every Remembrance Day service.”

While his lungs kept him out of an RCAF cockpit where he felt he belonged during the war, they do serve him well today. For the last 30 years, he’s been a regular at the West Vancouver Community Centre three times per week to work out with the Fit Fellas, a fitness group of men of a certain age.

“And I’m still in very good shape,” he says.