Little Boys and Big Bombers by Elgin Keith Jones CD
In 1956 when I was seven years old, our family moved our farm to the former WWII No.19 Service Flying Training School base near Vulcan, Alberta. I was the second oldest boy in a family of six. We had previously farmed the land directly west of the airport. When we moved there the aerodrome had almost stood down (been closed). Dad renovated the guardhouse and utilized the cells as our bedrooms.
I recall a few bare minimum units in operation in the mid fifties. There was a Sgt. and a Corporal with their families when we moved in. The hospital, maintenance section, and fire station were still operational albeit on a smaller scale. For a boy of my age this was an amazing opportunity to have my own airbase to play on.
After we were moved in and fairly settled as a family, our father gathered we boys together and said, “I want you to understand that the hangars and the old firing range are OUT OF BOUNDS.” I guess you can imagine what was going on in the minds of we three young boys! That was in the spring of that year. By mid summer, we had figured out how to get into No. 1 hangar. Now imagine our looks at each other when we saw the Bombers parked inside. Oh, Oh…Dad?
Well, it didn’t take him long to figure out our discovery as he already knew what was there. That evening, while sitting at the supper table and trying to contain our excitement, and not to give away our secret find, Dad, calmly said, “They’re pretty big, aren’t they?” Oh boy, we’re in trouble!
Fate would have it -Dad wasn’t really that disappointed in his boys. Dad had been released from the R.C.A.F after his WWII service in England with No. 405 Squadron as a WO1 Aero Engine Mechanic. He worked on the Lancasters and other aircraft during the war so he actually shared a certain enthusiasm with our discovery. He had many of his own wartime Lancaster stories.
Boys will be boys. We acted as pilots, gunners, bomb aimers, radio operators, mechanics and the like. I was the best tail gunner and became accomplished as a fantasy pilot in those boyhood years. The sad part came when Dad told us the planes were to be destroyed and sold for aluminum by the pound.
They came in with their torches and large melting ovens. I felt as if our large toys were being destroyed without asking us first. I asked Dad if they were going to remove everything from the inside of the planes first. He asked the company if we could salvage parts that weren’t going to be cut up and melted down. They said Dad could take the hydraulic rams as salvage after the cutting stage. One of the saddest moments for me was watching the large chains being attached to the undercarriage main wheels of a Lancaster. Two tractors pulled in opposite directions…she fell hard on her belly and there she lay, broken. They said we could salvage some parts from the inside of the Lancasters. They only gave us a short time to salvage these parts so I removed a compass and two air tanks along with the air hoses and regulators.
I recall three Lancasters, a Mitchell Bomber, and three Canso amphibious planes in the hangars. We were told a forest fire fighting company bought the Cansos. We watched numerous attempts by the pilots to get the Cansos airborne and finally they succeeded. I don’t know what happened to the Mitchell.
There was one particular Lancaster that was purchased by three farmers and saved from the “Toy Burning Furnaces.” With equipment and a large truck, they raised the rear of the aircraft, put the rear tire on the bed of the truck, and towed it across country towards Nanton. Years afterwards while visiting the Nanton Lancaster Museum, I found out that particular Lancaster was FM-159.
We stayed on the farm until they finally stood down the whole station. Dad had a ninety-nine year lease on the property but after just a few years of farming there, we were informed that they were shutting off the water and power to the buildings and we had to move out. We stayed! We felt like pioneers again, going back to coal heat and kerosene…Mum wasn’t impressed!
In the summer of 2008, I took a trip to the Nanton Lancaster Air Museum. I met a director of the museum and told him my story of growing up on the old airbase and about us playing in the Lancasters. He gave me a wonderful tour of the museum.
I went back to the old airbase and walked the runway area where they had buried chunks of the destroyed Lancasters. While recalling childhood memories of those past years, I turned around and was drawn toward something small on the tarmac. It was a small metal identification plate. I bent over and picked it up and examining closer, I noticed numbers and letters showing through the years of corrosion.
It was an identification plate of some sort. It had the initials A and M with a crown in between the two letters. My curiosity possessed the better part of me at this time. I put the plate into my pocket for old time’s sake. I took it back home and made a high definition scan of the plate, hoping for it to be a piece of my Lancaster.
I sent the scanned file to the Nanton Lancaster Museum’s librarian, Dave Birrell. He sent the image away for identification. A message came back from his source. “This is most definitely a small data plate from a Fraser Nash FN120 Rear gun turret from a Lancaster Mk X.”
We boys eventually opened the doors to the firing range storage rooms . . . but that’s another story . . .