Second World War from the tarmac

Gordon Thorsteinson of Buffalo Creek was 27 years old when he enlisted with the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War

Gordon Thorsteinson

Gordon Thorsteinson

Gordon Thorsteinson of Buffalo Creek was 27 years old when he enlisted with the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War.

A country boy from the Cariboo, he left home for recruitment in Vancouver on Jan. 1, 1943, one day after his birthday.

Following training in Aylmer, Ont., he was deployed to Darlington, England as a leading aircraft mechanic with Squadron 431.

His job was to service and repair bombers after they’d flown their missions, and for some pilots who had gone out and returned safely, he was the only one who was permitted to touch their plane.

“The guys were very superstitious about having the same guy work on their plane all the time. They didn’t want to alter their luck if they’d made it back,” says Thorsteinson.

Every time aircraft went on a mission everyone on the base and in Darlington knew exactly how many flew out and automatically counted them on their return.

“Everyone knew everyone, and if they didn’t come back, they were missed.”

One night as the planes returned to the base, a German bomber, shielded by the dark, snuck in with the Canadians but, fortunately, was discovered and shot down before he had a chance to cause damage.

That was the only real threat Thorsteinson encountered while oversees, but workers in the nearby munitions factory, where his future bride, Pat, worked, grew tense whenever they heard the sound of air raid sirens.

Otherwise, they carried out their jobs with a dedication that went above and beyond expectations. Thorsteinson says that each box of ammunition they packaged would have a handwritten perfumed note with a lipstick print enclosed before it went to the front lines.

Thorsteinson’s job had its tense moments, too.

Once he had a plane come in with several bullets lodged in the gas tank enclosure. The crew was supposed to have drained the gas before bringing it in but didn’t, so when he opened it up, 300 gallons of fuel spilled onto the tarmac all around him.

“I was pretty scared because in those days, I smoked.”

The armed forces worked in weird ways sometimes. A bomber came in with its tail gunner portion shot right off but, luckily, the gunner had managed to make his way to another part of the aircraft before he went with it.

“He was court-marshalled for not being in his position. We didn’t like that at all. The guy would have been dead if he’d stayed.”

People from the air base regularly made their way into Darlington for a bit of fun and Thorsteinson says the road between the two points was covered in chewing gum.

“We had an endless free supply of gum to help ease our nerves.”

He met his wife, Pat, on one such trip to town.

“I saw this good-looking girl and I had to talk to her. I rode home on the train with her and made a date for the next day.”

They eventually married in 1947 and she came to Canada with free passage on the ocean liner Queen Mary as a war bride.

When Thorsteinson came to the end of his service in England in 1945, he volunteered immediately to go to Japan and help with that conflict. It ended just one or two days before he was to head out, so life as he had once known it resumed again in the Cariboo.

He and Pat made a home for themselves at 93 Mile where he partnered with brother, Charlie Thorsteinson, and brother-in-law Ray Flaherty in a hunting camp, restaurant and Chevron gas station business. Later, he and Charlie teamed up to run an industrial service and repair business called G&C Equipment.

After the war, the few veterans in the area formed a Legion and met in each other’s homes and later they met at the Lone Butte Community Hall.

For his children, Valerie, Keith and Brian, there was the annual Legion picnic to look forward to where Percy Willard would hand out ribbons to participants in such events as the sack race.

There was also the annual clay pigeon shoot in Lone Butte, where between rounds, the children would scour the field for unbroken pigeons and return them for a reward.

When the Legion membership acquired its current home in 100 Mile House, the building was a paint and hardware store with windows stretching across the front. To comply with the existing regulations concerning bars, the windows were boarded over and remain so today.

Gordon never missed a Legion picnic or barbecue and he called the numbers off the old wooden bingo balls at the Lone Butte hall. He also attended every Remembrance Day Service until a couple of years ago, and carried the Olympic Torch for a leg of its journey in 2010, representing the Legion.

Life clips along at a much slower pace now for the war veteran who will be celebrating his 93rd birthday on Dec. 31. He now lives in a residential care environment and goes home for dinner with his family a couple of times a week.