June 21st 2014 will go down in my family history as a summer solstice to remember.
The longest day signalled the end of the longest wait. Two families that had not met for 70 years were finally reunited.
At the 11th hour, I had received an invitation to join 160 World War 2 veterans from Bomber Command at their annual reunion at Gloucester’s Jet Age Museum. But this was to be no ordinary trip, for two exciting reasons…
1. Each of the many elderly veterans was to get airborne and I was to join them. Volunteer pilots from around the country kindly gave up their time and their (very small!) aircraft to transport the scattered gentlemen from around the UK to their destination.
2. Amongst these 160 men was Joe Lee, Rear Gunner in Lancaster Bombers, and my Uncle Joe’s best friend throughout their active service. The two Joes’ families had not met since my uncle passed away in 1947 at just 22 years of age. This was to be our first chance to see each other.
I knew it was going to be a great day. The sky was blue and as I drove across the magnificent Humber Bridge on my way to the airport, I remembered that I was about to climb to 4000 feet in a tiny motorised tin can and was grateful that the Midsummer weather was playing ball.
Just as I thought the prospects for this day couldn’t get any better, I met Ken Johnson.
Ken, like my uncle, was mid-upper gunner during the war, and immediately set about thrilling us with the tale of when he watched from his turret as his crew’s Lancaster was bombed from above by one of their own aircraft. As half of the starboard wing fell off, he lost intercom contact with the rest of the crew, rendering him unable to tell them what he could see. Even as he was thinking it, he noticed that worse had happened…..there was now a giant hole at the back of the plane where their rear gunner and friend had been sitting just minutes before.
Ken spoke, as so many veterans do, in a matter of fact tone. It made me think about how the elderly are ‘written off’ by the young. About how we fail to see the once-vivacious person who may now be hidden behind a slow walk or wrinkled hands. It made me think about my uncle, who like Ken had been just 19 years old when he put his body into a flying metal target loaded with explosives and flew into enemy territory, then repeated it over and over again. It made me think how luck (or lack of it) played such a part in the devastation or survival of families in wartime.
As you can imagine, this was a day of polarised emotions.
The Cessner 182 which greeted us was really a (very small) thing of beauty….. *and…breathe…..* We entered the (have I mentioned ‘very small’?) cabin without dignity and donned our earphones. Not only could I see Mal, our fabulous pilot, but I could have actually played with his instruments (pardon the expression) from my seat without too much effort. It was that small. But boy, what a flight! Golf Alpha November Zulu Oscar got us to Goucester in just over an hour, skimming the Malvern Hills, skirting the curves of the Trent, and reminding us all how lucky we are to be English, and alive.
It was as though Joe and his beautiful daughter and granddaughter had know me for ever when we first saw each other. There were hugs and unending chatter. I could immediately see why this 89 year old man had been such tight pals with my uncle. Finding me after all this time (a very recent event) had clearly had an impact on Joe and was reviving a lot of memories about his time with 50 Squadron and his friendship with my Joe. He even said I looked like him, a fact which touched me deeply for some unknown reason.
We enjoyed a fantastic fly-past across the beautiful summer skies by a Spitfire and a Hurricane, before saying our goodbyes and heading back to the knee-trembler for our trip home.
This was the first time that Ken had been airborne since the war, so it seems justified to let him have the final word.
Mal: “How is the flight for you Ken? Are you enjoying it?”
Ken: “It’s a lot better when noone’s shooting at you!”
I love these guys.