By Captain Mort Lightstone. RCAF, Retired, Air Force Navigator, Korean War/Vietnam War
I grew up in Ottawa during the nineteen-thirties, one of six children in a poor family. At 12 or 13 I joined the Air Cadets and soon excelled and won a ‘Flying Scholarship’. I started my career in the Royal Canadian Air Force as an officer. I trained to become an Air Force Navigator, and in 1952 I was deployed overseas to fly missions in the Korean War. I flew an aircraft for the Korean Air Lift program. That meant that members of my squadron and I were responsible for flying personnel and supplies to Korea, and for bringing wounded personnel home on return flights.
In later years, as a member of 436 Squadron, Canada’s global response squadron, I was sent all around the world on special duties for the Canadian government. In 1972 and 1973, I flew a C-130 Hercules aircraft in the Vietnam War.
But let me tell you about my worst moment.
During the summer of 1956 I was at RCAF Station Winnipeg as a young Flying Officer. I received orders to put together a Guard of Honour and prepare to greet Air Commodore Chester Hull. I was assigned a drill sergeant,100 men to participate in the Guard and a 35 member Air Force Band.
The Operation Order was that I would be issued a 9 mm pistol, a white lanyard and a white web gun-holster.
We needed the 100 member Guard of Honour to move as one person on all commands. The drill sergeant shouted commands and we were drilled every second day on the tarmac enduring that ruthless prairie sun.
At one of the dress rehearsals, I observed that the white web belts worn by the Guard formed a perfect straight line. To my repulsion, I noticed that the weight of my pistol pulled my web belt down on the left side and made me look like a cowboy; certainly out of harmony with the Guard. I decided to ditch the pistol and fill the holster with a twisted wire coat hanger. Much better.
The big moment was almost upon us. The Guard of honour fell-in with the Air Force Band on our right flank. I gave the command, “Guard of Honour, turn to the right in column of route … Right turn”. In unison, the Guard and the Band turned smartly to the right. “Guard of honour, by the left, quick … march”. With the first step forward, the band struck up the tune of the Air Force March. In seconds, we were parading smartly onto the tarmac. I turned and faced the Guard and gave the order to move into Open Order and then the ceremonial Right Dress. My next two commands … “Eyes front” and “Shoulder Arms”. I turned and faced the dais. There we stood. Uniforms clean, pressed, buttons and boots polished, rifles at the slope and all of us at attention. The next thirty seconds stretched into an eternity.
We were facing the early afternoon sun. There we stood. Three cars arrived, all with fluttering bumper flags. A gaggle of senior officers gathered and chatted for another eternity. There we stood. The tallest among them soon walked to the dais and stepped up. His chest was adorned with an extensive row of medals.
Rather quickly he brought himself to attention. Signaling me that he was ready to proceed, he gazed at me. I was overwhelmed with this entire scene. With the first step forward, I listened for the 100 boots hitting the tarmac in unison and the swish of the trousers. I knew we were making a hit, I knew we were in sync and I knew we looked professional. We were a team of 101 performing in perfect harmony as though we were one. My chest swelled with pride. I experienced a sense of euphoria; I was so proud. As soon as I commanded “Guard of Honour … General Salute … Present … Arms” the Air Force Band played the ceremonial music with a presto tempo.
“Guard of Honour … Order Arms”. Every Airman moved simultaneously and with precision. Perfect! I was so proud of this Guard. I was certain the buttons would pop off my tunic. Little did I suspect that in a few seconds my world would crash!
I marched the fifteen feet to Air Commodore Hull with my eyes riveted on the first of his medals, the Distinguished Flying Cross. As his smile slightly increased I halted, our eyes locked, I introduced myself and asked “Sir, would you like to inspect the Guard?”
“Yes” he replied, “but first I would like to inspect your weapon.”
Those words were deafening and full of terror! I was caught. I was dumbfounded! It was my worst moment. I was the one that let the team down. I visualized my career shattering into a million pieces. I didn’t know what to say or do.
His smile broadened. Putting me at ease he said “Let’s get on with it - I’ve done the same thing myself!”
Although Remembrance Day comes once a year, let’s never forget the Canadian veterans from all conflicts who ensured that Canada lives in freedom and peace.