New memorial plaque recognizes Tillsonburg's fallen veterans

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Jim Sergeant (1923-2013) joined the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1942.

A navigator on Lancaster bombers, Jim flew 17 operational missions in World War II. He survived and returned to Tillsonburg after the war. Five of his friends from Tillsonburg High School who joined the armed forces about the same time did not.

In memory of all his fallen friends – including the Myrick brothers J.F. and P.R., W.E. French, W.C. Haycock, and H.E. Rouse – Sergeant's name is noted as the donor of a special memorial plaque recently added to the Tillsonburg cenotaph, and unveiled during Wednesday's Remembrance Day Ceremony. Funds for the plaque were donated from Sergeant's will after he died Nov. 10, 2013.

"He had lost a number of good friends," said Bill Sergeant, one of Jim's four sons, who attended the service with his step-mother Mary Lou Sergeant, his nieces Victoria and Olivia, and Victoria's husband Jesse Goossens.

It was overwhelming, said Bill, who now lives in Barrie, recalling the unveiling of the plaque.

"Here was a dream of dad's that had come to fruition and I just looked at it and went 'wow.' It could not have been done any better. It's something Tillsonburg has needed...

"Dad would have swelled with pride. He would have been speechless to have seen that and known that a dream of his had come to reality.

"In the last decade or so before he passed away, one of his wishes was to have some sort of plaque or memorial in Tillsonburg dedicated to the fallen of World War II. He had mentioned that to Frank Moore from the Rotary Club."

Jim, who had been a Rotary Club member for 50-plus years, left a bequest of money to the Rotary to do things on behalf of the citizens of Tillsonburg. Moore connected the idea of 'we need a memorial here dedicated to the fallen of World War I and World War II,' honouring the veterans from Tillsonburg and area who had passed away in the service of their country. Ninety-eight names were located through research. Both Moore and Bob Marsden, a member of the Rotary and Tillsonburg Legion, were instrumental in making it happen.

While flying missions over Germany, Jim had some close calls and Bill recalled a few his father's stories.

"He said one time we came back and the airframe technicians came to him the next morning. They said, 'Do you know how lucky you were last night?' Dad knew there was a lot of shrapnel around them, but he didn't know how lucky they were. There was a three-inch hole in the wing, near the fuel tank in the wing, and they said had it been another foot closer to the aircraft, it would have gone right through the fuel tank. They never would have had enough fuel to make it back to England."

Another time they came back and the airframe techs counted more than 100 holes in their Lancaster.

"He said it just sounded like hail hitting the aircraft, there was that much shrapnel from the Flak that was coming up at them. He said it was absolutely awful."

On a mission to the area of Eagle's Nest near Berchtesgaden, in southeast Germany, they were so high up, and so cold, that his eardrums froze.

"He couldn't hear for about five days. Dad was always relatively deaf in his later years and that's what he blamed it on – the cold weather in the aircraft. He said, 'We had big boots and big coats, but our heads always tended to freeze.'"

Bill remembers asking if his father ever got scared when their Lancaster was caught in search lights.

"He said, 'Well, I just heard the skipper (the pilot) say okay boys, they got us, I'm going to do my evasive measures.'"

The pilot would literally throw the aircraft into a tight spin and lose a lot of altitude as quick as he could to avoid the anti-aircraft guns or the night fighters.

"Dad said, 'I was oblivious to most of that because I was in a little cabin just behind the pilot in the Lancasters and I was trying to figure out where we were, what our air speed was, what our direction was, and plotting a route to get home again. I was always busy and never had time to worry until we were well out over the North Sea and the boys would break radio silence just a little bit to say we're on the straight home.'"

Never would they say they were 'home free.'

"They were always afraid of a night fighter up there to catch them before they got back to the base. Some of the people in his squadron, they were just coming in for a landing and night fighters, who would have just loitered, would shoot them down."

Bill asked his father if he got to know anyone other than the Lancaster crews.

"We never did," Jim replied. "There were too many people who didn't make it back."

There were 55,573 killed in Bomber Command. Another 8,400 were wounded and almost 10,000 became prisoners of war.

"So you could see where dad was coming from," said Bill. "He said, 'I just didn't want to make friends, just in case they didn't make it.'

"Whole crews would disappear on a mission."

Bill also asked if he worried about getting shot down.

"He said 'It never crossed our mind. We always figured we were going to make it. But never did we say it was going to be somebody else. We just knew we were going to make it.' He didn't want to jinx anybody else."

There was also the '30 mission' mark. By 1943 RAF fliers had an estimated one in four chance of surviving 30 missions.

"There was always that 30th mission – 30 missions was a tour of duty in Bomber Command, and anybody who got up to their 29th was on pins and needles, because it seemed like they'd get that 30th mission and they'd get shot down for some reason. He said, 'We were worried about that, but thank goodness we didn't get up to that stage.' But he knew a lot of crews that were... and every so often somebody on their 30th mission wouldn't come home, and they'd all shake their heads."

Bacon and eggs for breakfast was special tradition after night-flying missions.

"The crews, when they did fly, always had a big hearty breakfast. Rations had a lot of Spam, but he said after a mission you always got a big bacon and eggs breakfast. It was one of those things you looked forward to whenever you got home. Little stories like that he would pass on to us."

LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON

Born and raised in Tillsonburg, Bill grew up attending Tillson Ave. and Maple Lane Public Schools, and Annandale High School. He joined the air force, inspired by this father and grandfather.

"That played a big factor in it, that was one of the considerations," said Bill, an aerospace engineer in charge of maintenance on aircraft. "My grandfather had been in the First World War, and he was the second president of the Tillsonburg Legion (which celebrated its 85th anniversary in 2014). Every Remembrance Day, grandpa had a role to play during the Remembrance Day ceremonies and dad would usually march with the rest of the World War II vets."

Bill's military career took him around the world, including four tours in Germany, and across Canada. He worked on the CF-104s in the mid-70s; he had a tour on the east coast (Chatham, New Brunswick) with the CF-101 Voodoo and the CF-140 Aurora in Greenwood, Nova Scotia.

He worked in Washington for three years, then back to Germany for five years (91-96) at the German staff college and NATO headquarters doing "tactical evaluations on the operational effectiveness of NATO air forces." Then returned to Germany from 2002-2005, evaluating both NATO and Partnership for Peace (Warsaw Pact) nations.

"My final tour, out of the country, was in England from 2007-2010. I taught at the Joint Services Command and Staff College (Greenwich)."

A Lieutenant-Colonel in the Canadian Armed Forces/Canadian Forces - RCAF, Bill retired in late 2012 after 40 years of service.

"Once I got in, I just loved my career. Every time I thought about getting out they would say something like, 'Would you like a tour in California with the Lockheed Corporation to learn about the systems on the Aurora,' which was an anti-submarine warfare aircraft. I said sure, send me down to LA for four months.

"Just as I was getting ready to retire from the Canadian Forces college in Toronto they said 'Would you consider delaying retirement for three years and teaching in England?' I said absolutely.

"A lot of wonderful opportunities," Bill summed up. "I'm so glad that I was able to take advantage of them."

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