Since the arrival of my first paternal ancestor in North America in late May of 1811, a full two centuries ago next spring, not one generation has gone by without being marked in some way by war. The first of our North American lineage, John Dougherty, found himself almost as soon as he got off the boat from Ireland drafted to march around western New York and Pennsylvania during the War of 1812.
Other family stories still hold the facts but time has obscured the depth of suffering and pain resulting from war. We can now only imagine the grief of a maiden aunt at the loss of her one true love fallen on a far off blood soaked battlefield or of a mother whose son succumbed to disease in a Confederate prison camp.
Sixty-five years ago the Second World War ended, yet only this past spring I added a new story my father’s wartime experiences. My father flew with the 127th Liason Squadron of the 2nd Air Commando Group. Their primary task was providing support for British ground offensives against the Japanese in Burma. His missions included reconnaissance and evacuation of wounded, in addition to supply and communication duties.
He piloted a unarmed Stinson L-5 popularly known as the Flying Jeep. This light, single-engine plane constructed from steel tubing, plywood and doped cotton fabric needed only 100 metres to take off from the short airstrips hacked out of the Burmese jungle. It was on returning to his base from one of those front line landing strips that my father had one of his closest calls of the war.
As my brother Tim tells it, in the spring of 1945 our father was flying along the coast of Burma with a load of empty plasma bottles. He had been told that this airspace was supposedly clear of any enemy activity. His routine mission became anything but when a sudden gust of wind buffeted his plane. A chance sideward motion swung the L-5’s tail out. When it did he caught sight of a much faster Zero, the principal long-range fighter of the Japanese, coming in behind him. With its flaps and wheels down to slow it as much as possible, it approached for a shot at a fatally close range. My dad immediately rolled his L-5 over and dove towards the sea. He leveled out and flew belly up just a few metres above the waves.
With this move he showed his total vulnerability. My father’s quick action must have impressed the Zero’s pilot. Whether motivated by an ancient warrior code or simply fed up with the slaughter, the Japanese pilot disengaged. His conscious action spared my father’s life. Because of that life-saving act the first name in a seventh North American generation could be added to our family tree last August.
Wars fought to secure resources, resolve trade disputes, expand empires and assuage real or imagined grievances have exacted horrific tolls on human life and the environment. Yet in all the war’s my family has lived through over the last 200 years one time enemies eventually became friends and allies.
It is painfully slow but humanity appears to be groping its way towards recognizing that war can no longer be tolerated. The enormous waste of collective energy preparing for war must end. Those trillions of dollars spent each decade on military expenditures must be reallocated to healing a wounded planet and eliminating the causes of conflict. This coming Remembrance Day calls on us once again to recognize the sacrifices made to achieve peace. We must truly dedicate ourselves to preserving it.
Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.