I thought I had learned everything I could about my father’s experience during the Second World War, but a news item I heard on the radio on Remembrance Day was a new angle.
I was lying under the covers early in the morning, half awake, preparing to get out of bed. There was an item on the CBC about “nose art,” the often risque paintings that were applied to the noses of some of the bombers that dropped their loads of death on enemy targets all over Europe. This one was about one of those pieces of art, a rather irreverent work called Willie the Wolf.
The item included an interview, with one of the former crew members. After listening to the story, I later looked up Willie the Wolf on the internet. The painting depicts a wolf chasing a blond woman, naked except for red high heel shoes, across the port side of the airplane. Her clothes are scattered everywhere. A little farther back on the side of the plane are painted neat rows of bombs, red and yellow in colour, each representing one of the 67 missions Willie flew.
The plane was a Halifax Mk. VII, serial NP 707, which was delivered to the 432 squadron at East Moor, Yorkshire, and flew its first mission July 11, 1944. According to information on this plane and its remarkable art, the artist was Thomas Dunn, an airframe mechanic from Winnipeg, who was stationed there in the spring of 1944.
Dunn had already painted seven noses before NP707 arrived on July 5. Willie the Wolf was a big hit with the squadron and Dunn received $5, or the equivalent of $25 Canadian – a big sum in those days, for his art work.
I was wide awake by the time the news item was finished, so I hurried downstairs to where I keep the family papers. I pulled one of the boxes with “Dad” written on it from the shelf and quickly opened it. I sifted through the photo albums and envelopes until I found one containing his photos from the war.
Sorting through the images, I found the one I was looking for. It is a photo of my father and six other members of his bomber crew. In the foreground of the black and white image is an abundance of grass and flowers. Behind them, resting on a strip of tarmac was their Halifax bomber. There on the nose of the plane was Willie the Wolf.
A row and a half of bombs are painted on his side as well, representing the 23 missions already flown by Willie when the photo was taken. It was 1944, and my father was only 22 years old.
My Dad talked very little about the war, though he opened up a little in the last years of his life. I once attended a gathering and banquet for air force vets with him, where I listened to them share reminiscences about bases where they were stationed and their experiences during the war. They used a jargon familiar to each other, but foreign to me.
My father is gone now, and all I have to remember his war experience are the few conversations we shared about it and the mementos he left behind. His medals attest to the service he performed, but to survival, rather than to any extraordinary act of bravery. His air gunner’s flight log book holds the bare facts of the battles he fought overhead: night missions over Turin, Nurnberg and Berlin. His plane was shot down while bombing Berlin, but they made it to Sweden, and after nine months of interment, they were returned to England.
The missions continued to targets such as Versailles, Metz, and Stuttgart. By the summer of 1944, they were flying daytime sorties to targets like doodle-bug storage sites in France, an airfield in Brussels, oil refineries in the Ruhr Valley and Essen, and railroad marshalling yards at Osnabruck.
His log book attests to some 40 missions to targets all over Europe, but doesn’t indicate how many of these were flown in Willie. I can’t imagine the horror or the dread he felt each time they lifted off for another bombing assignment. I have been told that four out of five who served in Bomber Command did not survive the war.
I look at the tiny snap shots that he brought back from his time overseas. There are photos of his time spent in Sweden, and shots of flight crews whose names are lost to memory. Then there are the photos of my father and his crew, posing together in front of their Halifax bomber. Behind them and overhead, painted on the nose is Willie the Wolf, who, more than sixty times, chased his beautiful nude blond over the skies of Europe.
In one photo, they are standing at the edge of the airfield amidst a field of black and white flowers in front of their black and white bomber. Black and white was how I came to think of war, after having looked at these photos repeatedly since childhood. Now, Dad’s experience has, for the first time, been transformed from sombre grey tones to the colours of life, though faded and worn by the years.
Nearly 20 years after my father’s passing, I am surprised to learn that the three and a half metre long mural of Willie the Wolf has survived the scrap heap and is on display in the Canadian War Museum in the nation’s capital. I have added a visit to see it to my list of historical assignments during my next trip to Ottawa.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His book History Hunting in the Yukon is now available. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org