Ken Macgowan thought he had his life planned out on Sept. 10, 1939.
His birthday was the following day, and the 18-year-old commerce student at UBC was planning to go into the same insurance firm his late father had worked for.
He was a fourth-generation New Westminster resident who had never travelled widely.
"I was walking up Sixth Street," Macgowan remembered, and someone told him that Canada was at war.
"It was foreign to me," he said. For the next two years, he tried to keep going as normal, attending another two years at UBC, marching with the Canadian Officer Training Corps on weekends.
But at the end of his third year, he ditched his studies and joined the Royal Canadian Air Force.
"I was losing so many friends, and I felt I had to get in there," said Macgowan, now a resident of a Langley senior home.
Macgowan picked the RCAF because it appealed to him as "the best service" and because training didn't mean quite as much marching about outside.
"I could have indoor lessons on mathematics," he said. "It appealed to me much more."
However, he left it up to the RCAF to determine his exact role.
He found himself in training to become a navigator and observer, first heading to Edmonton, then to Jarvis, Ont., for a bombing and gunnery course.
"I had never flown before that," Macgowan said.
He and his fellow recruits practised bombing and machine-gunning targets towed behind other planes.
By 1943, Macgowan was in Chatham, New Brunswick, learning to navigate by the stars.
The young officers studied "any particular bit of navigation that was around at the time, and there wasn't much," said Macgowan.
There were early radio beacons, and he was taught to use them.
"They helped when you were coming back from a patrol, especially over the Atlantic."
For someone who says he had a relatively calm war, the training and patrols on both the East and West Coasts gave Macgowan a few brushes with death.
"We had one bad night there, in May of 1943," he said.
A number of aircraft went up for a training flight, and Macgowan's pilot, an experienced local bush pilot, decided that the weather was too bad - fog was rolling in.
He landed, and Macgowan was not happy.
"I was very annoyed at him, because it was an exercise that wouldn't get logged," he said.
Five planes crashed that night. An airplane with Polish officers slammed into a mountain, more ditched in the ocean, and another landed on the road to Bathurst.
After more classroom training on P.E.I., where he managed to look up friends and relatives of his father's family, Macgowan was shipped back to Pat Bay on Vancouver Island to fly Supermarine Stranraers - twin-engined, two-winged flying boats that were being phased out, except for trainees.
It was in one of those that Macgowan almost died.
The exercise was to crawl low around the southern end of Vancouver Island to the home base. The pilot headed into a bay in heavy fog, and missed that he was now flying over land again.
The first clue for Macgowan that something was wrong came when the 26-pound bomb sight flew up and came down in his lap. He looked out the window and saw the plane was doing a high-speed tree topping, shearing eight to ten feet of the tops of the local foliage. Everything in the plane was loose and moving, including the carrier pigeon.
The pilot headed up, with a severely damaged set of left wings, and the left float almost torn free.
As they came down towards Oak Bay to make an early landing, the pilot worried that, with just one float, the plane would be unbalanced when it hit the water. It might skew around and crash.
His solution? Send Macgowan to walk out along the wing to balance things out while they came in and taxied across the bay at 40 knots.
"I climbed out and walked along the wing to the end of it, hanging onto those struts," Macgowan said.
They landed, Macgowan survived his career as a wing-walker, and the crew treated themselves to grilled cheese sandwiches at the Dominion Hotel after tying up their battered flying boat at the Oak Bay Yacht Club.
"That plane never flew again," Macgowan said.
From 1944, Macgowan flew from the Maritimes and Quebec, trading in the old Stranraers for newer PBY Cansos, Canadian versions of the Catalina flying boats.
Two squadrons were being formed at the time, one to head to Iceland, the other to stay in coastal Canada.
Chance placed Macgowan in the squadron in Canada.
"I don't know whether I was lucky or unlucky," he said.
The Icelandic squadron saw more enemy action over the next two years.
"Then again, I might not be here [if sent overseas]," said Macgowan.
For the next two years, Macgowan would be part of a crew of eight in a Canso, an aircraft of which he has fond memories.
The Canso crews worked as sub spotters, trying to find German U-boats that preyed on Allied shipping in the Atlantic and the St. Lawrence Seaway. They also escorted convoys headed for Europe and checked the condition of the Atlantic ice for the navy.
"We could stay out for 14 hours," Macgowan remembered.
The size of the aircraft was luxurious compared to many of the bombers and small fighters in use at the time. It even had a small kitchen, and a crew member who had once owned a restaurant made things much more bearable on long trips.
"I remember we had some pretty good steaks," Macgowan said.
The crew dropped sono-buoys to try and pick up a sub after a suspected sighting. The buoys had radio transmitters and could listen for the sounds of a German submarine's propellers.
Despite months of hunting, Macgowan wouldn't see a sub until his crew escorted a surrendering Nazi sub into harbour after VE Day.
In the meantime, he was part of a crew that found some comrades who had ditched in rough seas and were floating in a lifeboat. They also attempted to escort the Queen Mary - but the captain lost the famous ship in the middle of a furious blizzard.
Macgowan also came far too close to repeating his training incident as a flying hedge trimmer. The man reputed to be the worst pilot in the service dragged Macgowan along on a medical flight, and managed to barely miss a cliff, a stand of trees, and the house of an admiral.
At the end of the very bumpy ride, the flight engineer yanked a tree branch out of the plane and sarcastically presented it to the pilot as a souvenir, Macgowan said.
After the war, friends in the service told him about a new opportunity to join a small company. Macgowan became the fourth employee of William M. Mercer Ltd., which now has 20,000 employees, and became president of the firm after it was bought out by a larger American firm.
He moved to Langley a few years ago to be closer to his remaining family - four children, nine grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.
He plans to observe Remembrance Day quietly at his home in Walnut Grove.
@ Copyright 2013