A Langley veteran of the Second World War is trying to ensure that the younger generations remember the reason for the poppies of Remembrance Day.
John Palen, 93, served in the RCAF and RAF Bomber Command, a tail gunner who flew 58 missions over Nazi-occupied Europe.
This Thursday, he will meet with Aldergrove Community Secondary students who are only a little younger than he was on the day he volunteered for military service in 1942.
“I usually tell the kids a little about the history, how I was a high school student who graduated in 1942,” Palen said.
With three high school classmates, Palen went to the recruiting office, where all of them volunteered for service in the RCAF.
Palen didn’t know then that he would find himself in Bomber Command, the Allied unit that would suffer one of the highest casaulty rates of the war, losing 55,573 airmen, or 44 per cent of its personnel.
Although Palen and his Lancaster bomber crew had good luck and made it through the war intact, not everyone he knew was so lucky.
“I had a close friend who was in course with me,” said Palen.
He and Walter Jones, a CN Rail brakeman from Ontario, served in the same squadron just south of York.
“I went over to see him one day, and I was told his plane had been shot down.” Palen later learned Jones had not survived.
Of the four young men who signed up together in Toronto in 1942, Palen and two others returned home.
Palen braved the dangers of bombing missions from inside a cramped turret at the back of the aircraft. Twice his parachute caught fire and was destroyed, and once the Perspex bubble around him was shattered by enemy fire.
The crew of his aircraft volunteered for Pathfinder duty, which involved going in ahead of the bulk of the bombers and dropping flares to guide the rest of the attacking force.
For volunteering to join the Pathfinders, the crew were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Palen has spoken to school groups for years, first in his home in Barrie, Ont., and for the past three years here in Langley, where he moved to be closer to his family.
“It gives me an opportunity to impress upon them how important it is to remember Remembrance Day,” said Palen.
He talks about those who made the sacrifice of their lives during the war.
“Hopefully, that will convey to them the importance of it,” Palen said.
Palen will be 94 in a few days, and his fellow speaker and Second World War veteran Bud Freeston is also in his 90s.
The students now in high school are among the last generation that will be able to meet and directly speak with veterans of the Second World War.
“I think it’s very important,” said Gord Dennison, the history teacher who has for several years invited veterans to speak to high school students in Aldergrove.
Not only have Second World War veterans spoken to students, but in recent years a veteran of the conflict in Afghanistan has been on hand.
The veterans take questions from students about their service, their families, and other topics.
“It’s hard to gauge exactly what effect it will have on the kids,” Dennison said. But he has seen it have an impact on some students.
Veterans are a “primary source of history” and it can open the eyes of students who have only learned history through books and films.
“They can relate to it,” Dennison said.
It helps that both Palen and Freeston are good speakers, Dennison said.
For his part, Palen is happy to speak in schools.
“I’ve enjoyed history as a student all my life, and I’ve enjoyed a history teacher who gets involved,” Palen said.
“When Gord contacted me, I was only too glad to follow that up,” he said.
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