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Les Wrightman

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An officer stands with head bowed

A man sits in a chairFor Len Wrightman the decision to join the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1941 wasn't one he dwelled upon.

"I had been promised the car for Sunday and my father took it to church instead," Len recalled. "So, I just took off to Toronto. I went to the recruitment centre at 200 Bay Street at 10 in the morning and at three in the afternoon I was in the Air Force."

The Sharon, Ontario, native soon found himself in basic training at Manning Depot in Toronto, which was located at the current site of the Canadian National Exhibition.

Following his initial training, Len was placed in a precision flying squad and travelled to local fairs. That lasted for nine weeks until he was transferred Camp Borden doing tarmac duty.

As the name suggests, tarmac duty did not involve any flight time.

"I really wanted to get out of there," Len said in a matter-of-fact tone.

Fortunately for Len, fate lent him a hand. On a cold and rainy night while returning to Camp Borden from Barrie, he found two women stranded at the roadside after the bus they were travelling on had broken down. They informed him they were also heading to the air base, so he offered them a ride.

"It turned out they were the wife and sister of one of the captains on the base," he said. "He called me into his office the next day and asked if there was anything he could do for me. I told him I wanted to get the hell out of there. He told me I had my next posting."

From Camp Borden, Len made training stops in Toronto, Goderich and Aylmer. In addition to flight lessons, he took classes in math, navigation and meteorology.

"We also used to do night flying in the daytime," Len said with a smile. "It sounds hard to believe, but it's the truth. They used a special metallic paint in the cockpit. Then they put a hood over your head and all you could see were the controls."

After he completed training, Len was sent to a holding area in Bournemouth, England. He said the location was a beautiful seaside resort, however, hourly military bombardments took some of the lustre off of the location.

Eventually, Len made his way to an operational squadron in Beacon Hill.

"I got bashed up a bit there," Len said, not wanting to elaborate. "I wound up in hospital."

Once he was out of hospital, Len was assigned to Bomber Command and flew Wellington aircraft. He was the pilot of a six-man crew. While they mainly did training, the crew also dropped leaflets in France and weapons to the Free French.

Eventually, Len was assigned to a Heavy Conversion Unit. These units were formed to train crews to operate large, heavy bombers. It took a lot of hard work and dedication, but Len and his comrades became skilled airmen.

"In order to fly those aircraft, our crew grew to seven," Len said. "You had to be totally in sync with the other members of our crew. So we were a seven member crew, but more like one happy family.

"We went out together, drank together, went to church together."

Len said his time in the Air Force taught him to rely on other people and he learned a lot about communication, trust and teamwork.

"It was a real life lesson," he said.

Len even went so far as to teach one of the crew members how to fly.

"I had a back-up pilot. I put one member of the crew in the cockpit next to me and gave him some training. I figured that way if anything happened to me, he could at least get the rest of the boys down to the ground."

Maintaining focus in order to achieve a goal was another life lesson the young airman came to learn.

"On the ground, before a mission, you were a bundle of nerves," he recalled. "But when you were in the air, things were different. You became very focused and you forgot about the danger around you in order to reach your goal."

Len left the Air Force in 1945 with the rank of lieutenant. He admits it was a bittersweet occasion.

"When they pinned my wings on me, that was a great day," he said. "The day I was discharged was equally great."

The veteran also admits it was difficult to come home following the war.

"You feel somewhat out of place when you're discharged."

Len knew he needed something to keep him occupied once he left the Air Force so he decided to find work. The veteran's first job out of the Air Force was to become a police officer. He worked for the Ontario Provincial Police for two years and then decided to switch careers and took a job as an engineer with General American Transportation Corporation in Toronto doing research and development.

Len is now retired and currently working with the local war memorial museum in the Town of Georgina. One of his goals is to expand the existing museum by acquiring military aircraft and naval memorabilia for display.

"The museum currently has a lot of army material, but we need stuff from the Navy and Air Force," he said. "That stuff is more difficult to come by."

The veteran is also working to find a location where a new museum could be built and expanded to include educational facilities.

"We really want to expand and even plan to create lecture rooms where we can hold lectures to help educate the public. People want to know what veterans went through."

At 87 years of age, Len says being productive is the key to longevity.

"You have to keep busy," he advises. "You should learn something new every day."