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November 4, 2011

Gilles Lamontagne's War

As Remembrance Day approaches, I inevitably think of my dad. He was a veteran of the Royal Canadian Air Force, and although he never faced enemy fire, he signed up knowing such a terrible thing was a possibility.

His wartime experiences did include surviving a serious plane crash, and, had things turned out differently, I would not be here today writing this.

Dad died 10 years ago, only days after the requisite Remembrance Day period of sombre reflection. His passing made personal the dwindling of a generation whose wrenching sacrifice only those who were there really understand.

Which brings me to a recent encounter with someone who, as did my father, joined the air force in the spirit of adventure and, of course, to rid the world of tyranny. Gilles Lamontagne ended up having a much more brutal war than my dad, although I suspect they both emerged with a similar sense of what is important in life.

Gilles Lamontagne is now 92 years old and, though a bit stiff in body, looks, acts and speaks with an impressive vitality. I met him at his Quebec City apartment building, on an upper floor with a sweeping view north to the mountains and south to the St. Lawrence River and beyond.

"That's me, in the first F-18."

He points to a photographic souvenir of a life of many vivid chapters, not the least of which is his stint in the early 1980s as Canada's minister of national defense. During that term, he presided over the acquisition of Canada's current fleet of fighter jets, now the subject of a highly controversial replacement process.

Knowing his story, you can't help but think of Gilles Lamontagne, all of 23 years old, in the cockpit of another aircraft, a Wellington bomber, returning from a mission in Germany, high over Holland on a dark night in March 1943. Suddenly the clouds part and a Nazi fighter emerges and strafes the bomber into a flaming death trap.

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