Press-Republican

November 4, 2011

Gilles Lamontagne's War

PETER BLACK, Canadian Dispatch
Press-Republican

---- — 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.

Lamontagne parachutes into the cold pre-dawn Dutch countryside. Alone, he takes shelter in a barn, but a shotgun-toting farmer gives him bread and cheese and turns him over to the Gestapo.

Thus begins the 26 months of hell in a succession of Nazi prisoner of war camps that forever shaped the young Gilles Lamontagne. There's little point in attempting to recount the details of his experiences in that camp; the legacy of Nazi inhumanity is so rampart and still so fresh to so many.

Lamontagne's war ended in April 1945, as he and his fellow captives were being marched to the port of Lubeck, where the Nazis, in a frenzy to demolish camps and dispose of prisoners as the Allies advanced, were loading ocean liners, intending to sink them and their human cargo.

Back in Montreal, Lamontage reunited with his Wellington crew members, all of whom had defied the odds and survived the war. (They got together in the early summer of 1945, at the El Morocco night club, where at about the same time — maybe the same night? — my future father and mother were famously meeting to plan a life together.)

Lamontagne emerged from the war eager to make something of himself, as he recalls in a voluminous biography published last year. And so he did. He moved from Montreal to Quebec City, bought a successful shop, immersed himself in the booming city's business community and met a pretty young American woman studying chemistry in French at Laval University.

Seeing the need to modernize a city mired in pollution and corruption, Lamontage got involved in politics and eventually won the mayor's job in 1965. He is credited with starting the process to clean up a city which, despite its world reputation for charm, was plagued by rampant poverty and slum-like housing.

Lamontagne served at city hall until 1977, when he was recruited by the Liberal party for federal politics. He was a cabinet minister under Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau until 1984, taking on the contentious defense portfolio at a time of transition in the military.

His active public career continued with a stint as Quebec's lieutenant governor from 1984 until 1990.

You might say this POW did, indeed, make something of himself.

Peter Black is a radio broadcaster and writer based in Quebec City. He has worked on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, in Montreal as a newspaper reporter and editor, and as a translator and freelance writer. He can be reached at pmblack@videotron.ca.