During a night in late February, 1944, Donald Mackay was shot out of the sky.
The 29-year-old pilot was running a mission over Germany. The plane, a pathfinder, was in front of the fleet, dropping flares for the bombers to follow.
Only the most skilled and expert crews were selected for pathfinders. Mackay, “Mac” to his friends, was both.
On that night in 1944, Mac was the only member of his crew wearing a parachute.
“The Pilot is the only one who has a parachute strapped to his seat and he sits on it,” writes Joan Wilks, the mother of Mac’s flight engineer. “The others have to clip theirs on, and I support they hadn’t time.”
He was the only one who would survive.
Mac flew many missions for the army. A commissioned member, he flew his first tour and immediately signed up for another.
“It was a crazy thing to do, because it is very unusual to finish your 30 (operations) unhurt, and to try and do more is asking for trouble,” wrote Wilks.
Mack flew with a crew of seven: “There was Ron, the bomb aimer, Peter, the flight engineer, Happy, the navigator, Basil, the wireless operator, Morris, the mid-upper gunner and Ken, the rear gunner,” writes Wilks.
They worshipped their pilot and called themselves Mackay’s Circus. It was written on their plane.
The crew’s first mission in the pathfinder was OK, but on their second, they got shot up by a fighter.
“The gunners were wounded in the leg and the plane was damaged. When they were hit they still had all their bombs on board, so it was lucky that they didn’t blow up,” writes Wilks. “They went on to Berlin with a damaged plane and dropped their bombs.
“On the way back the plane was nose heavy and Donald sat for four hours with a wire rope from the stick and then round himself and both hands pulling hard. You can imagine the strain! However, they got home safely and the gunners were take to hospital.”
Peter Wilks also wrote to Mac’s parents back in Canada.
“Donald had recently been awarded the D.F.C. and was, we all feel sure, about to receive further recognitions for his great courage and skill recently in bringing back a badly damaged aircraft from a raid on Berlin.”
Mac landed with his parachute in a tree and walked around the German countryside for days, his family would later tell me. He would eventually turn himself in.
Meanwhile, with a plane missing, army officials feared the worst.
His family was notified by telegraph, and then received a letter from a wing commander in the Royal Air Force.
“There is little that can be added to the bare statement reporting him as ‘missing’.”
Then, a glimmer of hope. News that he was in a prisoner of war camp.
In a french postcard dated Feb. 11, 1945, the pre-written text says, “I am a prisoner of war in Germany and in good health.”
Mac exchanged letters with his mother from camp.
The letters were sensored, but he says he lived not a bad life.
“Things could be much worse,” Mac wrote. “It is rather like an extended indefinite holiday. We get plenty of sun this time of year.”
“We are getting much the same weather that you do in Canada,” Mac wrote. “We have a bit of a garden, which should add to our supply of greens and gives the place more of a homelike appearance.”
The camp was freed by Russians.
After 18 months Mac was going home.
He would tell his family members that he didn’t remember the boat trip home, just the lights on the shore as they arrived in Halifax.
Before the war, Mac was a commercial pilot. But with the influx of trained men in the air, there was no shortage of pilots.
Mac went on to fly in the Canadian arctic.
His daughter says he was an analytic man and that’s how he spoke of the war.
His six medals, including the flying cross, now sit alongside his photograph, framed in the home of his great grandchildren.
Roean, Addisyn and Kaeson know of their great-grandfather’s bravery and see his photo every morning, sitting on a shelf in the corner on the way to breakfast.