Growing up in north Winnipeg, one of my most poignant memories of Remembrance Day was attending a school assembly at Andrew Mynarski VC Junior High. On that day, I watched tears of pride stream down the cheeks of Mynarski's mother as the principal told us the story of her son's sacrifice.
Andrew Charles Mynarski was born in Winnipeg, October 14, 1916, the son of Polish immigrants. He was a north-end boy who attended King Edward and Isaac Newton Elementary Schools and St. John's Technical School, but at 16, when his father died, he left school to help support his family. In November 1941, Mynarski enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force and trained in Calgary and Edmonton before being posted to No. 3 Bombing and Gunnery School at MacDonald, Manitoba, where he trained as a mid-upper air-gunner, earning his AG Wing in 1942. He was sent overseas in December 1942 and, after training in England, was posted to 419 "Moose" Squadron, a heavy bomber squadron that was part of 6 Group, the Canadian arm of RAF Bomber Command.
Moose Squadron flew out of the RAF station at Middleton St. George, near Darlington in north England. Mynarski was part of a seven-man crew on the Lancaster Bomber A for Able, with pilot Art de Breyne from St. Lambert, Québec, Jack Friday of Port Arthur, Ontario, Jim Kelly of Winnipeg, Bob Bodie of Vancouver, Roy Vigars of Guildfand, England and Flight Lt. Pat Brophy of Port Arthur. A cook at the base, Mrs. Berriman, told the story that when the Canadians returned from missions, the first thing they would ask for was a slice of her lemon meringue pie. Her daughter recalls: "When they flew back in, my mom had to have it ready for them. The Canadians really loved it, much more than the English."
|A portrait of World War II air gunner and Victoria Cross recipient Andrew Mynarksi, by Paul Goranson (1947) (courtesy Canadian War Museum).|
On the night of June 12, 1944 a few days after D-Day, the Lanc and its crew took off on their thirteenth sortie for the railway yard at Cambrai in an attempt to disrupt German supply lines. My uncle Arthur Thomas was also a bomber airman, a rear-gunner like Pat Brophy and he, too, at age 21, died on a mission over France, on June 28, two weeks after Mynarski's plane went down. For bomber crews in World War II life expectancy was measured in months. What made the strongest impression on me as we bowed our heads in silence at the Mynarski school remembrance service was that I would never have the chance to know my uncle, and that he had died not too much older than I was at the time. My grandmother showed me Arthur's medals, like Mrs. Mynarski, with tears streaming down her face.
Such shared sadness at the loss of loved ones is a terrible residue of war. But what I did not realize about Andrew Mynarski until I visited the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum in Hamilton, Ontario, toured the Lancaster Bomber (one of only two that still fly), and heard from our host the details of Mynarski's heroism in winning the Victoria Cross, was just how truly extraordinary was that early morning of June 13, 1944.
In the recollection of Mynarski's friend Pat Brophy in a famous December 1965 Reader's Digest story, "The Thirteenth Mission," Mynarski was "a quiet, chunky fellow with a boyish grin." Brophy, an officer, and Mynarski, an NCO, lived in different quarters but they became fast friends. After missions or evenings on the town the two men had a routine: Brophy would say, "So long Irish"; Mynarski would exaggerate a salute and reply "Good night, sir!" As the friends sat on the grass beside their bomber waiting to take off for France, Mynarski found a four-leaf clover and said "Here, Pat. You take it." It proved to be a prophetic act.
On the way to Cambrai a German JU-88 streaked under the Lancaster and let fly. Explosions rocked the aircraft. At 13 minutes past midnight, June 13, Captain de Breyne gave the signal to bail out. In the tail turret, however, the hydraulic system had been destroyed and Brophy was trapped. Just as Mynarski was about to jump to safety he saw Brophy struggling to get free. On his hands and knees Mynarski crawled to the tail and frantically attempted with an axe and then his bare hands to release his friend. By this time flames were engulfing the aircraft and Brophy screamed, "Go back, Andrew! Get out!"
Reluctantly, Mynarski crawled back to the escape hatch, and standing up in his burning clothes saluted his old friend as he had so many times before. Brophy recalled, "At the same time, just before he jumped, he said something. And though I couldn't hear, I knew it was, 'Good night, sir!'"
Amazingly, as the Lancaster hurtled toward the earth it hit a tree and the blow snapped Brophy's turret open and he was thrown free, unharmed. The French resistance rescued Brophy and three of his companions; two of the surviving crew had been taken prisoner. He later learned that a French farmer had spoken of a parachutist who had landed alive but died of severe burns.
Pilot Officer Andrew Mynarski, age 27, was the first member of the RCAF to be decorated with the Victoria Cross. His example is a testament both to courage and to friendship. Fortitude, endurance, loyalty and bravery are virtues that should inspire us all, but, as Gwynne Dyer writes in War, they are a fundamental necessity in the military. Combat is horrifying and to persevere requires a bond of trust. Sir John Hackett, a well- known British General, makes the point that military action is group action: "The success of armies depends to a high degree on the coherence of the group and the coherence of the group depends on the degree of trust and confidence of its members in each other." Soldiers fight because of loyalty to close friends. Mynarski demonstrated bravery and loyalty of almost superhuman proportions.
Most importantly, he demonstrated these virtues on behalf of a friend. William Bennett in the Book of Virtues writes that, "in the best friendships we see, in perhaps its purest form, a moral paradigm for all human relations." Having friends and being a friend means that you begin by sharing mutual interests and taking pleasure in each other's company. But deeper friendship moves from acquaintanceship and affection to frankness, sharing, and assistance, as Mynarski exemplified, to the point of self-sacrifice.
I think it is this aspect of the Mynarski story that has had such an impact. Brave soldiers must die in war, but this man died trying to save a friend. It is an example that unites generations: near the former base in Middleton the children of the primary schools joined with many others across England and Canada to raise more than 76,000 pounds for a statue to Andrew Mynarski at Durham Tees Valley Airport. The sculptor of the statue visited Mynarski's grave at Meharicourt Cemetery, France, and left a message from the school children: "We will never forget our hero." On June 4, 2005, Colleen Bacon, Pat Brophy's daughter, unveiled the statue as a permanent memorial.
Ralph Waldo Emerson believed that friendships are gifts and expressions from God. That was certainly the view of Pat Brophy. He concluded his 1965 article about Andrew Mynarski with these words: "I'll always believe that a divine providence intervened to save me because of what I had seen - so the world might know of a gallant man who laid down his life for a friend."