A Great-Uncle's Medal
Catriona Le May Doan always figured she was the family member who brought home the fancy medals. After all, she'd won two Olympic golds plus an armful of other medals as a world champion speed skater. Then, in 2003, she learned for the first time about the wartime service of her great-uncle, Walter Le May, and a very different kind of medal he won back in 1944.
A Scottish navigator with the Royal Air Force during the Second World War, he was awarded the prestigious Distinguished Flying Cross after he and his crew discovered the location of several German defences while flying risky, low-level reconnaissance missions over
Le May Doan had never known or thought much about her ancestors' military connections until that moment in 2003, just before going to
"I never knew any of this," she says
Rich Family Legacy
The DFC — a small, ornate silver cross, awarded for "acts of valour, courage or devotion to duty whilst flying in operations against the enemy" — inspired in Le May Doan a new interest in her family's long legacy of military service. Her grandfather, Walter's brother, served in the Scottish Home Guard during the Second World War.
A second brother also flew for the Royal Air Force, and both he and Walter had trained in
"How strange," she says, "that way back then my great-uncles were training in
Le May Doan's mother also lived through the war, growing up in
Le May Doan never met her mother's father. A veteran of the First World War, he enlisted in the British army at 16, and came home from the trenches in
"We Have a Responsibility"
In 1963, Le May Doan's newly married parents emigrated to
"I've discovered a lot of this family history quite recently, and it's pretty fascinating," she says. "From my perspective, it's like something out of a movie. It's hard to imagine here in
"These people witnessed a lot of stuff, and did a lot of things that we can't even comprehend. But when you realize that your own family was part of it, all of a sudden it becomes personal and it really hits home.
"We're getting farther and farther away from the people who fought in World War Two," says Le May Doan. "The generations coming up are bound to feel more removed from it. I consider it my fault for not knowing until recently what my own family did during that time."
Walter Le May died of old age less than two years after his Canadian niece — celebrated Olympic athlete, winner of some of history's most coveted medals — was humbled by the sight of a small, silver cross he received for courage while flying over Normandy.
"The world we live in would not be the same if not for the people who fought for us," she says. "We have a responsibility to keep their memory alive."