Bomber Command veteran celebrates 100th birthday

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News Article / May 23, 2014

By Captain Wright Eruebi

A Royal Canadian Air Force veteran who flew in some of the most dangerous air operations of the Second World War recently celebrated his 100th birthday.

Flying Officer Willard Josephus Sheldon Kathan, one of Canada’s last surviving Second World War veterans, reached the 100-year mark on April 25, 2014. It was a time for family celebration and a time for the Royal Canadian Air Force to honour one of their own.

Family members gathered at the Royal Canadian Legion Branch #104 in Innisfail, Alberta, to celebrate Flying Officer Kathan’s milestone birthday.

Flying Officer Kathan's grandson, Commander Darren Rich, who is a member of the Royal Canadian Navy serving at NORAD and US Northern Command Headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colorado, presented his grandfather with a Royal Canadian Air Force flag. The flag had been displayed in the atrium of 1 Canadian Air Division / Canadian NORAD Region Headquarters, in Winnipeg, Manitoba, on April 7 – which is also Commander Rich’s birthday. The flag was then sent to the family in Innisfail for presentation. 

“Congratulations on reaching such a lofty landmark in your life,” wrote Lieutenant-General Yvan Blondin, commander of the Royal Canadian Air Force, in a letter to Flying Officer Kathan. “Canada’s Air Force has changed in many ways over the years since you joined in Edmonton in June 1941 as an [Aircraftman Second Class]. . . . But the qualities that never change are the devotion and courage of the people who so proudly serve this country. 

“On behalf of the airmen and airwomen of today’s Royal Canadian Air Force, I thank you for your service to Canada and extend my best wishes for the future.”

Alert, healthy and happy, Flying Officer Kathan listened intently as family members reminisced over his heydays and about his exploits during the war. He may, however, have heard only parts of the stirring orations as his hearing is all but gone.

The ravages of time and a tough air war campaign during the war have taken their toll. His duties as a flight engineer on board his Avro Lancaster, nicknamed Sugar's Blues, meant he endured long hours amidst the deafening roar of the aircraft’s engines, listening for signs of engine trouble. During the bombing missions, he was responsible for ensuring those powerful engines performed flawlessly en route to the designated bombing targets.

“Pop's hearing is all but gone now, otherwise he is very much with us in every other way,” said daughter Doreen Rich. “Dad's not a man of many words anyway; he’s a quiet, studious kind of a man.”

Family members say Flying Officer Kathan, who spoke little of his war-time experiences, is reserved and soft-spoken but intensely strong-willed.

“At one point, Dad ended up in the hospital back in 1960,” said his son, Terry Kathan. “While in the Grimshaw hospital and he wasn't allowed to smoke, so he decided if he couldn't smoke for a couple of days, he quit! Dad never smoked again.”

Flying Kathan met his wife, Olive, in Darlington, England. In 1947, he, Olive and their two children – Doreen and Terry – returned to Alberta. Olive liked the vast open skies of the Prairies and made it her home. The couple returned to England several times in the years that followed.

Flying Officer Kathan led an active life after the war. He worked in the agriculture industry in Grimshaw and Edmonton, at the Canada West seed cleaning plant in Medicine Hat, and at a Co-op seed cleaning plant in Wetaskiwin – all in Alberta.

Olive passed away in 2003; 10 years onward, family members say that Flying Officer Kathan misses the love of his life but keeps his loss to himself. He finds joy in his four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren and he beams each time any of them, including Commander Rich comes visiting. He also loves to cook, uses and is fascinated by computers, and a passionate ice hockey fan.

A brief history of Flying Officer Kathan’s service

Flying Officer Kathan enlisted in Edmonton, Alberta, on June 19, 1941, as an aero-engine mechanic. After undergoing training, he was posted overseas on June 1944 as a flight engineer. He arrived at 428 “Ghost” Squadron on December 22, 1944, and the crew in which he was serving was broken up to fill out other crews. From February 14 to April 25, the crew, led by Flight Lieutenant Robert LaTurner, carried out bombing missions over locations such as Dortmund, Cologne, Essen and Bremen in Germany. Many of the missions were onboard Lancaster K864, dubbed “Sugar’s Blues”. He was promoted to the rank of Flying Officer on October 28, 1945, and his military service ended on January 8, 1946.

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