Frank Poole, Survivor

News Article / November 9, 2017

Click on the photo under “Image Gallery” to see more photos.

We will soon observe Remembrance Day, when we pause to remember those who served gallantly in the cause of freedom. Here we meet an Air Force veteran who served in the Second World War and the Korean War. Lest we forget.

By Peter Mallett

Second World War and Korean War veteran Frank Poole says the Legion of Honour medal bestowed upon him is perhaps the most precious he’s received to date.

Captain (retired) Poole was presented France’s highest order of military merit by Rear-Admiral Art McDonald, commander of Maritime Forces Pacific, during a June 20, 2017, ceremony at Veterans Memorial Lodge at the Broadmead care facility in Victoria, British Columbia. A client of the facility’s Veterans Health Centre Day Program, Captain Poole said that all of the 14 medals he received for his 25-year military career are important, but the Legion of Honour medal holds special cultural significance for his entire family.

“This is so big, and my family members are in awe,” he says. “I grew up in Cape Breton and can trace my family tree back to Normandy, and my wife of 59 years [Melodie] is of Acadian descent. So, yes, this is a truly great moment for the whole family.”

The Legion of Honour award was originally established in 1802 by Napoleon Bonaparte and has been awarded to some 93,000 veterans worldwide. In 2015, the Government of France began honouring 1,000 Canadian veterans with the award to commemorate the 70th Anniversary of the D-Day Landing. Veterans in line for the award receive a package containing a letter from Nicholas Chapuis, Ambassador for France to Canada, and their medal that signifies the rank of Knight of the French National Order of the Legion of Honour.

The award itself is a five-armed cross, with a V-shaped cut out at the end of each point, resting on a wreath of laurel leaves.

Rear-Admiral McDonald, who also hails from Cape Breton, presented the medal to Captain Poole on June 20, 2017, in the presence of his family. It was a moment for the former aviator and air gunner to recall his role in the Allied air war over Germany during the Second World War, and to tell a harrowing story.

Falling to the ground

In January 1945, young Captain Poole, who was at that time was a sergeant, was on board Royal Canadian Air Force Handley Page Halifax heavy bomber from 420 Squadron. It was shot down at 18,000 feet (5,486 metres) over Hanover, Germany. He managed to survive by bailing out of the plane and landing in a snowbank. He was eventually captured and spent more than two months in a German prisoner of war camp until the prisoners were liberated in April of that year.

But it was the moments of madness over Hanover that he remembers most vividly. He was manning the top turret in the bomber. They were returning from a bombing run over Berlin when a German night flyer crept undetected below the plane. It fired at the bomber, hitting the starboard wing and setting it ablaze. Damage was extensive and the order was given to bail out. Shortly after that order, the plane’s gas tank ignited. Captain Poole says the blast blew the plane apart and sent both he and the wreckage hurtling toward the ground.

“The fireball blew off the wings and tail section of the plane,” he recalls. “I bailed out but was knocked unconscious by the explosion. I fell through the air a couple of miles but luckily the cold air revived me. I finally realized, as I was tumbling in midair, that these big white spots I could see passing before my eyes were actually the snow banks on the ground. I hadn’t pulled the ripcord on my parachute. I managed to grab it and pull it and the next thing I was sitting in a snow bank and the temperature was freezing, about -41° Fahrenheit.”

Avoiding capture

During his fall, Captain Poole lost his right boot. He managed to fashion a foot covering from materials in his parachute to avoid getting frostbite. Then, he set out through the dark countryside and found shelter in a barn. After a day going undetected, he set out again in a futile attempt to walk to safety. During his journey, he tried to cross a river on a makeshift raft, but fell into the water.

He emerged shivering, with his soaked clothing quickly turning to ice. He sought shelter in a nearby house, where an elderly couple provided him with warmth and hot coffee. But he was eventually turned over to German soldiers and taken to an interrogation centre in Frankfurt. There, the Germans used solitary confinement without heating as part of an unsuccessful effort to get him to reveal secrets about Allied bombing missions.

From Frankfurt, he was off to Moosburg in southern Bavaria, and the infamous Stalag VII-A, Germany’s largest prisoner of war camp. Thankfully Poole’s ordeal there lasted no more than 10 weeks before the prisoners were liberated.

“The solitary confinement wasn’t good, and neither was the prison camp,” he says, declining to share too many details about the living conditions or treatment of the prisoners. “The memories of it haven’t gone away to this day, and I’m not completely over the experience.”

Post-war trauma

The months after the war were the most difficult. When he returned to Cape Breton, he couldn’t stand to be around other people or large groups. He left his family and headed to the back country of New Brunswick, where he camped in a makeshift tent for weeks in an effort to come to terms with his memories and thoughts of the war.

“There were only two who escaped the plane wreck that day, and it was a miracle that I survived both the crash and the POW camp,” he says. “But the question I couldn’t get out of my mind was, ‘how come I was so lucky, and what was I being saved for?’ The guilt hung heavily because I had survived my ordeal and the war while so many others had died.”

Captain Poole is certain he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. What helped him through his trauma and depression was a chance reunion with an old friend whose cottage was located near his campsite. When a brush fire raged through the forest, the two worked together to dampen the ground and trees with a hose to save the cottage. Captain Poole said it was a big moment, and helped ease his guilt and rebuild his self-esteem.

“It was a monumental turning point for me,” he said, “because I finally had a feeling of self-worth again, that I was part of the community, and had contributed something.”

Captain Poole enlisted in the armed forces again when war broke out in Korea – this time in the Canadian Army. He completed an 18-month deployment as a battle instructor, which earned him a Victory Medal.

He retired from the Canadian Armed Forces in 1971 and moved to Victoria, British Columbia.

His son, Raymond Poole, a former air traffic controller for the Royal Canadian Air Force, and his daughter-in-law, Sherry Ewacha-Poole, a talented artist, attended the Legion of Honour medal presentation ceremony at Broadmead. “To get this form of recognition, and have the award presented to him by someone currently in a command position with the Canadian military, made my dad extremely proud,” Raymond Poole said. “We thought it was appropriate and very touching.”

Following Rear-Admiral McDonald’s presentation, the Poole family demonstrated their appreciation. Sherry Poole presented Rear-Admiral McDonald with signed prints of her paintings of Her Majesty’s Canadian Ships Winnipeg and Vancouver.

Peter Mallett is a staff writer with Lookout, the Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt, British Columbia, newspaper, where this article originally appeared.

Date modified: