The last time 91-year-old Phyllis Smyth saw her husband it was 1943. She was seven months pregnant. Flight Lieutenant Verdun McDonald, whom she had fallen in love with the year before during a blind date at a diner in Saskatoon, Sask., was an instructor with the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. Now he was off to war.
After he arrived in England, F/L McDonald faithfully wrote letters to his wife, using the precious pen and pencil set Phyllis had given him before he left. For both of them, their letters were a lifeline.
Sadly, on Nov. 7, 1943, F/L McDonald, 27, died while flying aboard an Avro Anson Mk as a passenger over Shropshire, England. A smaller aircraft, Miles M.19 Master Mk hit them, ripping most of the left wing off the Anson, killing the crews of both aircraft.
F/L McDonald was buried in the nearby Blacon Cemetery.
“I had a hard time knowing he was killed that way,” Phyllis told The Province. “We were so thrilled that we were going to have our first child.”
After his burial, military authorities returned F/L McDonald’s personal effects to Phyllis, including his epaulettes, his RCAF insignia, his broken watch and the writing set, which was smashed in the crash. Missing, however, was a beloved gold ring that F/L McDonald never took off, a gift from his mother after his father died.
“We suppose someone got to his things before the authorities and stole the ring,” recalls F/L McDonald’s son, Verdun McDonald, Jr., 67, a retired police officer from Toronto. “Mom was very upset that the ring was missing because she had never seen Dad without it. It was the only item she really wanted back, the one she attached the most importance to.”
Then, last spring, a resident of Devon, England, John Mitchell, bought a gold ring in an estate auction and noticed the engraving: “Verdun McDonald from Dad”.
Mr. Mitchell put the ring up for sale on eBay where another British man, Sid Atkin, spotted the ad and decided to investigate the origins of the ring online.
He found some photos of F/L McDonald, Phyllis and her family, on the photo sharing site, Flickr. The man then located Phyllis’s son, Dan Smyth, by her second marriage, who lived in Toronto. Dan’s father, Phyllis’ second husband, Flight Lieutenant Reginald Smyth, also served in the RCAF during the Second World War, and ironically, passed away on the same day as Verdun Sr. – Nov. 7 - several years ago.
Dan bought the ring for $320 as a gift for his mother.
Worried about sending such a precious memento through the British mail, Mr. Mitchell contacted the Canadian High Commission in London, where he was referred to Cmdre Williams.
“The minute that I was told this story, I knew we had to step in,” Cmdre Williams recalls. “This is far bigger than a simple ring. In many ways, it's all about the families that wait at home for loved ones to return. That story plays out today with Canadian Forces personnel in Afghanistan, in Libya and all over the world. In this case, this home fire has burned for 68 years.”
Cmdre Williams pledged to hand-deliver the ring to Phyllis, which he did this past summer. Verdun was there when his mother received the ring.
“It was very emotional,” Verdun says. “Mom was certainly happy to get it back, but it opened up a wound that had been closed for a very long time. She remembers the good times, but when she sits and thinks about it she can easily be moved to tears.”
After the emotional return of the ring, Cmdre Williams and Colonel Paul Keddy, the Royal Canadian Air Force advisor in London, got the idea to invite Verdun and his wife Joline to come to England to participate in Remembrance week activities. It was their way of acknowledging the contributions made by F/L McDonald and his entire crew, as well as helping bring some closure to Verdun and his mother.
“We’ve been working very closely with the family to make the pilgrimage to England the very best possible” explained Col Keddy. “Turns out that Verdun Sr. served and died alongside airmen from Australia, New Zealand and the UK so we are also working to close that loop during their visit.”
On Nov. 7, 68 years after his father’s death, Verdun Jr. will visit his father’s gravesite for the very first time to lay a wreath. An outdoor service will be led by Canadian Padre Zbigniew Jonczyk of the Canadian Forces Support Unit and attended by senior attaches from the countries involved in the tragic accident.
On Nov. 7, 68 years after his father’s death, Verdun will visit his father’s gravesite for the very first time where he will lay a wreath. Unfortunately, Phyllis’ health won’t permit her to attend, but her son will be there to represent her.
“It’s been on my list of things to do forever and it’s one of those things that seemed to always get put on the back burner. You feel like it’s the obligatory pilgrimage that ought not to be neglected. It’s going to be an emotional event and you’re always a little nervous as to how well you can hold things together.”
On Nov. 11, after visiting his father’s grave, Verdun and Joline will lay a wreath at on behalf of Canadian families the British Veterans Cemetery, also known as Brookwood Cemetery, where 2,000 Canadians are buried.
On Remembrance Sunday, (the day the British mark Remembrance Day) – Nov. 13 – they will also lay a wreath at Green Park Canada Memorial in London, an iconic landmark that commemorates the 113,663 members of the Canadian Forces killed during the First and Second World Wars.
That evening, they will attend the Festival of Remembrance at the Royal Albert Hall, London in honour of all Commonwealth veterans and will be seated not far her Majesty Queen Elizabeth.
The itinerary is full, says Verdun but he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“For Mom, my father was her first love and in those days the remains of the fallen weren’t repatriated so for the families there was a little lack of closure.
“It’s very important to Mom that I make this trip for her.”
Representatives from Canada, England, New Zealand and Australia will attend the ceremonies in remembrance of all those who died in service to their country, such as F/L McDonald and his entire crew.
The names of the crew members who perished aboard the Avro Anson are:
Pilot Instructor - Pilot Officer John Rothwel, Royal New Zealand Air Force
Passenger - Flight Lieutenant Verdun Frederick McDonald, Royal Canadian Air Force
Passenger – Flight Sergeant Clement James Walsh, Royal Australian Air Force
Passenger – Corporal Lawrence Allen Manners, Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve
The names of the crew members who perished aboard the Miles M.19 Master Mk are:
Pilot Instructor – Pilot Officer James Orville Cross, Royal Canadian Air Force
Pilot in Training – Flight Sergeant Denis Frank Carter, Royal Air Force
“At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.”