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Lady Orchid Keeps Lancaster Aloft

© Elinor Florence

Thanks to a body part donation from another Lancaster called Lady Orchid, one Canadian Lancaster bomber is still flying. And the man indirectly responsible was Lady Orchid’s pilot, Ron Jenkins. His daughter Deb explains the fascinating chain of events.

The Canadian Lancaster FM-213 is known as the Mynarski Lancaster, named after a brave young airman from Winnipeg, Manitoba, who won the Victoria Cross.

Also nicknamed Vera because of its V-RA markings, the aircraft drew worldwide attention last summer when it flew across the Atlantic to rejoin the only other flying Lancaster in existence.

But few people know that Vera’s ability to fly today is linked to a former Bomber Command pilot, whose daughter lives almost right next door in Windermere, British Columbia.

I’ve known Deb Nichol for several years, ever since she and her husband Ross escaped from Calgary and moved to our mountain resort.

One day over lunch she mentioned that both parents served in the RCAF. Her mother Jeannie Jenkins was a “Sparks” working in Communications. But it is her father’s name, Ron Jenkins, that is better known in aviation circles. Here’s a photo of him. (All Ron Jenkins photos are courtesy of Deb Nichol).

Ronald Henry Jenkins was born in Calgary, Alberta, on July 8, 1913. His father owned a successful grocery store, which burgeoned into a chain of stores around southern Alberta. Ron grew up and joined the family business.

At the age of 29, Ron enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force, graduated as a pilot in October 1943, and was posted overseas. He flew with the 434 Squadron, the Bluenose Squadron out of Yorkshire – first on Wellingtons, then on Halifaxes, and finally on Lancasters.

Ron flew a total of fifteen operations, the last five in a brand new Lancaster with the code WL-O. The crew decided that “their” bomber needed a name and nose art painting. At first they named her “Wee Lady Orchid” for the code letters W-LO. Later they dropped the Wee and she became Lady Orchid.

Pilot Ron Jenkins painted her name in large white letters with a larger red capital L and O. The crew then shared in painting the naked girl riding a bomb while holding two western-style six shooters – a tribute to the Wild West connection of their Calgary pilot.

Ron also painted fifteen white bombs for fifteen completed missions, and one red bomb for an aborted operation. Here’s a photograph of the original nose art, showing a topless Lady Orchid.

In May 1945 victory was declared in Europe and one month later, after flying prisoners of war home to England in Lady Orchid, the crew left for the transatlantic flight home to Canada. For the sake of modesty (and no doubt imagining what their Canadian mothers would say), the crew painted two red maple leaves over the topless girl’s breasts.

Ron flew Lady Orchid back to Canada, landing in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. He then took the train home to Calgary.

Lady Orchid herself, along with hundreds of other Lancasters, was placed into long-term storage. It wasn’t until two years later that Ron learned that “his” aircraft was being ferried to Penhold, Alberta.

What happened next should be told in his own words. This transcript of a 1975 interview was provided by his daughter Deb. (I thought about titling this piece: “How the heck do you buy a Lancaster?” In Ron’s case, it wasn’t that difficult! Here he explains how it came about:

“Two years later, I learned from a friend that the aircraft I had flown back was being ferried up to Penhold where there was a big station. Of course they knew it was mine, because it had Ron Jenkins painted on the fuselage.

“So I went down to see a gentleman who at that time was head of the Crown Assets Disposal Corporation. And I explained that there was one particular aircraft that was up at Penhold, and it was “my aircraft,” as I termed it. I was the only pilot that ever flew that aircraft other than bringing it out from Dartmouth to Penhold on the ferry mission. If it ultimately came up for sale, I would like to know what happened to it.

“Somehow or other it captured his imagination and he said: “That would make a very good human interest story. A pilot buys his own aircraft.” And I said, “Yes, but goodness gracious, I can’t afford to buy a Lancaster aircraft. There are four Rolls Royce Merlin engines on it, and the aircraft would have a value, without any armament, without any navigational equipment, without any radar, any of those flying auxiliary features which the air force put in, of about $500,000!”

“Well,” he said, “Let me see what I can do.”

“About two months later, he phoned me and asked me if I would come into his office. So I went down and he said: “I’ve got some good news for you, Jenkins. I think I can sell you this aircraft that you wanted.”

“I said: “Goodness, gracious, the price you will want for it will be prohibitive. I didn’t want to buy it, I just wanted to know what happened to it!”

“He said: “We must put two conditions on the sale of the aircraft. First – you will never ask for a Certificate of Airworthiness. In other words, you are not to apply to the Minister of Transport for permission to fly the aircraft. Secondly, you must sell us two of the engines. One we want for S.A.I.T. (Southern Alberta Institute of Technology in Calgary) for an aeronautical course there, and one for N.A.I.T. (Northern Alberta Institute of Technology in Edmonton). We will buy these two engines. We will take the two engines out.”

“So then I said: “What are you going to charge me for the aircraft?”

“Much to my surprise, he said: “We are going to charge you $300 for the aircraft and will buy each of the engines back for $100 apiece.”

“I ended up buying, to my knowledge, the first aircraft the Crown Asset Disposal Corporation ever sold after the war. They might have sold some smaller aircraft, but this was the first Lancaster that they sold and the first of the bigger planes. I bought my aircraft, Wee Lady Orchid. I gave him a certified cheque for $300 and in time, I received a cheque from S.A.I.T. for $100, and a cheque from N.A.I.T. for $100.

“Then the problem was: how do I dispose of the aircraft? I had to get it off the Penhold airfield within a 90-day period. The wingspan of a Lancaster is 102 feet and of course it was too wide to take down a highway. So it did present a bit of a challenge. How I got around it, was I had a real estate friend in Red Deer search the title to all the property that abutted onto the airport, and I found a chap by the name of Clifford Doan who had a farm there and was interested in aviation.

“I went to see Mr. Doan and asked if he would like an aircraft for free. When I explained the story, he said: “If that’s the only problem, I can just cut my fence and with a tractor we’ll bulldoze the aircraft through the barbed wire fence which was cut, and we’ll pull it onto my property.”

“The aircraft is still sitting there today. It is in very poor shape now, because I took mementos out for most of the crew. For example, for my navigator I took out his flight control instruments, and for my rear gunner, a fellow by the name of Bruce Baird of Olds, I took out the rear turret. I had people take them out on my account and then I shipped these parts to every one of my crew who by now were scattered all across Canada. I kept the flying control panel and the pilot’s seat.

Here’s an old newspaper clipping showing Ron, on the bottom left, taking apart the Lady Orchid.

Meanwhile, back in Greenwood, Nova Scotia, several Lancasters were being modified for post-war service in the RCAF. One of them, the Lancaster FM-213, crash-landed and the starboard undercarriage collapsed.

The Lanc could be repaired, but only if it had a new centre section. According to RCAF records, none existed in Canada.

Then someone recalled the farmer in Penhold, Alberta, and his plans to build a shed from the discarded Lancaster.

This is what poor Lady Orchid looked like back then, after most of her parts had been removed. However, the centre section was still good.

A phone call was made and the farmer was willing to sell Lady Orchid. The largest railway flat-car in Canada was sent from New Brunswick to Penhold in order to carry the centre section to Downsview, Ontario. It was loaded onto a flatbed truck and trucked into Penhold, and put on a train heading east.

In July 1953, Lady Orchid’s centre section was transplanted into FM-213 Vera, and the rest is history.

This Lancaster went on to fly ten years at Torbay, Newfoundland, and today is known to all as Vera, or the Andrew Mynarski Lancaster, named after our own Victoria Cross winner.

It is only one of only two flying Lancasters remaining of the 7,377 built during the Second World War.

And we owe it all to Lady Orchid, whose centre section is clearly visible here as Vera cruises over the countryside.

John Coleman, a volunteer at the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum in Hamilton, Ontario, says the Lancaster is a must-see for visitors. “When I show the aircraft to people, I tell them that it is actually a ghost. It has the centre section of Lady Orchid, the remaining airframe of FM-213, and the ghost part is because we painted it as VR-A of RCAF 419 Squadron, 6 Group, the aircraft in which Andy Mynarksi won his Victoria Cross.” 

But that wasn’t the only contribution that Ron Jenkins made to the Lancaster community. Here he continues his 1975 interview, talking about yet another Lancaster.

“A number of years later, some of us discovered that the Lancaster aircraft that hadn’t been sold or scrapped or cannibalized, which somebody would buy just to use up the spare parts, and use them by taking parts out of a good aircraft, to keep other aircraft flying.

“We found that there was one down in Fort Macleod. We had to pay $700 for that aircraft, and we arranged to have the aircraft flown from Fort Macleod to Calgary. We arranged with a number of friends to contribute certain items which we required to mount that aircraft at McCall Field. That’s the aircraft that still stands on a pedestal at McCall Field.

“It had no romantic history, it was never on a dam busting raid, or as far as we could see by checking the log books. It just had routine type of service during the war. But I can’t help reflect every time I drive by that aircraft on the way to the airport, because I do a lot of travelling and I have occasion to go to the airport many times. It brings back a lot of fond memories of Lancaster aircraft and my flying days in the air force.”

The FM-136 was mounted on a pedestal at the southwest entrance to the Calgary Airport terminal in 1962. Here’s what Ron saw when he drove to and from the airport.

Thirty years later, it was moved to the current site of the Calgary Aero Space Museum and restored. In 2011, it was dedicated to Ronnie Jenkins. In his honour, the nose art of Lady Orchid was recreated on the FM-136. Here’s a photo of the Lancaster in its current location at the Aero Space Museum.

The Jenkins family donated Ron’s uniform and other mementos including his pilot’s seat, which is on display at the museum.

One of Deb’s fondest memories is playing on that seat. “It was stored in the basement, and we would go down there and put Dad’s flying helmet on, and sit in the seat and pretend we were flying the Lancaster. Just seeing it today brings back some emotional memories.”

Ron Jenkins is also commemorated in yet another museum, the Bomber Command Museum in Nanton, Alberta. The museum there felt that Ron’s service was so important that they now display a replica of the Lady Orchid nose art, along with 56 other examples of aircraft nose art. To read more, click: Bomber Command Museum Nose Art.

When Ron arrived home in 1945, he stepped into his new role as president and general manager of the grocery company. His father died two months before the war ended, and his mother died six months later. His only sister had also died at a young age.

But he came home to his lovely wife Jeannie Campbell, whom he had married during the war. She was also in the Royal Canadian Air Force Women’s Division, serving as a Radio Telephone Operator.

Deb still has her mother’s tunic, showing the red shoulder patch indicating Communications.

Here’s their wedding photo – the men are dashing in white pants and shoes, and the women stylish in their fashionable “kitten-ear” caps.

After the war, Jeannie gave birth to a son, Jimmy. It was a difficult labour and she wasn’t able to have more children, so in 1950 the couple adopted identical twin newborn girls that they named Deb and Dixie.

Not long afterwards, the couple separated.

Ron Jenkins was one of the few fathers of that era willing to tackle full-time parental responsibilities. Even more unusual for the times, he requested and received custody of the three children, and his wife moved to Victoria, B.C.

Ron hired a nanny to help care for the babies and became a devoted father. Here’s a childhood photo of the three kids — Jimmy in his cowboy shirt and his two adoring little sisters, Deb on the left and Dixie on the right.

According to Deb, “Daddy” was the most wonderful father in the world. “He was my father, mother, best friend and mentor,” she said.

Sadly, Ron Jenkins died of prostate cancer on April 30, 1976, at the age of 62 — an event that devastated the family.

A year later their mother Jeannie, whom they visited throughout their childhood in Victoria for holidays, also passed away.

But Ron’s legacy is still a bright and shining one.

In 1993, artist Clarence Simonsen completed a replica nose art for Lady Orchid, and Deb purchased it at a fundraising event at the Aero Space Museum in Calgary for $1,000. That’s the photo at the top of the page.

She also owns an extensive collection of her father’s memorabilia, including log books, training materials, and maps.

In his log book, she pointed to one entry. The words were originally written by mid-upper gunner Rudy St. Germain of Timmins, Ontario, and Ron copied them into his log book, because “It was a good thought.”

“Flying the Atlantic alone – because in spite of others – you feel alone, with the sun over you and nothing between you and the sea but this man-made machine, a Lancaster, that once seemed so huge but is now dwarfed by the immensity of space; yet is winging its way confidently towards some known place on the other side of the world, the Azores, Newfoundland and finally good old Canada.”

Under Ron’s guidance, Jenkins Groceterias continued as a family-run entity to become the dominant force in Calgary’s retail food business. In 1959 Ron sold the business to Western Grocers, which entered a new stage of expansion under Ron’s direction.

Throughout the post-war years Ron played a leading role with service organizations such as the famed Calgary Stampede, the United Way, Chamber of Commerce, and the Rotary Club, until his untimely death in 1976.

Today his son Jimmy Jenkins lives in Calgary, and both daughters – Deb Nichol and Dixie Jorginson – live in Windermere, B.C.

“What I will always cherish about my father was his warmth and his kindness,” said Deb. “He was a true humanitarian, and he taught all his children the importance of giving. Even more important than his war record was his lifelong service to his family and to his community. That’s how I would like him to be remembered.”

Thank you, Ron Jenkins, for your service to your family, your community and your country — and for the immense effort you made to ensure that two of our prized Lancasters – Vera in Hamilton, and the FM-136 in Calgary – are public reminders of their role in the Allied victory.

Rest in Peace, Ronald Henry Jenkins.

(To read my previous post about the four Lancasters in the world with operating engines, click: Love Those Lancasters.)

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The story of Ron Jenkins, along with twenty-seven other original articles from Wartime Wednesdays, are now available in printed book form with the title My Favourite Veterans: True Stories From World War Two’s Hometown Heroes. For more info, check out the book image at the bottom of this page.

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