Seventy-two years after my uncle RCAF pilot trainee Alan Light died in a training accident, I discovered a dramatic oil painting that shows the last moments of his life.
It was a lovely summer evening on June 5th, 1942. At seven o’clock, the sun was still high in the sky. RCAF Leading Aircraftsman Alan Scott Light was taking his bright yellow twin-engine Cessna Crane No. 8016 out for a lazy flight down the South Saskatchewan River valley.
Alan was a happy young man. He had turned twenty years old a couple of weeks earlier, on Victoria Day, May 24th. He was the eldest son of his proud parents, beloved by his two pretty sisters and adored by his younger brothers.
He was an excellent pilot: his instructors told him so. In just seven days, he would receive his coveted “wings” in a special ceremony at his home base, No. 4 Service Flight Training School in Saskatoon. All he needed was a few more hours of flying time in his log book.
Here’s a similar view to the one he had that evening as he left his base, now the site of the Saskatoon International Airport, and headed northeast. This current photo shows the historic Twenty-Fifth Street Bridge, built in 1916, now called the University Bridge.
After he left the city there were no towns or buildings or tall trees in sight – just the rolling green banks of the river and the smoothly-flowing water below. The sky was clear and visibility excellent on this long summer evening.
Alan was a good pilot, but he didn’t always go by the book.
He had even once landed, against orders, on the farm belonging to his maternal grandmother Martha Harper at Radisson, Saskatchewan, just to give her a thrill. She was so excited that she ran outside in her bedroom slippers. But she wasn’t impressed with Alan’s disrespect for the rules, as you can see by her expression.
Alan wasn’t alone in his disregard for law and order. Most of the guys at British Commonwealth Air Training Bases, whether from Canada or another Commonwealth country, did crazy things at one time or another, even flying under bridges.
Put thousands of young men together with high-powered flying machines, and recklessness was inevitable. In one veteran’s words: “Low-flying was like a disease, and we all caught it.”
Just a few weeks earlier, a letter had been sent to local organizations around Saskatoon by the commanding officer, requesting the public to report any incident of low flying. “Unauthorized low flying presents an almost irresistible attraction to any pilots, and it is only by stern disciplinary measures that it can be kept in check,” he said.
So it is quite possible that Alan was deliberately low-flying over the Saskatchewan River that lovely evening.
The other explanation, equally feasible, is that his aircraft was losing altitude because of mechanical difficulties.
All we know today is that he was only about fifty kilometres from his home base when it happened.
A heavy cable loomed into sight, right in front of his cockpit window.
Desperately, Alan pulled up the nose of the aircraft. His engines roared as he tried to gain altitude, but it was too late. His aircraft struck the cable and broke into pieces, plunging into the river.
Alan’s bright young soul continued flying, straight up to heaven.
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Two men watched helplessly from below. Jacob Bergen, the assistant ferryman, was manning the Hague ferry that evening. He was taking Jacob Buller of Hague across to the other side. They watched in horror as the aircraft approached from the north, flying low. They knew it was a training aircraft, because the air force had painted them all bright yellow.
The men saw that a collision was imminent, but had no way to warn the pilot. They heard the engines roar and saw the nose pull up. They saw the aircraft strike the cable about fifty feet away, split into several pieces and fall into the water.
For a few moments, they even feared for their own lives. The force of the impact broke the cable, and the ferry went spinning downstream, following the fuselage and one wing that were still floating on the water. After two hundred yards, the ferry drew to a stop, anchored by one end of the twisted cable. The shaken men unhooked a rowboat from the side of the ferry, rowed to shore, and notified the RCMP.
Two other men, Ben Sawotzki and Albert Stermer, put out in a boat and caught up with the floating wreckage. They dragged the fuselage and the wing to shore half a mile below the scene of the crash. The other wing, the two engines and the body of the young pilot remained missing.
This clipping from the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix on June 6, 1942 describes the incident.
Alan’s family was well-known in his home town of Battleford. His grandfather had served as Staff-Sergeant with the North West Mounted Police at Fort Battleford, and raised nine children there. One of them was Alan’s father Charles, the town postmaster. And everyone loved Alan’s sweet-faced mother Vera, a tireless volunteer and friend to all.
The Lights were hit hard by the loss of their son, especially since he hadn’t even gone overseas yet. His sister June was about to write her Grade 12 exams. “I couldn’t study because the house was in such an uproar, with people crying everywhere. But Mother told me I should write my exams, or I would lose a whole year, so I went ahead.” She managed to pass her grade.
Charles himself had gone to France with Lord Strathcona’s Horse in World War One and had been wounded twice. But he had survived that bloody war, returned home to marry his boyhood sweetheart and take over the postmaster’s job from his father. (To read his story, click: Brotherly Love).
Now he mourned the senseless waste of his son’s life. “If only he had gone overseas, his death might have counted for something,” he said. Each night after supper, Charles walked down to the nearby river and stared into the swiftly-moving water. “There goes your father! Quick, run after him!” Vera would cry, and one of the children would follow him so he wouldn’t be alone.
Born in 1922, Alan grew up in the Light House, a handsome three-story house in Battleford, near the banks of the North Saskatchewan River. This is a pre-war photo of Alan with his youngest brother Colin.
After graduating from Battleford Collegiate Institute, he worked in the Battleford Post Office for a year with his postmaster father Charles. The Battleford Post Office is still in service today.
A keen athlete, Alan loved to play football and tennis. He was an outstanding member of the juvenile hockey team that reached the provincial finals. His hockey nickname was “Flash” Light. (He also had a rakish sense of humour and a devil-may-care attitude, the kind that would have made him an excellent wartime pilot.)
Alan volunteered when he was just fifteen years old, and served four years with the Prince Albert and Battleford Volunteers, where he was promoted to Sergeant, before joining the RCAF in August 1941.
He served at Brandon, Manitoba; Mossbank and Regina, Saskatchewan before being transferred to Saskatoon to finish his training, eager to join the battle overseas.
Alan came home that winter to show off his uniform, and his proud family members had their photos taken with him on the street outside the house in Battleford. Here he is with his father Charles.
He also posed with his fourteen-year-old brother James, who was a “Boy Soldier.” Jim was too young to fight but already hoping to follow his big brother overseas.
And here he is with his loving mother Vera and his sister June. His other sister Peggy was away in Edmonton at the time, training to become a nurse.
After the tragic accident, the RCMP, with the assistance of the Saskatoon Fire Department, dragged the river, but Alan’s body was never found.
At the time it wasn’t customary to have a funeral without a body, so Vera decided to have a memorial service instead, “not just for Alan, but for every family in town who has lost someone.”
St. George’s Anglican Church in Battleford overflowed and the churchyard was filled with the huge crowd of mourners. Here’s a 1942 photo of the church from the Saskatoon Public Library, showing the wooden bell tower.
Alan’s obituary appeared in the local newspaper, and after the weary war years passed, his name was entered in the Book of Remembrance on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, along with the names of 44,000 other Canadians who lost their lives in World War Two. A bay in Herbert Lake in northern Saskatchewan was also named Light Bay, part of that province’s Geo-Memorial Project.
But there was no marker for Alan, no impressive gravestone bearing the RCAF crest that most airmen have, even the ones who died overseas.
His parents and all his siblings have passed away, and his name became a distant memory, his face only known in the family photo albums.
Here is a photo of the family taken the year after Alan’s death. June, Jim and Peggy are standing; Charles, Colin and Vera are seated. Vera always regretted not having had the photograph taken when the family was still complete, with all of her five children living.
Painting the past
Almost sixty years later, a Saskatoon landscape artist named Marvin Swartz travelled around the province, painting ferry crossings. He hoped to compile his series into a book. When he arrived in Hague, Saskatchewan, the artist met the son of the ferryman, who told him the story of the aircraft crash.
Swartz’s imagination was captured by the dramatic image. He created a striking oil painting of the Cessna, with the ferry cable stretched across the nose of the aircraft.
The ferry series completed, Swartz’s paintings were exhibited at various venues in Saskatoon. The aircraft painting was hung in City Perks Coffeehouse, with a brief written description. One of the patrons recognized the name “Light” and sent an email query to an old friend from Battleford, but nothing happened for another ten years.
Finally, through word of mouth, I caught wind of the painting’s existence and wondered what it looked like. I had no idea about the artist, or the size, or the medium. I envisioned a small watercolour. I tried various sources and with the help of reporter Hannah Spray from the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, the artist was identified.
I called him. Naturally he was very surprised to hear from me. He had never been in contact with any members of the Light family. Happily, the painting was still in his possession, so I travelled to Saskatoon and saw the painting for myself. I was amazed at the sheer size. It wasn’t a conventional aircraft painting, and it was huge, about six feet wide by three feet high, and painted in brilliant oils.
I had a pretty good idea where this piece of art belonged: the Fred Light Museum in Battleford.
Fred Light was the younger brother of Alan’s father Charles, and self-appointed Battleford historian. He began with a gun collection and went on to accumulate a vast storehouse of artifacts.
After he died, the collection went to the Town of Battleford. The town acquired a two-storey school building and the Fred Light Museum came into being. Naturally the Light family members, many of whom have an interest in history, see this as an appropriate repository for all kinds of family mementos, including my grandfather’s World War One uniform.
I put the word out to my cousins and everyone generously chipped in enough money for the painting. It was agreed to donate the painting to the museum and host a public tea on the same day in honour of Alan’s only surviving sibling, June Light Florence, who turned ninety years old on June 17, 2014. Here’s a photo of the dedication. From left to right: Elinor Florence, my mother June Light Florence, and my brother Rob Florence.
(Note: My mother June passed away in November 2017, and I know it was a great comfort to her to have her beloved brother’s memory preserved at the Fred Light Museum in Battleford.)
Alan’s accident wasn’t unusual. My mother not only lost her brother, but also her dear Australian friend Maxwell Cassidy in this terrible way. To read my post about him, click: Memories of Maxwell Cassidy.
The statistics vary, but one report lists more than two thousand young men who died in training accidents in Canada between 1941 and 1945. To read my post about this, click: Canada: A Perilous Place for a Pilot.
Alan Light’s death is fictionalized in my wartime novel Bird’s Eye View is fact-based fiction, the story of a Saskatchewan farm girl who joins the air force and works in England as a photo interpreter. To read one thrilling chapter, click here: Bird’s Eye View Excerpt.
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MY FAVOURITE VETERANS
I have published Alan Light’s story, along with twenty-seven other original stories from Wartime Wednesdays, in a printed collection titled: My Favourite Veterans: True Stories From World War Two’s Hometown Heroes. For more, visit the book cover image at the bottom of this page.