Canada’s greatest living fighter pilot, Stocky Edwards, is a legend in aviation circles. But when I visited him and his wife Toni at their home in Comox, British Columbia, this humble gentleman still attributed much of his success to simple luck, and prayer.
(Photo Credit: Alex Postowoi)
Before the war, James Edwards was known to his family and friends as Jimmy. During wartime he acquired the nickname “Stocky,” meaning tough or plucky. It’s no wonder the name stuck to him.
I have a connection with Stocky. The Edwards kids and the Light kids (my mother’s family) grew up in the town of Battleford, Saskatchewan. My uncle Alan Light played hockey with Stocky Edwards – both boys enlisted in the RCAF, but my uncle died in a training accident in 1942. (Read his story by clicking: Alan Light.)
My mother June was good friends with Stocky’s younger sister Dorothy, until Dorothy’s death in 2005. It was an old newspaper photo of Dorothy that helped to inspire my novel called Bird’s Eye View, about a woman from Saskatchewan who joins the RCAF Women’s Division and becomes a photographic interpreter. Here’s the clipping, cut out of the Toronto Star and saved by my mother all these years. Dorothy is on the left.
While visiting Vancouver Island, my mother and I spent several hours with Stocky and his wife Toni at their lovely ocean-view home in Comox. There isn’t much new to say about Stocky’s wartime career, which has been written about many times. In fact, he was more interested in talking about the old days in Battleford. “I still get homesick for Saskatchewan sometimes,” he confessed.
James Francis Edwards was born on June 5, 1921 in this handsome farmhouse belonging to his grandparents near Nokomis, Saskatchewan. He was the second of six children.
After a few years, his parents moved to Battleford, where his father worked as an insurance agent. They were devout Roman Catholics, and Stocky attended St. Vital’s Separate School.
The same building is now the Fred Light Museum in Battleford, started by my great-uncle Fred. Stocky donated one of his air force uniforms and several other items, including a compass from a German fighter plane and an officer’s mess kit, to this excellent museum owned by the Town of Battleford.
Stocky went on to finish high school at St. Thomas College, then located in Battleford. Stocky learned to hunt from his father, and he was a crack shot. He was also an excellent athlete in spite of his small stature, fast and agile. He was such a good hockey player that his coaches spoke of the NHL.
Coincidentally, he was friends with the Ballendine brothers, all eight of whom served with the Canadian Army. Stocky still has scrapbooks full of hockey memorabilia, including this photo. Stocky is on the right, Paul Ballendine in the centre, and Ed Ballendine on the left. To read my previous post about this family’s wartime exploits, click: The Fighting Ballendines.
Stocky and his older brother Bernie helped out their family by delivering milk around town. “I knew every gopher hole, every house in Battleford. I could describe them all to this day,” he told me.
When he finished high school in June 1940, Stocky passed up a tryout with the Chicago Blackhawks and hitchhiked 140 kilometres to Saskatoon to enlist with the RCAF. They told him to go home and wait.
In September 1940 Stocky’s own maternal grandparents, who lived in London, were killed in a bombing raid by the Luftwaffe. It made the young man even more determined to fly. The following month, he was called up.
Stocky followed the usual steps in his pilot training through the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan – from Regina, to Edmonton, and then to Yorkton where he received his wings in June 1941, in the photo shown here.
Stocky’s wartime experiences have been written about at length. Here’s a brief recap: After his operational training in England, he was posted to the African desert, where he flew a P-40 Kittyhawk, a single-engine fighter bomber. On his very first sortie, he shot down a Messerschmitt. (Readers, please note: most fighter pilots never shoot down a single aircraft.)
He completed a whopping 195 sorties and achieved the rank of Flight Lieutenant. After two long years in the desert, he was sent to Italy where he became a Squadron Leader. There he flew the lighter, faster Spitfire, and survived a terrible crash. (He was missing for about a week and his poor parents assumed he was dead.)
Stocky was posted back to England. On D-Day, the day after his twenty-third birthday, he flew his Spitfire over the beaches of Normandy.
The young man was then sent home to Canada, not only for some well-deserved rest, but to make inspirational speeches. He had a happy reunion with his parents. His brother Bernie was serving in Calgary Tanks as a tank driver (in Sicily, Italy and later in Germany), his sister Jeanne was in the Canadian Women’s Army Corps, and his sister Dorothy had also joined the RCAF. He had the good fortune to play hockey with two RCAF teams, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and the Calgary Stampeders.
In the spring of 1945, he returned to Europe and was made a Wing Commander of the 127 Wing, composed of four Canadian squadrons. They fought in the air, and bombed German military installations on the ground.
On May 3rd, Stocky flew his 373th and final mission over Kiel, Germany. A week later, Germany surrendered.
His “official” count in air-to-air combat was 18 aircraft destroyed, 16 damaged and 7 probables, with another 14 destroyed on the ground. (Readers, please note: an “ace” is defined as a pilot who has shot down five or more aircraft!)
I asked him if he had received credit for every aircraft he had shot down. “Well, not really,” he said modestly. When I pressed him for details, he declined to elaborate. “Let’s leave it to the history books,” he said.
In the top photo, Stocky is wearing a polka dot scarf given to him by his Australian friend Ron Cundy, with whom he is still in touch. A scarf was often worn by pilots to keep the scratchy woolen fabric from chafing their necks while they were swiveling their heads, scanning the skies for German fighters.
I asked him the obvious question: to what does he owe his remarkable success? “Everything together,” he said, referring to fast reflexes, keen eyesight, and athletic ability.
“I was an athlete before the war,” he explained. “I lived a good life, I didn’t smoke or drink . . . and I was religious. I said my prayers all the time, and I still do.” He and his wife are faithful church-goers and Stocky said he has rarely missed a Sunday except when he was serving on the desert.
Most of all, though, he says his success was a matter of luck. “Another inch either way, and it could have been the other guy.”
After the War
After the war ended, Stocky chose to stay in the RCAF. A year later, he married Norma Hatcher and they had two little daughters named Dorothy and Jeanne.
When the baby was just four months old, Norma contracted polio and died. (This disease ravaged Canada before immunizations were available. It also crippled his sister Dorothy, who wore a leg brace for the rest of her life.)
Norma’s death was a life-altering tragedy for Stocky and his wee girls. Norma’s sister helped him with the children, and the young family moved from Quebec to Vancouver.
After some time had passed, he reconnected with a young woman named Alice Antonio (called “Toni”), who was working as a nurse at Grace Hospital.
The two had first met years earlier. As Toni tells it, they met at a dance and Stocky offended her by saying: “What a nice little armful!” Later she forgave him. On their first date, they had a snowball fight — the true Canadian experience. But then the two lost touch.
Toni, who was born on October 30, 1924, was from Saskatchewan, too — from a small community called Hazel Dell outside Yorkton. She was training to be a nurse when she joined the RCAF “on a dare” in October 1942.
I asked Toni if she had a photograph of herself in uniform. In spite of all the people who have interviewed her husband, nobody has ever asked for a photo of her (bearing out my theory that Canadian women in uniform have been sadly neglected). After a long search, Toni finally produced this charming photograph of herself.
Toni began her training in Rockcliffe, Ontario and worked in Communications from October 1942 until December 1946, at Aylmer, Lachine, Centralia, the No. 1 RCAF Convalescent Hospital in Muskoka, and the No. 2 RCAF Convalescent Hospital in Hamilton, and then back to Centralia, where she first met Stocky.
After the war Toni completed her medical training and worked as a nurse until just a few days before her wedding on February 3, 1951.
After her marriage she was satisfied to be a wife and mother, and provide support for her husband. “I’m happy to be in the background,” she told me.
Stocky was a devoted husband and father. He and Toni had another two children: a girl named Debra and a boy named Jimmy. This photograph stands on the bureau in the bedroom and obviously holds special memories for both of them. “We couldn’t get the kids to stop fooling around and pose properly,” Toni recalled, laughing.
Stocky remained in the air force for another twenty-seven years and the family travelled to various points in Canada, plus France and Colorado. He remained at the rank of Lieutenant Colonel before retiring to Comox with Toni and the children in 1972.
Stocky is one of the few Canadian wartime veterans who went on to fly jets. Here he is in 1952, a Wing Commander and jet pilot with the RCAF, still only 31 years old and looking much younger.
Their son Jim is now a teacher in Victoria, Debra (who changed her name to Angel) is a songwriter in Vancouver, and daughter Dorothy has retired to her farm in Ontario. Sadly, tragedy struck this family once again when Jeanne died of breast cancer in 1998.
Stocky and Toni have several grandchildren and numerous great-grandchildren.
Over the years, Stocky has received many awards, including the Order of Canada. In fact, while I was sitting at the Edwards kitchen table enjoying Toni’s homemade baking powder biscuits with buckwheat honey, the phone rang. It was someone arranging a meeting with the B.C. Lieutenant-Governor on July 18th, when Stocky will be made a Knight of the French National Order of the Legion of Honor, presented for his actions on D-Day.
Four books have been written about Stocky. In 1983 Michel Lavigne and Stocky together published a book about his wartime experiences entitled Kittyhawk Pilot, printed by Turner-Warwick Printers in North Battleford.
His career is also described in a second book called Canadian Wing Commanders of Fighter Command in World War Two, written by George Brown and Michel Lavigne in 1984.
A third book was co-authored by Stocky and Michel Lavigne in 2002 called Kittyhawks Over the Sands: the Canadians and the RCAF Americans.
Finally, a young adult book called The Desert Hawk, by Barbara Hehner, was published in 2005 by HarperTrophy Canada. This is a very readable account that describes Stocky the man as well as his wartime exploits.
I asked Stocky which of his many awards he values the most. “The ones I received during the war,” he said simply. They are the Distinguished Flying Cross and Bar, the Distinguished Flying Medal, and the Canadian Forces Decoration.
Below is a wartime photograph of Stocky with the personalized Spitfire that bore his initials, JFE, a tribute both to his service record and to his leadership qualities.
In 2013 Stocky was inducted into Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame. He also visited Gatineau, Quebec and was taken for a ride in the P-40 Kittyhawk lovingly restored and dedicated to him by Vintage Wings of Canada. To see some great photos of that visit, click: Living Legend.
Here’s one taken during that visit with his great-grandson Joey Girolami of Troy, New York, giving him the thumbs up sign.
In conclusion, Stocky also developed his talent as an artist later in life. He didn’t take up painting until after his retirement, and tackled it with his usual determination. Here’s a photo I took of Stocky in his living room, standing in front of several of his beautiful paintings.
Many of them feature the prairie landscape he still loves so much.
Stocky and Toni always extend a warm welcome to their lovely home in Comox, B.C. whenever I’m in the area. They are a real inspiration to everyone who meets them.
Because they are both veterans, I chose to use their informal wedding photograph on the cover of my book, My Favourite Veterans: True Stories From World War Two’s Hometown Heroes. For more info about this book, which has twenty-eight original stories about veterans, check out the book cover image at the bottom of this page.
I had the great pleasure of presenting a copy of My Favourite Veterans to Stocky and Toni in person at their home in Comox, B.C. in September 2016. They are as gracious and charming as ever, and quite thrilled to have their wedding photo on the cover. “I always liked that photo!” Stocky said.
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STAR WEEKLY AT WAR
The Star Weekly was a Canadian newsmagazine published by the Toronto Star. During the Second World War, a colour illustration with a wartime theme appeared on the cover each week. This Star Weekly cover dated October 2, 1943 honours the men who defended our West Coast during wartime. To see my entire collection of Star Weekly covers, click: Star Weekly At War.