A Mitchell and a Manuel

A twin-engine wartime Mitchell bomber called Maid in the Shade flew from Arizona to Alberta last summer, but the highlight of the aviation event was meeting Manuel Sharko, a veteran of Bomber Command who defied the odds to complete 36 operations as a mid-upper gunner in a Halifax.

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My guest columnist this week is John Chalmers, a writer who lives in Edmonton, Alberta. He serves as the Historian for Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame, and Membership Secretary for the Canadian Aviation Historical Society.

 

By John Chalmers

The 2013 closure of Edmonton’s City Centre Airport, once known as Blatchford Field, ended visits from the vintage aircraft, military jets, helicopters and warbirds that had proven so popular with the public at events hosted by the Alberta Aviation Museum, located right next to the airport’s runways.

However, a vintage twin-engine bomber visited Edmonton in June 2014. Under the auspices of the Alberta Aviation Museum, the Villeneuve airport northwest of the city was home for four days to the Maid in the Shade B-25 Mitchell from the Commemorative Air Force base in Mesa, Arizona.

The aircraft offered a full schedule of flights, with passengers taking rides in the World War Two vintage aircraft – no doubt recalling the days back in November and December 1944, when Maid in the Shade flew 15 operational flights. Here's a photo of the old beauty.

(Photo Credit: John Chalmers).

It was great to see the venerable Mitchell at Villeneuve airport, but the highlight of my visit was meeting another war veteran, former airman Manuel Sharko.

He enlisted with the Royal Canadian Air Force at age 19, and completed 36 operational flights as a mid-upper gunner on Halifax bombers with RCAF 432 Squadron. He completed a tour of duty, consisting of 30 “ops,” and then continued for six more. Here is Manuel Sharko today.

(Photo Credit: John Chalmers)

Manuel Sharko was born in a log house on the family farm near Nisku, Alberta, just south of Edmonton, on February 21, 1925, and lived there until he enlisted in the air force in 1944.

After qualifying as an Air Gunner at No. 3 Bombing and Gunnery School at MacDonald, Manitoba, he was shipped overseas and based with his squadron at East Moor, Yorkshire.

The photo at the top of the page shows Manuel at age 19 atop his Halifax bomber of RCAF 432 Leaside Squadron, seated jauntily between the four .303-calibre machine guns of his mid-upper turret. (Photo courtesy Manuel Sharko)

And here’s the RCAF 432 Squadron Halifax bomber, “Q for Queenie,” in which air gunner Manuel Sharko flew 36 operational flights.

(Photo courtesy of Manuel Sharko)

All 36 ops were completed with a crew captained by pilot Flight Sergeant (later Pilot Officer) Robert Campbell, who was decorated with the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC). All crew were RCAF personnel, except for the flight engineer from the Royal Air Force.

Besides the pilot, another member of the crew was also decorated. Flight Sergeant Stewart Cassels, the navigator, was awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal, the equivalent of the DFC, which was awarded to non-commissioned officers.

Here’s a photo of some air and ground crew of RCAF 432 Leaside Squadron relaxing at the East Moor, Yorkshire base, with squadron Halifax bombers in the background.

From left to right: pilot Bob Campbell; two ground crew members from Québec; bomb aimer Bob Fenton with back of head towards camera; wireless operator “Feet” Telford; rear gunner Brian Rice; and another ground crew member from Quebec.

(Photo Credit: Manuel Sharko)

Of course, they had their share of close calls. Manuel tells of one time their aircraft was “coned,” when searchlights on the ground converged on an aircraft, making it easier for anti-aircraft guns to target it.

Pilot Campbell put the Halifax into a steep dive, often an evasive corkscrew manoeuvre that would make the entire aircraft shudder, but a standard practice even for a large aircraft like the four-engined Halifax.

Manuel’s son, Wayne, says: “Dad always said it was completely dark when they were flying, but when the spotlights found them, the whole plane would light up inside.”

Here are three sergeants of the “Q Queenie” Halifax bomber crew of RCAF 432 Squadron, from left to right: rear gunner Brian Rice; bomb aimer Bob Fenton; and mid-upper gunner Manuel Sharko.

(Photo courtesy Manuel Sharko)

In September 1944, on a daylight operational flight for bombing near Dortmund, Manuel’s aircraft suffered minor flak damage to the cockpit. A piece of flak struck pilot Campbell, hitting him in the face mask of his respirator, which quite possibly saved his life.

Born in Scotland, Bob Campbell moved to Manitoba with his parents when he was young. Following the war, he stayed in the RCAF until 1968, leaving as a Flight Lieutenant, and was the father of six children.

Found on the internet, this photograph from the collection of Manuel’s pilot, Robert Campbell, shows Manuel Sharko with four fellow crew members and one unidentified airman.

In the front row at left is rear gunner Sgt. Brian Rice with bomb aimer Sgt. Bob Fenton at right. At rear, left to right, are an unidentified sergeant, pilot Robert Campbell, wireless operator Sgt. “Feet” Telford, and mid-upper gunner Sgt. Manuel Sharko.

Following his death in 1985, Bob Campbell’s family placed his uniform on long-term loan to the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum located at the John C. Munro Hamilton International Airport in Hamilton, Ontario.

There it can be seen today as a memento of the crew that flew together during the Second World War, defying the odds of being killed in action.

Sergeant Sharko and all his crew survived the war. He says his scariest and longest flight was a bombing run to Stuttgart, Germany, when his Halifax bomber was shot up and losing fuel, but was able to land safely at an American base in England where the aircraft was repaired, then flown back to East Moor.

From Manuel’s personal mementoes of the war comes this drawing of his crew with their Halifax bomber, “Q Queenie” with photos of the seven crew placed at their positions in the aircraft. Sgt. Manuel Sharko is shown in his mid-upper gunner position, and also in the photo at the left.

Manuel Sharko can be seen speaking about his first-hand experience during the war as part of a 2005 video produced by ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Veterans Voices of Canada. See the video by clicking here: Manuel Sharko. His comments begin at the 2:42 mark.

Although Edmonton’s historic City Centre Airport is now closed and flying events will be held at the Villeneuve airport, there is reason to be positive about developments concerning the Alberta Aviation Museum.

The museum is housed in the large 1941 hangar on Kingsway Avenue, built during the war for the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. Protected as a designated historic resource, the building will continue to house the museum, and City of Edmonton funds will be used to upgrade the heating, ventilation and electrical systems. As well, the city plans to take over operation and maintenance expenses.

To see a B-25 Mitchell bomber, Edmontonians don’t have to wait for Maid in the Shade to return from Arizona. The Alberta Aviation Museum has its own Mitchell, the Daisy Mae.

Here RCAF Sgt. (Ret.) Ed Doucette, a volunteer on the restoration of the B-25 Mitchell, positions the Daisy Mae at its debut rollout on September 3, 2011, following restoration sponsored by the RCAF 418 Squadron Association.

After the Second World War, 418 City of Edmonton Squadron flew Mitchells from the hangar that now is home to the museum.

(Photo Credit: John Chalmers)

Thus the future of the museum to preserve aviation history and heritage seems assured. The contributions of warbirds that flew, and the airmen like Manuel Sharko who flew in them, will be remembered.

* * * * *

John Chalmers serves as Historian for Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame and membership Secretary for the Canadian Aviation Historical Society. Contact him at johnchalmers@shaw.ca.

Thank you, John, for sharing this story, and for your ongoing efforts to preserve aviation history!

* * * * *

Three Aviation Museums in Alberta

On a personal note, I can vouch for the importance of aviation museums in Alberta. In the past month, I have visited three of them!

(And by the way, my book Bird’s Eye View is now available in all three gift shops. Buy one there, and support your local museum.)

Firstly, I visited the Alberta Aviation Museum in Edmonton, described above by John Chalmers.

The folks there were all excited because they had just received word that a Lancaster in Edmunston, New Brunswick, was being shipped to Edmonton for restoration. When it arrives, it will be the third Lancaster in Alberta! You can read more by clicking: From Edmunston to Edmonton.

And you can find out more about what this museum has to offer by clicking: Alberta Aviation Museum.

Here I am standing with the wartime training aircraft, the Avro Anson, this one dedicated to well-known ferry pilot Marie Wright of Edmonton.

Then it was on to the Aero Space Museum in Calgary, to visit the FM-136 Lancaster there. You can read all about her history by clicking: Lady Orchid Keeps Lancaster Aloft. This Lancaster doesn't fly, nor does it have operational engines, but it's worth a visit just to see the sheer size of this mighty bomber.

And you can find out more about what else this museum has to offer by clicking: Aero Space Museum of Calgary.

And finally, just a one-hour drive to the south of Calgary is the Bomber Command Museum in Nanton, Alberta. For such a small community, this is the most impressive museum of the three, and well worth a visit. And their FM-159 Lancaster has four operational engines!

This museum has a number of video and interactive displays, including a simulated Lancaster cockpit so you can climb inside and imagine what it must have been like. You can see me below, white-knuckling the controls.

To learn more about this museum and find out when you can see the Lancaster running at full power, click: Bomber Command Museum of Canada.

* * * * * 

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.

Here’s an image called Hope Springs Eternal, showing a young woman’s delight at finding the first flowers of spring amidst the destruction of war in the background.

To see my entire collection of Star Weekly covers, and I'm adding a new one almost every week, click Star Weekly at War.

And if you want to purchase a hardcover book containing these and many other covers, you can order directly from this website: www.thistlexpress.com.

I could relate to the delight on the face of the woman in the illustration, because my own face lit up when I found this crocus in my own back yard last week! Spring is here at last in our part of the world!

The Star Weekly cover above is dated March 1, 1941 but spring comes a lot sooner in England than it does in the Rocky Mountains of Western Canada.

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  • I have a fascinating one-hour powerpoint presentation describing wartime women in uniform, and the little-known practice of aerial photographic interpretation. And I come dressed in my wartime vintage duds! To contact me about speaking at your organization, click: Contact.

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During my research into Canada’s wartime past, I uncovered some fascinating facts and anecdotes. I’ll share them here and welcome feedback and stories of your own.

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