Remembering wartime service in the RCAF
By Virginia Beaton,
“I was the only person in the crew who could tell the pilot where to go.”
That’s what David Waterbury used to tell his children about his service as an RCAF flight navigator during the Second World War.
In fact, Waterbury was a flight crew member in a Canso 9816 on June 13,1944, crashing into the ocean during a dramatic battle with a U-boat off the Faroe Islands, an incident for which Waterbury later received the Distinguished Flying Cross.
On Saturday, September 30, 2017, Waterbury, who now is 95 years old, visited the Shearwater Aviation Museum to view the museum’s extensive collection of vintage aircraft and historical artifacts.
“We’re so happy to have you here today,” Christine Hines, curator of the museum, told Waterbury, who was accompanied by his wife Annie Mae and four of his five children. Hines was joined by Maj Tom Sladek, who is leading the celebrations for Shearwater’s centenary in 2018. “I hope you will join us for the centenary celebrations next year,” Maj Sladek told Waterbury.
The Shearwater museum has extensive displays related to the history of Canada’s air force, in both World Wars and in more recent conflicts. Hines and Maj Sladek guided Waterbury and his family through the museum, describing the vintage aircraft on display and pointing out historical artifacts, models, and photos that would be of particular interest to Waterbury as a Second World War RCAF veteran.
Looking at a Fairey Swordfish aircraft in the museum’s static display, Waterbury stated, “It’s a deadly weapon, in the right situation.” He reminisced about other aircraft that had been in use at Shearwater and at other RCAF stations around the region, and admired the large display dedicated to RCAF Eastern Air Command, which featured mannequins in authentic uniforms, and a wall map that is a replica of the one used by then EAC HQ at its wartime HQ at Barrington and South Streets in Halifax.
Watching his father examine the various museum displays, Waterbury’s son David said that people, especially young people, are always fascinated to hear his father’s descriptions of his wartime experience. When Waterbury senior speaks to youth groups such as cadets, “You could hear a pin drop,” says his son.
A native of Wolfville, NS, Waterbury joined the RCAF in July of 1941 and after training as a navigator, he was posted to No. 162 Bomber Reconnaissance Squadron, then based in Yarmouth, NS. In early 1944, the squadron was stationed first in Iceland and then in northern Scotland to carry out anti-submarine patrols.
On June 13, 1944, the crew was on patrol off Norway when they spotted a U-boat. They dropped depth charges and managed to sink the U-boat but not before it managed to fire on and strike the Canso. The pilot brought the aircraft down on the water but it was badly damaged and the crew had to abandon it before it sank. One of the two dinghies blew up and there was barely enough room in the remaining one for the eight crewmembers.
An aircraft overflew the area and dropped a lifeboat for them but it landed some distance away. Waterbury, who was a strong swimmer, swam to retrieve it and dragged it back with him. The water was frigid and by the time a high speed launch arrived to rescue them, three of the crewmembers had died.
On the museum’s upper level, Waterbury was particularly interested in viewing the displays related to Flight Lieutenant David Hornell, VC, and 162 Bomber Reconnaissance Squadron, to which both men belonged. Hornell received the Victoria Cross in recognition of his heroic actions during a U-boat attack on June 24, 1944, only 11 days after the incident with Waterbury’s Canso. Tragically, Hornell did not survive and received his VC posthumously.
“He was quite a guy,” said Waterbury, peering at Hornell’s portrait.
Returning to Nova Scotia after the war, Waterbury graduated from law school and became an attorney in Kentville. Now retired, he lives in Mahone Bay.
Waterbury recently visited Jim McCrae, who was a Flying Officer and co-caption in the Canso. McCrae, who now is 98, lives in Yarmouth, NS. Waterbury’s wife, Annie Mae, said that both men and enjoyed recalling their years of RCAF service, and looking at photos from those years.
“Jim McCrae and I, we are like soulmates,” Waterbury told Trident. Because of their shared experiences in wartime, he said, they have a bond that has lasted over time.