The man who fell from the sky

By Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic, November 2015

The story of a young soldier from Victoria helps us remember why we should strive for peace.

In this month of remembering our veterans, I bring you the story of a young Victoria soldier who fell from the sky without a parachute and survived. He was Norman Wharf, born on the Gorge in 1920 and a “telegraph boy” in his mid-teens, delivering telegrams by bicycle at three cents apiece. 

Against his father’s wishes he joined the Royal Air Force and became a rear gunner. He was typical of airmen in those days—exceedingly young and with less training in flying and gunning than it now takes to get a driver’s license. He was only 24 when his plane was shot down.

The lumbering Lancaster was the star of night-time bombers, big enough to hold a belly full of bombs. On this May night in 1944, it lifted off from East Kirkby Airfield in England, climbed to 12,000 feet and headed eastward to a planned raid of Braunschweig in Germany. From his cramped unheated perch inside the acrylic bubble of the rear gunner’s turret, Norman Wharf soon saw the lights of Holland drifting by below. All was going according to schedule. 

Suddenly a Messerschmitt Bf109 swooped upward into his view. “Fighter, fighter, corkscrew, port, go!” he yelled frantically into the headset that connected him with the flight crew in the cockpit. The pilot tried to position the Lancaster so Wharf could take aim, but not before the more nimble Messerschmitt spewed a round of fire into its loaded belly. Within seconds the cockpit filled with flames. Wharf grabbed a fire extinguisher and started running to the front to help the doomed crew but was pushed back by a wall of fire. 

“Get out,” he yelled to the mid-upper gunner. Then he stumbled back to his own turret, his hands severely burned, boots on fire, and parachute nowhere to be found. 

In his audio-taped account, Norman Wharf remembers waiting, not so much frightened as numbly resigned. So this is how it ends, he thought, just before the bomb bay exploded and ripped the plane into three pieces. Wharf heard and felt a rush of cold air, then blacked out. The tailpiece, with him in it, began sailing downward.

The wreckage fell into a boggy ditch but how he survived will always be a mystery. Wharf remembers struggling to get up, “and when I tried to take a step I fell…I saw a light and called for help. Someone came and said to be quiet. And I said, be careful of my back.”

Broken and gravely injured, he was carried on a board to a nearby farmhouse. A doctor arrived and filled him with morphine.

Soon the enemy came knocking and hustled him away, first to a hospital and then to the hardship of POW camps in Holland and Germany. Years later he downplayed that hardship, the makeshift mending of bones, the starvation and 50-pound weight loss. The injury to his hands, he said, was the hardest part, having to ask to be dressed, fed and helped at the toilet.

Norman Wharf learned to live with his injuries and never received any compensation for them. That was typical of the time, recalled his widow, Hilda, when I met with her a few years ago. “His hands were so damaged. He should have had therapy to straighten his fingers.”

Think of Norman Wharf on this Remembrance Day. Think of the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who, over the course of our country’s history, have come home changed and injured and broken or not come home at all. Think of those struggling for understanding and support on the long journey back to some semblance of good health. 

Remember those—and there are many—for whom that journey is so impossible that stepping off is the only option. That’s what happens when you’re sent to hell and nobody wants to hear about it when you come back.

Think of that hell. From one generation to the next, it’s where power brokers play using other people’s children as their game pieces. Think of the money behind every war, including our own current $14-billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia. Damn the principles, it’s the money that triumphs. 

Above all, please think of peace. Norman Wharf, now long gone, would be happy with that, and in the end it’s still the only thought, the only longing, that gives any hope. 

Trudy fervently hopes that Canada, under new leadership, will soon begin rediscovering its peacekeeping tradition.