U.S. bill would honour `unknown warriors' of WWII
Thousands from U.S. fought for Canada, Britain
According to military recruiters in Ottawa, Leonard Almquist was a “very gentlemanly chap, clean cut, alert and keen to fly.”
And fly he did as a pilot officer in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) early in the Second World War. Barely a year after joining up — and 10 days before Christmas — the 25-year-old was dead, lost at sea during a bombing run against enemy shipping.
It was a sadly common end for members of allied bomber crews, but one thing made Almquist stand out. He was actually American, a native of Rockford, Ill., who crossed the border to join the war effort two years before his own country entered the conflict.
There were thousands of others like him, their unique role largely lost to history and ignored by U.S. authorities.
But Tim Ryan, a Democratic congressman from Ohio, is trying to rectify that oversight, introducing for the second time a bill that would award such veterans a Congressional Gold Medal for their service.
It is late-arriving recognition from a country that sometimes forgets Canada played any part in the war, let alone that it recruited Americans while the U.S. stayed on the sidelines.
Michael Boire, a historian at the Royal Military College, said Canada generally doesn't give out military medals after the fact, but he approves of Ryan's gesture.
“I think it's a great idea to look back on an historical moment and to say, `We forgot a few people,'” he said.
“The level of sacrifice was very high. Almost 900 of those (American) boys were killed in action.”
The bill says at least 12,000 Americans headed north to join either the Canadian or British forces, the bulk of them enlisting in the two countries' air forces.
Other estimates suggest the total was closer to 15,000, including thousands who enlisted in the army and navy.
That an American politician is trying to win them recognition 75 years later is thanks in part to Karl Kjarsgaard, a curator at Alberta's Bomber Command Museum.
He made contact 10 years ago with the American son of an RCAF fighter pilot from Ohio, who in turn urged Ryan, his congressman, to push for the honour.
There is little in the Canadian history books and almost nothing in U.S. records about the cross-border group, Kjarsgaard said.
“They're the truly unknown `Canadian' warriors,” he said. “We felt it was an inequity that needed to be fixed.”
Many of the Americans who volunteered in Canada came unsolicited, but there was a surreptitious recruiting effort as well.
William Avery “Billy” Bishop, the First World War fighter ace put in charge of bolstering RCAF ranks, joined forces in the task with his American friend Clayton Knight. The resulting Clayton Knight Committee set up offices in New York's Waldorf-astoria and other luxury hotels across the U.S.
To ensure they didn't arouse suspicions that Americans were being enticed to violate neutrality laws, they purported to be recruiting pilots for civilian roles in Canada. In fact, many joined the air force, notes a 2004 article in the Journal of the Canadian Historical Association.
And Canadian authorities won tacit approval from the White House to recruit its citizens, wrote author Rachel Lea Heide.
About 900 Americans lost their lives fighting for the Canadian and British. And though never celebrated in their country's popular culture, many were standouts on the field of battle.
Squadron Leader David C. Fairbanks of Ithaca, N.Y., for instance, earned three Distinguished Flying Crosses while flying Spitfire and Tempest fighter planes, shooting down 16 enemy aircraft, according to Legion magazine.
Almquist was living in Brooklyn, N.Y., when he headed north to join the RCAF, service records at Library and Archives Canada show. He had completed about a year of university and earned a private pilot's licence.
Flying a Hudson light bomber, the American's life ended on a Dec. 15, 1941, mission to attack enemy shipping, apparently in the North Sea. Military investigators discovered the graves of two of his crew members after the war, their bodies having washed ashore and been buried by locals, said a 1948 letter to Almquist's sister.
His remains, it appears, were never found. But in 1946 the RCAF sent the pilot's family his operational “wings,” the air force's symbol of combat experience.
A records officer wrote to the sister that he hoped the emblem would be “a treasured memento of a young life offered on the altar of freedom, in defence of his home and country.”
THE LEVEL OF SACRIFICE WAS VERY HIGH. ALMOST 900 OF THOSE (AMERICAN) BOYS WERE KILLED IN ACTION.