77-year legion member honoured
Bill Bessent is a Grande Prairie Second World War combat veteran; he saw Winston Churchill with his own eyes and even spoke to the Queen.
On April 15, he received a pin from the Grande Prairie Royal Canadian Legion #54, where he has been a member for 77 years.
Bill grew up in Grande Prairie with his identical twin brother Bob. The boys were born in Windsor, Ont. but moved to Grande Prairie at the age of two.
Their home was located across the street from where the current Legion building in Grande Prairie now sits.
Bill and Bob’s father, Bert, was a First World War veteran and even served as the legion’s president for a time.
The twins enjoyed playing hockey and played for the Red Devils at the age of 16. The brothers have been described as inseparable, and at the age of 17 they would both enlist and enter into training for the Canadian Air Force .
Bill remembers Grande Prairie was much smaller then; the population was approximately 1,400, including the farmers, he laughs.
Today, the 98-year-old is still sharp and willing to share his memories as he did with Town & Country News one afternoon in April.
Bill and his brother joined the air force after they heard of other boys joining.
“It was the thing to do,” Bill recalled.
The twins would train together in Edmonton and Souris, Man., before finally getting their wings in Montjolie, Que.
Bill said he wound up in Halifax, where he would see Winston Churchill, who arrived on the Queen Mary as the British Prime Minister made his way to speak to U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and other Allied leaders.
The Queen Mary would also be the ship taking Bill to England, with another 15,740 soldiers and 943 crew.
Bill remembers it being crowded; some historians say people had to sleep on the deck. The Queen Mary holds the record to this day for the most people ever carried: 16,682.
The ship was fast, and the journey would take around four days. Bill explained it was so quick that German submarines couldn’t keep up.
When he arrived in England, he and his fellow crewman were unaware of where they were; they were put on a train at night and would arrive at their destination.
“Nobody seemed to want to tell us where we were going, and that was the first thing we asked when we stopped and got off,” said Bill.
They ended up in Bournemouth in the South of England.
The twins were able to visit their grandparents while in England during some time off.
Bob would join a crew as a mid-upper gunner and go on his first bombing mission on Dec. 4, 1943 to Leipzig.
On Dec. 16, 1943, Bill would see his brother and Grande Prairie local Gerald Strang off on a mission into Berlin.
The next day Bob’s plane crashed when trying to land, killing him and his crew mates; 32 aircrafts were lost in the same mission.
The day would become known as Black Thursday in Grande Prairie.
“It was a big loss for Grande Prairie,” said Bill.
Bill and his grandparents attended Bob’s funeral in England.
A mere two weeks later, Bill himself would fly in a mission to Berlin.
His commanding officer asked him if he wanted to make his first trip with his crew so soon after his brother’s death. Bill responded, “if they were going, I was going too.”
He would fly many more missions, including two operations on D-Day, June 6, 1944.
Bill recalled travelling over the English Channel, never having seen so many ships and airplanes pulling gliders.
During D-day, his crew was sent to bomb a bridge with the plane flying at a very low altitude of approximately 10,000 feet, he explained.
Bill flew in 30 missions while in Europe.
He recalls one night flying into Berlin when an incendiary bomb from an allied plane hit the starboard wing.
“The pilot told us all to bail out,” he said, but the pilot threw the plane down so fast they couldn’t move due to the G-force.
A report in The Herald Tribune on Nov. 9, 1944, says the plane dove 5,000 feet.
The pilot’s strategy extinguished the fire, saving the crew’s lives.
“It was an awful nightmare as long as it lasted,” Bill told the Tribune in 1944.
On one mission over Nuremberg, Bill witnessed the loss of 96 aircraft; he remembers reporting what he saw to his plane’s navigator.
“Our navigator, he was the oldest one in the crew, he said, ‘for God’s sake, that’s all I want to hear about that.’”
After serving his tours, Bill became a night vision flying instructor in England.
When he returned to Canada, he would make his way back to Grande Prairie but not before a stop in Edmonton.
He arrived there without much to do, he said, so he went to the Beatty Appliances store. While talking to a couple of the workers, a man approached him from behind.
“It was my dad, he didn’t know I was coming.” An unexpected but welcome reunion is how Bill remembers it.
Returning home, he would go on to work at Grande Prairie Hardware store.
According to The Herald Tribune, Bill would receive a Distinguished Flying Medal in July 1947.
He would earn many honours, including meeting Queen Elizabeth II during her visit to Grande Prairie in August 1978 who she also stopped and spoke to him. In 2013 he received a service ribbon from the Canadian government for his efforts in the war, and in 2014 a park in Grande Prairie was named after him.
In 1950 he married Lavina (“Vine”) Louise Allison, and they would have three children together: Bob, Bill, and Bonny.
On April 15, Bill was awarded a pin and bar for being a Legion member for 75 year before a standing ovation.
“I just love coming into this building (legion); I’ve been here for a long time, and the way that the people are looking after it and building on it; we are going to have this place for a long, long time,” said Bill.
The Grande Prairie Royal Canadian Legion #54 gave out many long service awards on April 15, including:
Alfred Hughes, Ordinary 50 Medal, 55 Pin, 55 Bar
Dave McCauley, Associate, 50 Medal, pin
Bernie Wendorf, Ordinary, 50 Medal, pin
Phil Briard, Associate, 50 Medal, pin
Mike Tkachuk, Ordinary, 50 Medal, pin
Wayne Bowman, Affiliate, 50 Medal, pin
Morris Pawliw, Associate, 45 pin
Jewal Rayne, Associate, 45 pin
Harold Anderson, Ordinary, 45 pin
Jewal Rayne, Associate, 45 pin
Joe Sask, Ordinary, 45 pin
Doug Hampton, Ordinary, 45 pin
John (Hoppy) Hopkins, Associate, 45 pin
Terrance Heasler, Associate, 40 pin
Gary Webster Associate, 35 pin
Phillip Dupuis, Ordinary, 35 pin
Lorri Preddy, Affiliate, 35 pin
Cheryl Weaver, Associate, 35 pin
Julia Barteski, Associate, 35 pin
Robert Ross, Associate, 30 pin
George Ross, Associate, 30 pin
Dan Christenson, Associate, 30 pin
Sandra Heasler, Associate, 30 pin
John Godard, Affiliate, 25 pin
Desmond Brown, Affiliate, 25 pin
Staryl McBride, Affiliate, 25 pin
Stuart Stevenson, Affiliate , 25 pin
Rae (Lynn) Waldie, Associate, 20 pin
Jesse Boily, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Town & Country News