By Chadd Cawson Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
As November 11 nears, our wallets and purses open to purchase poppies and place them over our heart. Lest we forget on this Remembrance Day as we honour all the fallen soldiers in solemn silence. The crimson red velvet flower we wear proudly over our chest or lapel is a reminder to us all that we live a life of freedom in Canada today because of the courageous men who fought for us over eighty years ago. Countless soldiers never returned home to their families and loved ones, but many fortunate ones did. We must remember this; not just one day a year but all year round.
Jim Ashworth, World War II veteran, served with the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and military for 26 years. Now a sprightly 102, he will be keeping his tradition on Nov. 11. Donning his uniform and campaign medals proudly, including his Burma Star for his services during the second world war in the 20 Squadron Royal Air Force (RAF) it is with great pride and sorrow Mr. Ashworth will lay a wreath at the Cenotaph in downtown Invermere to honour veterans of all cultures, including those with whom he served. Following the service Mr. Ashworth looks forward to some meaningful conversations and reminiscing at the Invermere Legion which he has been a member of for over 40 years.
“This is really not about me because I’m a survivor,” Mr. Ashworth said. “We’re talking about the people that are on the beautiful banners hanging throughout downtown Invermere. They are the men that the remembrance is for. I’m just lucky to be here and be a part of the act.”
It was early 1940, with World War II underway, when Mr. Ashworth first decided to get into the act. In high school he recalls reading Macleans Canada’s Fighting Airmen about the heroes of the first world war – an era he admits is quickly drifting away. These airmen piqued his interest to one day take flight as a pilot himself. At 19, Mr. Ashworth felt compelled to answer his call to duty.
“It’s just the way it was. The information was coming through on the radio, and the sense of serving our country was right there, so we did,” said Mr. Ashworth. “When I was a teenager, I was interested in World War I air pilots so when the second world war came up, the air force was the only direction that I wanted to go. A lot of my friends joined the air force earlier, and a lot of Indigenous People from here were there too.”
When Mr. Ashworth and his childhood friends (some whose images are on banners downtown) first attempted to sign up for the military, the only opportunities available at that time were for cooks and general duties which did not interest him in the slightest. So he returned home. A late Christmas gift came in the first few days of 1941 when Mr. Ashworth received a call with a better offer.
“I was very happy to get the call. I was sitting at the dinner table finishing up a late Christmas dinner, recalls Mr. Ashworth. “As soon as I got there, I was in the air force, and they took care of me from there, and then went down all the other streams.”
He went through rigorous training. One of his fonder memories of it happened in Claresholm, Alberta where he took advanced flying. He and daughter recently visited the museum at his former training center there, where he met the new curator. Mr. Ashworth admits it was quite an experience.
He was ready for action when he found out he was heading overseas, but did not to see it as soon as he had hoped. His company was asked to assist with further training and arrived in England in December 1941, where he began his journey as a glider instructor, for the better part of a year. In September of 1942, after completing operational training unit (OUT) training on Hurricane fighter aircrafts, Mr. Ashworth was off to war in India where he was stationed in Burma to fight against the Japanese.
“It was nice to get the word that I was finally going to be on operations, as that is what most of us set out to do when we left here. We travelled by boat too, and gee, that was sure a trip too.” He remembered that on this trip there were other students on their way to South Africa for their own flight training. “On the boat ride what we did is we had made schedules, to teach them things like theory of flight, navigation, and weather, and so on, “said Mr. Ashworth. “That helped them quite a bit and covered the time and then we got to India, and there we were.”
It was 1943. Living in the middle of the lush jungle in huts and with special cooking arrangements just to get by, there was no running water and baths were taken in tubs outside. It was the friends who were more like family, that made it worthwhile.
“The people I was associated with in the air force, my fighter command, was a great band of brothers. I had a lot of good friends,” said Mr. Ashworth. “I remember a lot of the guys on my squadron that didn’t make it. We lost six pilots in one week, which was very sad and unfortunate. There were plenty of more that disappeared but losing those six in just one week really hit me. When you are out there in the jungle, it’s a different story, but you must keep going.”
Mr. Ashworth shared that while he was probably shot at plenty of times, not one bullet ever got him. But a mosquito did – and he came down with malaria at the height of the operation.
“Once you cross the enemy line, there is all that training you did and then suddenly you are going to face your enemy, you are just hoping that the aircraft you are in is going to be the best thing to get you back home,” said Mr. Ashworth. “I got malaria right in the middle of the bloody activity, so that knocked me out,” “I had to take the malaria treatment; I was on Quinine and couldn’t fly because of the experiences you have with it, so that was it.”
While WWII lasted until 1945, Mr. Ashworth returned to his childhood home of Invermere at the end of 1944, located on the unceded territories of the Secwépemc and Ktunaxa Peoples and the land chosen as home by the Métis Peoples of B.C. . He still lives there today. Mr. Ashworth shared that upon his return he did a myriad of things including administrative and flight control for aircrafts, before having the opportunity to be a commanding officer (CO) at Tofino radar station on Vancouver Island, from 1953 to 1956.
“I was really impressed when I got to Tofino and stepped on to the jet aircraft scene,” said Mr. Ashworth. “That is still one of the most memorable things for me: being able to get back in the air and be able to fly a jet aircraft.”
In 1957, Mr. Ashworth was given the opportunity to fly CF100 Canucks and Lockheed T33 fighter jets with the 425 squadron in Saint-Hubert, Quebec. He did that for just over two years and during that time, met his future wife in Ottawa. After his fast and thrilling time in the cockpits of CF100’s in late 59 Mr. Ashworth headed to the North American Aerospace Defense Command in Colorado Springs where he oversaw the distant early warning (DEW) line for a few years before returning to his headquarters in 1961. Being a part of a world war himself, Mr. Ashworth sees some similarities with what is currently happening between Russia and Ukraine, and feels it could possibly lead to a third world war.
“That’s a terrible thing that is happening in Ukraine. A third world war could be close, the one thing is since we got nuclear weapons everyone is afraid to use them, so that’s the lucky part for now, but if it ever takes off- forget it. That’s trouble,” Mr. Ashworth said. “With this situation, we’re being held off and the conditions are a wee bit different. With the types of materials both sides had, we were confronting them more quickly when I fought. Now we’re not confronting the Russians, we’re supplying what we can through the back door of Ukraine. We’re not facing them head on. That make’s quite a difference. Then of course, there is the economic side of things. It’s a terrible mess.”
Seeing the chaos that is happening in Ukraine certainly puts things in perspective for Canadians who can live a life of freedom. Therefore, we must remember the fallen. Mr. Ashworth hopes that the youth of today are aware of what the situation was like then, and is like now in other countries, and allow it to sink in. His hope is for Remembrance Day to be seen as a sign of what happened and what could possibly happen again. He feels something should both be felt and learned by that. He holds our youth who are out there selling poppies and committed to the Royal Canadian Legion Branch #71, Windermere, in high regard. He said his own training, the marching and the self-respect that came out of his years of service, are experiences he still holds dear today.
“Remembrance Day is an important day,” Mr. Ashworth said. “It’s about remembering those we see on the banners downtown and particularly a lot of the other guys that went over, and maybe just made one trip, and then were dead.”
He said the Bomber Command Museum in Nanton, Alberta, is a place everyone should visit; a memorial wall is positioned outside, with all the names of those listed that returned home. “It’s a long cement wall and has names on both sides in small print. Thousands and thousands of guys,” said Mr. Ashworth. “It’s terrible. This is the season where it my duty to remember them.”
Chadd Cawson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Columbia Valley Pioneer