Airman's Destiny Not as Planned

Sometimes we think we know what is best for us, but as our lives take a different turn, we find our true destiny lies elsewhere. Such was my father's experience.

When my father Wilbert Collingridge finally succeeded in joining the Royal Canadian Air Force, he had already been trying for some time. He dreamed of joining his comrades in the overseas battle against world domination. More than once, he and brother-in-law Jack Clayton had made the dusty trek to the Royal Canadian Air Force recruiting office in Brandon only to hear the litany, "We are not recruiting right now." Not easily discouraged, my father persisted. In 1942, that persistence paid off.

So Collingridge left behind his pastures and plows to pursue his dream. He was not alone; many Canadians had traded ploughshares for swords. Even farm implement corporations like Ontario's Cockshutt Plow Company now produced grenades and gun mounts. Thanks to this growing support, the RCAF would rocket from a handful of serviceable aircraft to WWII's fourth largest allied air force.

Now that he was within the ranks, Collingridge hotly pursued the next part of his journey: overseas combat. This time persistence would not be enough. The air force had discovered Collingridge's leadership and welding abilities. They would keep him where he would be most useful. So instead of sailing over the Atlantic, the new recruit bumped across the prairie, docking at Winnipeg's Repair Depot #8. There he would teach others to weld straight beads and patch training-weary planes like the Lockheeds.

For the most part, days passed quietly at Repair Depot #8. The war was, after all, overseas. From time to time, though, Collingridge would be called upon to perform some task that broke the monotony. One such task would remain forever branded in his memory.

Summoned from his cot late one night, the sleepy airman found himself standing before an accident scene. A drunken soldier had wrapped a stolen jeep - and himself - around a utility pole. Blow torch breathing blue fire, LAC Collingridge cut away the vehicle's twisted metal. Sadly, he was too late for anything but exhuming the corpse from its temporary tomb.

Collingridge gazed at the battered body and, with a shock, realized this was a face he knew. Thirteen years earlier, someone had murdered a ranger then shot at the ranger's wife as she rang the operator for help. Speculators had indicted this very man as the murderer but rumours alone do not stand up in court. The charges did not stick. The allegations did. An aged fortune-teller brought some comfort to the victim's family by predicting that time would take care of what the law had not. The murderer, she foretold, would pay for his crime: he would come to a sorry end on the thirteenth day just as his victim had.

Today, realized Collingridge, was the thirteenth. Years later another rumour would circulate, bringing some resolution to mystery. On her deathbed, apparently the victim's wife confessed to knowing the identity of her husband's murderer: she named the same soldier Collingridge had cut out of the jeep many years earlier.

LAC Collingridge

By this time, former LAC Collingridge no longer lived in Manitoba. In 1946, he had traded his RCAF insignia for an anvil and forge to eke out a living in small town Saskatchewan. He never did make it overseas. As a result, he did not qualify for a veteran's pension which, the cash-strapped blacksmith might be heard to say, "Sure would have come in handy."

Still, life was good for the smithy and his family. Collingridge interspersed shoeing horses and sharpening shears with volunteer work - calling square dances, masquerading as Santa Claus, and fiddling a fairly fine tune. A tenure as town constable mostly saw him tossing exuberant revellers into the drunk tank, but his fireman duties were more gratifying as he was once again called to the scene of tragedy. This time his rescue efforts would have a happier outcome.

While others had given up hope on the flame-ravaged wooden house imprisoning the small child, Collingridge had not. He raced into the inferno, to triumphantly emerge with a weeping, but very much alive child in his arms. The boy will remain forever grateful that Collingridge was around that day.

Others as well are glad the officer was still around. Had LAC Collingridge fulfilled his early dream to fight overseas, his name might have joined the 17,100 on the Roll of Honour who gave up their lives for our freedom. And as the eleventh of his fourteen children, I would not have been here to tell his story.

Published in Saskatchewan Aviation Council Newsletter (September 2003)

For more information about the Saskatchewan Aviation Council, contact
Tel.: 306-664-2376, Fax: 306-931-6123, E-mail: P.O. Box 9768, Saskatoon, SK, S7K 7G5

Created by: Shirley Collingridge, Wordsmith