Letters can provide us with wonderful information about our history. With the rush to get pilots into the air during WWII, the Air Force lost many men to training accidents. These letters, donated to us by Joe McGovern’s sister, Ronalda, certainly give us insight into what training was like.
Joe McGovern was born in Cudworth, Saskatchewan on January 2nd, 1923. He went to Sacred Heart School in Regina, and then attended Jesuit Campion College for High School. His sister, Ronalda, told us that he enjoyed all summer and winter sports, his bicycle, and his good friends and cousins. He worked weekends for a local grocery store.
Around 1939, Joe enlisted in the Canadian Air Force. While waiting to be called, he worked in a sawmill near Granville Island, Vancouver, and rode a motorcycle to work. At some point, he was called up and the family received mail from Joe postmarked England; he wrote to them regularly.
On December 20, 1943, he wrote, “ I’m still in ground school & about half finished although I’m not sure just how long it will last. We are taking the same thing we took in Canada. It’s just a review. We have no books, can’t copy any notes. Just sit & listen & hope we remember it all. “
Then on January 27, 1944, “ I finished up my gunnery flight on Friday & got a ride in a Martinet, it’s a small two seated fighter plane they use for training, on Saturday morning. They had us working all day Sunday and Monday they crewed us all up. As usual I didn’t get what I wanted. I got put in a crew as a mid upper gunner, I wanted the tail… I was up for a couple of hours to-day. Riding in the rear turret holding down the tail while some green pilots were doing circuits & bumps. That’s landing & taking off. Every time we’d land the tail wheel would hit the runway with a heck of a thud & bounce and me in the tail turret would bounce too. “
Joe wasn’t keen on the night flying and told his family on February 18, 1944, that “ … the only thing I like about night flying is that they feed us a couple of eggs when we get down & let us sleep till noon… “
As March 9th arrives, Joe feels he is closer to battle, “ I have to report for a battle course a week this Sunday & so help me I think it will kill me. Then we convert onto four motored aircraft and after that the fireworks. “
The last letter we have was written April 17, 1944, in which he shares a rather light-hearted event during serious times, “… Oh! I didn’t tell you, while I was taking my battle course I got caught one night coming home from town without a light on my bike. I received a summons to court on account of it. Dick & I both got caught that night… We went to court this morning and we were fined ten shillings apiece that’s about two dollars. But we got it back. When we went into the restaurant for dinner the cop was in there so we sat down with him and he payed for our dinner. Not bad aye. “
SGT (AG) Joseph Theodore McGovern died April 23, 1944 at the age of 20. At the time he was assigned to #1659 Heavy Conversion Unit, RCAF Overseas. Air Gunner McGovern died when his Halifax aircraft crashed.
The Wing Commander for McGovern’s unit wrote to Mrs. McGovern, “ Your son along with a full crew took off on a normal training exercise on the 23rd April, 1944. After the aircraft had been airborne for a short period it crashed near the Airfield at 14.38 hours. It has not as yet been ascertained what caused the accident. Death was instantaneous to your son and the rest of the crew… your son along with his crew, was just about to join an operational squadron. I sincerely believe that Joseph had the makings of an excellent air gunner… Please believe me when I say that the sense of loss which you feel is shared by all of us. “
Following McGovern’s death, Francis T. Moyle S/L, Chaplain (R.C.) RCAF – Overseas, wrote to the family, “ I said Mass for Joseph the day he was killed. Yesterday (April 26) his body was brought to our very lovely station chapel where the funeral mass was offered. Your son was a good boy, rather quiet and reserved but very well liked by those who knew him, and particularly popular with his crew. With you I mourn the loss of one of my boys. Rest assured I will remember him in my prayers and masses. “
W.V. McCarthy, Group Captain, Chief Chaplain, R.C. followed with a letter on May 1, 1944, “ Please accept my sincere and deep sympathy on the death of your Air Gunner son who gave his life for his country a short time ago…buried your son in the Regional Cemetery, Stonefall, Harrogate, Yorkshire, on the 27th of April, 1944. “
And a friend wrote to Joe’s mother, “ Dear Mrs. McGovern – I feel very ashamed that the only letter I’ve ever written to you – a person whom I’ve always considered a friend – would be brought about because of a tradjic accident… You can be very proud of Joe – he was a good boy – and I’m sure you must realize he gave his life willingly – to try and help destroy a common enemy. You can lift your head – and dry your tears when you think of Joe. You and I and he too – knew he was doing only what is expected of every peace and freedom loving person… “
These letters, written by Joe and by others following Joe’s death give us a sense of his popularity, his skills, and the impact his death had on others. If you would like to read them all, please come into our Museum Library to request a look!