1 Air Division RCAF, Choloy War Cemetery, France
by Don Norrie
I was raised in Edmonton during the years of World War 2. It was a busy military city in those days with an American presence building the Alaska Highway and ferrying aircraft to our Russian allies via Edmonton. The BCATP was in full swing at Blatchford Field (later Edmonton Municipal Airport) and the city sky was dotted with yellow training aircraft.
Many aircrew instructors and trainees lost their lives in the course of duty, but as a kid I read the comics and not the newspaper articles surrounding these tragedies. I was raised in Edmonton during the Second World War. It was a busy military city in those days with an American presence building the Alaska Highway and ferrying aircraft to our Russian allies via Edmonton. The BCATP was in full swing at Blatchford Field (later Edmonton Municipal Airport) and the city sky was dotted with yellow training aircraft. Many aircrew instructors and trainees lost their lives in the course of duty, but as a kid I read the comics and not the newspaper articles surrounding these tragedies.
My friend and I however, had a hobby in those days of collecting bird eggs and the best place to find the many nests was in the trees of the city cemeteries. We would climb the tree, take one egg out of the nest, place it in our mouths (ugh!) so it wouldn’t get broken while descending the tree. Some of us city boys were dumb. Where did the egg come from? We didn’t know!
One day while up a tree and taking a brief rest, I gazed over the cemetery expanse and in my mind it took on a whole new dimension. It reminded me of a city. The gravestones were the various architectural marvels, some made of ornate marble bearing creative inscriptions with photos of the inhabitants, others were simply a wooden or metal cross with a name and some dates. But the part of the cemetery that impressed me most was the military section, known as the "Field of Honour." The granite headstones were all the same, uniform so to speak, in perfect rows as if their underground inhabitants were "on parade" even in death.
Honour Guard, 1955
Move your calendar ahead 10 years after VE Day 1945 to May 1955. I am now in the RCAF and a new arrival at 2 (F) Wing, Grostenquin, France where I was to be employed as a Munitions & Weapons Technician for the next four years. Being over six feet in height, I always had the pleasure of being assigned to the Honour Guard at the bases I served. Being on the Honour Guard got us off the "duty airman" roster, which usually entailed a few weekends of the year in the Fire Hall washing fire trucks or just “twiddling our thumbs.” However, at 2 (F) Wing I was initially assigned to the Firing Party, which took part in all military funerals.
My first duty at the 1 Air Division Cemetery at Choloy took place in July 1955 with the funerals of F/O’s Donald and Noel. They had met their demise when their Sabre fighters collided over the village of Faulquemont, not far from the Wing. The Honour Guard and Firing Party were bussed to the cemetery which was about 30 kilometres from 2 Wing and near the city of Nancy. The cemetery dated back to WW1, with 461 Commonwealth dead from WW2 and eventually a total of 276 military from the Cold War years.
At any given funeral, the routine was the same. The Honour Guard with white webbing was formed up with rifled airmen at "attention" and lining both sides of the walkway from the entrance into the cemetery. On the arrival of the hearse and entourage, the command to "present arms" was given as the procession moved through the Honour Guard and on to the grave-site.
The Rifle Firing Party
The Rifle Firing Party, comprising of about 15 airmen with black webbing and rifles loaded with three rounds of blank ammunition, was positioned about 75 feet to the rear of the grave-site. This ceremonial act goes back to the European dynastic wars when fighting ceased so the dead and wounded could be removed from the battlefield. Then three shots were fired into the air signifying the battle could resume.
After the Padre had delivered his ritual, it was our turn to salute the deceased with a volley of gunfire. Rifles butts were placed on top of the right shoulder (which was a very awkward position) and at the command "fire", there erupted a staccato roar not unlike a string of firecrackers. One rifle was fired, then another, when the entire volley should have sounded like one. When the three volleys were fired, it inevitably upset the tranquillity of the ceremony. We never practised before the funeral and some airmen just could not master the art of synchronized firing.
As I stood "at ease" watching the conclusion of my first ceremony, I counted the beautiful white stone crosses of the post war graves, which numbered 39 and pondered who they all were and how they met their fate. I was eventually moved from the Firing Party to the Honour Guard for the balance of my four year tour, attending most of the funerals originating from 2 (F) Wing. When I departed France in April 1959, another 93 casualties had been added to the cemetery roll call.
Originally, Chambiere French National Cemetery in Metz was selected as the 1 Air Division, Cold War burial ground and the planners estimated about 6-8 deaths annually. The actual number was more than double the estimated amount and rapidly out-stripped the cemetery's capacity to accommodate them. As the result, the 19 burials that had already taken place were exhumed in August and September 1954 by the French Army (strongly fortified with rum), moved via flat bed truck to the expanded RCAF cemetery at Choloy and re-interred.
The white crosses do not tell the story of their demise. I knew some of the deceased personally, worked with others and heard stories about how some from other Wings met their untimely end. Many fatalities were the result of aircraft and motor vehicle accidents. There were two drownings, one known suicide, two airmen died from being sucked up the intake of the F-86 Sabre. Another was killed in a range accident and some died from natural causes. The first male death was LAC Furois of 3 (F) Wing on 8 May 1953, the cause undocumented. The first female was LAW JG Phillipe who was killed with F/O BC Burns, as the result of a motorcycle accident as they left 3 (F) Wing on 30 May 1953. The last burial in Choloy was MCpl Cory on 29 April 1983, cause of death unknown.
Editor's Note: This timely article by Don Norrie provides us with an excellent reminder of the almost 1000 RCAF personnel who gave their lives in on-duty accidents during the Cold War - many of them interred in Choloy. Let us not forget.