By that time, my grandfather was already a struggling young salesman and father in Toronto. He learned of Canter’s death only years later and didn’t delve into the details until enlisting my help to tell his friend’s story. “He had quite a life,” my grandfather recalled. “The funniest thing about this guy was that he was a crier. He had balls, but he cried at the drop of a hat.”
It’s impossible to gauge what World War II did to many of the veterans who served — particularly those like my grandfather who flew in bombers. About 45 percent of the flight personnel in Canada’s wartime Bomber Command perished — approximately 10,250 in all. Between March 1943 and February 1944, the period when my grandfather was deployed, members of crews that ran a full tour of 30 bombing operations had a grim 16 percent survival rate, according to the Bomber Command Museum of Canada. Unlike their American counterparts, the Canadians and the Royal Air Force flew their missions at night. Their aircraft had no belly gunners and were at the mercy of Luftwaffe fighters that attacked from below. Whenever they lifted off on a mission, they departed with the knowledge that this sortie could easily be their last.
“The Germans used to come up from the bottom, and boom, that was it,” my grandfather told me in a rare revelation. In addition to flying in daytime, American crews flew en masse, and “they had five or six gunners in each plane, and lots of firepower, so the Germans couldn’t get close to them,” he said. The Royal Air Force and Canadian forces, by contrast, “had a terrible time.”
Even before he opened up about Canter, my grandfather’s scant stories of the war revolved around other men’s exploits. He told me about his second cousin, Alfred Brenner, a Canadian pilot whose three-man crew met a convoy of 12 German merchant ships accompanied by five destroyers and took one of the freighters out with torpedoes before being shot down. Brenner’s bomber settled into the waves, and the men escaped on a dinghy. They were picked up after drifting for two days in the North Sea near the English coast. Brenner was honored with the Distinguished Flying Cross.
My grandfather also told me about his friend Somer James, with whom he went to synagogue services when they were teenagers. James was a pacifist who avoided the army because he abhorred violence. “So he went to the merchant marine instead, which was even worse,” my grandfather said with a laugh. James found himself on a ship in Italy loaded with high explosives and moored next to a munitions depot when German bombers attacked. With fires raging on the dock, he jumped ashore and wrestled the ship free from its moorings so it could move to safety. For his actions, James received a British Empire Medal and the Lloyd’s War Medal for Bravery at Sea. “He was the only one who got those two medals for one deed,” my grandfather said.
And then there was Canter. During his months in captivity, Canter kept a prisoner-of-war log in which he took notes, drew sketches and preserved mementos. The diary — which his nephew Wayne shared with me — contains no reference to the escape, nor does it chronicle his Jewish faith, details that might have proved fatal if discovered by Nazi troops.