It’s possible Les Corkum lives on because of some dirty laundry.
Corkum enlisted in the Air Force in 1942, at the age of 20, with high hopes of serving as a pilot in the Second World War.
“The war was going backwards,” the soon-to-be 90-year-old Falmouth resident recalls. “The war was going bad.”
The Chester native was working as a machinist in New Glasgow when he decided to join the service.
“You had to do what you had to do. It was a duty — that’s all there was to it,” he says.
“For instance, if I hadn’t of joined up, and the war was over with, as far as I’m concerned I wouldn’t wanna look at the other fellas in the face.”
Death at a training school
His dreams of becoming a pilot may have been short lived once medical officers found evidence of an abscess that formed in one of his ears as a child, but Corkum wasn’t grounded throughout his entire career as an aero engine mechanic atthe Service Flying Training School in Dauphin, Manitoba.
A young test pilot from Prince Edward Island, known to Corkum simply as Mac, frequently allowed his fellow Maritimer to play co-pilot for test flights conducted to ensure aircrafts were ready for student use.
“I was working day shift on maintenance and nights I’d go with him,” Corkum remembers.
“I never ever took off or landed, but as soon as we’d get off the ground he’d say take her over… so I was coming along alright.”
Corkum says sitting beside Mac for the last run of the night — the joy ride — proved to be both exhilarating and terrifying as the test pilots engaged in mock dog fights and hedge hopping stunts.
“Many times I’d get after him and say, ‘Oh you’re getting too close, watch the port side.’”
The evening runs always ended with Mac promising Corkum another trip.
One night “he said, ‘See you tomorrow night, and I said, ‘No, tomorrow night… I gotta go to Dauphin to get my laundry,” Corkum recalls.
“He said, ‘OK, see you the next night.’”
The night he skipped out on a flying trip with Mac to fetch his clean laundry is one Corkum vividly remembers 70 years later.
“I came through the guard house and I sensed that there was something wrong and about that time I saw Jimmy Hines running towards me… and he said, ‘I’m glad to see you Corky.’”
Hines pointed to billowing smoke in the distance, and informed Corkum that his friend’s aircraft collided with another plane.
“They had been dog fighting and locked two wings and both of them went down in a farmer’s yard.”
The pilots’ colleagues rushed to their aid, but neither survived.
“That knocked the spunk out of my flying a bit,” Corkum confides, with a pause.
“I didn’t really look forward to flying much after that.”
Corkum says Mac’s death took a toll on his morale, but he had to carry on with business as usual.
“If I’d have been with him I probably would have prevented it,” he suggests.
“You don’t bounce back; you [just] don’t think about it.”
A last request denied
Rather than dwelling on the harsh realities of war, Corkum focused on his task duties as an aircraft inspector.
“Every aircraft in the station, whether it flew or not… was inspected every 24 hours. We were the last say as to whether the aircraft was air worthy for the students.”
Corkum says pilots hailing from the British Commonwealth were trained at the facility in Manitoba because it was a safe distance from the war zone.
But the training pilots were not immune to the psychological impacts of war, no matter how far they were from the battlefields.
On what Corkum remembers as a “beautiful, prairie evening,” an English pilot in training close to banking enough hours in the air to graduate asked Corkum to ground his plane for the evening.
“I said that would be highly irregular.”
The young pilot insisted, telling Corkum he didn’t feel up to flying his designated aircraft that evening.
“He said it had a bad oil slick — they all did to a point. It wasn’t dangerous, but didn’t look good. It had oil in both motors right to the tail.”
Corkum initially obliged, and grounded the plane, but was quickly confronted by his supervisor, who showed little remorse for the anxious pilot.
“He said drop what you’re doing and get that thing in the air.”
Corkum watched as the “deeply disturbed” pilot became airborne for the last time.
“I went to the hangar door and looked out and he was at the far end of the runway and… coming towards… the hangar.
“He got about couple hundred feet off the ground, just over the hangar and both motors cut.”
The plane crashed in a nearby field and “burnt up” on impact, Corkum says. As the inspector who gave the go ahead for the aircraft to be used, Corkum’s performance was under investigation for about a week, during which time he was unable to leave the station.
“That night of the crash they grilled me pretty heavy.”
In the end, investigators determined the cause of the crash to be pilot error. Corkum says the fuel selector valve was positioned halfway between two tanks and, he suspects, a rushed take-off may have led to the accident.
“I only guessed he didn’t do a cockpit check before take-off.”
Corkum still wonders what was weighing on the pilot’s mind that night, and how the young man’s family would react if they knew the story behind his death. But it’s unlikely they’ll hear it from Corkum.
“I didn’t even know his name — I didn’t even know his nickname.”
The finals days before discharge
Corkum was transferred to Moncton and Pennfield, New Brunswick when the war started winding down in 1945.
“Up until this time I had figured it would be a 50/50 chance whether I returned home or not and, at this time, I’m sort of at a turning point.”
The plan was to avoid risks and return to Nova Scotia once the war ended, but the leading aircraftman soon found himself stepping up for a mission no one else wanted.
“They wanted a flight engineer from Moncton and I said, ‘I’m not volunteering, I’m not volunteering.’ They announced it a number of times and I felt I better go after awhile.”
“I don’t normally think back. You don’t gain much by thinking back, you’ve gotta look forward.” - Les Corkum
An officer handed Corkum a parachute — a piece of safety gear that was commonly referred to as a “flying casket” — to use for his last military mission.
“I almost positively refused. I really wanted to refuse but, on the other hand, I didn’t want that to be on my record.”
Corkum says there was no turning back once he realized why no one volunteered for the job. He was already high above the earth, en route from Pennfield toMoncton, when the pilot of the plane he was in asked for an update on their fuel situation.
“There wasn’t enough fuel in that damn thing to light a cigarette.”
Shortly thereafter Corkum learned he was one half of a duo tasked with taking the aircraft to be retired.
“I didn’t know it was a graveyard flight,” he said, noting that they managed to pull off an emergency landing.
“That was the last time I was in the air for the military.”
The war in hindsight
Corkum says his time in the military was not all doom, gloom and near death experiences.
There was that one Christmas the boys stationed at the training school in Dauphin pooled their resources to have a little holiday celebration.
“We had a good party. It was one of the best Christmases I ever had in a way.”
Corkum snuck some moonshine he acquired in town past a lenient guard as a treat for his comrades and he fondly recalls the prank pulled on a fellow by the name of Mick McQuaid when he had “a little bit too much.”
McQuaid’s friends decorated his sleeping quarters for the holidays when he passed out and posted a hand-written poem at the foot of his bed.
“Here lies the remains of Mick McQuaid, who drank panther piss instead of lemonade,” Corkum recites with a laugh.
Corkum says it was the only grand celebration he recalls from his days at the training school.
When he was discharged, he returned to Nova Scotia to marry Betty Dill, raise a family and have a long career assuming many managerial roles with the Department of Lands and Forests.
Corkum, a Nova Scotia Christmas Tree “Wall of Fame” inductee, was instrumental in the formation of the Lunenburg County Christmas Tree Producers Association and the Nova Scotia Forest Technicians Association, served on the Nova Scotia Christmas Tree Council and was named an honorary member of theCanadian Chestnut Council.
A member of the Royal Canadian Legion in Windsor, Corkum says he learned the value of discipline, organization and loyalty in the Second World War and, of course, “the value of grease.”
While he often marvels at how much was built and accomplished by the military during the Second World War, Corkum says he tries keep his mind off of the war.
“I don’t normally think back. You don’t gain much by thinking back, you’ve gotta look forward.”