Longhurst: When the graduates went to war

Mar 18, 2019 by

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In April, a new group of students will graduate from Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg, Man., for lives of service, leadership and reconciliation in church and society.

John Longhurst

Longhurst

But 75 years ago, when students graduated from the campus now occupied by CMU, they had a different purpose: to go to war.

From 1941 to 1944, CMU’s campus was home to Wireless School No. 3, part of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan.

Through the Plan, more than 130,000 personnel were trained at 151 schools across Canada to fight the air war against Nazi Germany.

Prior to becoming the Wireless School, the campus was the Manitoba Deaf School. After being requisitioned by the military, about 2,800 young men from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain and the United States trained there to become wireless air gunners in Bomber Command.

A roster from Dec. 1, 1942, shows there were 587 Canadians, 227 New Zealanders, 74 Australians and four from Great Britain at the school.

After graduating from their 24-week course, students went to other locations in Canada for four-week courses in gunnery. After that, they shipped out to the war.

Many of them never returned home. Of the 125,000 who flew with Bomber Command during the war 55,573 were killed — at 44 percent, the highest death rate of any allied branch of service in World War II.

To put it another way, as many as 1,200 of the 2,800 who graduated from Wireless School No. 3 in Winnipeg could have been killed in the fighting.

A photo taken in 1941 is a case in point. It shows 10 young men, nine of them from Australia, horsing around in the snow — a novelty to them — on the now-CMU campus.

According to the Australian War Memorial website, seven of the nine young Australians in the photo were killed in action.

After the war, the campus became a teacher’s college from 1946 to 1965. It then reverted to its original purpose as a school for the deaf from 1965 to 1996. CMU purchased it in 2000.

Today, the campus is a peaceful place. There is no hint of the military studies that took place there so long ago.

But twice while I worked there, from 2005 to 2009, old men came to the campus asking if they could look around. They had once been wireless air gunner students at the school, studying for war.

I was happy to accompany them as they slowly walked the campus, remembering old times, old lessons and old friends gone far too soon.

In April, as the class of 2019 graduates, they will depart CMU for peaceful careers as teachers, doctors, lawyers, musicians, aid workers, clergy and many other professions.

It’s quite a contrast to 75 years ago, when a different set of graduates left to go to war.

John Longhurst is a freelance writer and communications and marketing consultant in Winnipeg, Man.


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