Flight Sergeant Arnold Graham and his cousin’s husband, Mark Bredin, flipped a coin.
The Royal Canadian Air Force had ordered the two men to split up, saying relatives could not serve on the same Lancaster bomber. Bredin lost the toss and went to join another crew.
The day after — March 16, 1945 — Bredin’s plane was shot down in a night raid over Germany. Graham, from his place in the top turret of another Lancaster, watched the stricken bomber explode and fall from the sky. He caught sight of its fuselage number out of the corner of his eye as fire engulfed the plane, and thought it was Bredin’s Lancaster.
“It just blew up and nobody got out of it,” Graham said.
His sense of dread was confirmed when he returned to base in Skipton-on-Swale, in northern Yorkshire, to learn that Bredin and his crew had been reported missing.
Graham was 18 years old and flying his first mission.
“It was a tough raid, a scary one,” Graham said of the raid on a German oil refinery in the small town of Heide, near the North Sea.
Before he joined up, his mother bought him a 50 cent pocket Bible, just as she had done with all six of his brothers who went into the service during the Second World War.
At 93, the Lakefield, Ont. resident is one of the last surviving members of Bomber Command. His recollections of the savage air combat — including the day he shot down a Me262, the Luftwaffe’s first mass-produced jet fighter — are still vivid and riveting.
It was years before he talked to his cousin about the raid that killed her husband.
As they approached Heide, he saw the “fireworks” of anti-aircraft rounds streaking toward them. An anxious Graham grasped the grip of the machine gun in his turret too tightly.
“I just squeezed the trigger and bullets were flying out of my gun, right over top of my rear gunner’s head,” he said.
“Oh, God. I was scared, scared stiff. Didn’t know what to do.”
His job was to take on enemy night fighters, which would “come at you from every angle, above you, below you, straight at you.”
For bomber crews, survival meant reaching the target, dropping the payload and getting clear as quickly as possible. Graham watched in awe as the bombs hit their targets in the 15th century town sprawled beneath them.
“The sky just turned red, purple and all different colours,” he said. “They must have hit the oil because it sure quite a sight.”
Every mission was cold — miserably cold. The turret had no heat and Graham would sit there sometimes for seven hours at a stretch.
He said he can still remember the exhilaration of coming back alive from a night-time raid and watching the dawn break over the English coast. “Look ahead!” the pilot said.
“I said, ‘What’s that?’ He said, ‘The White Cliffs of Dover.’ Well, I started to cry and said, ‘We’re gonna make it home tonight, I know.'”
And after every mission to come, when the English coast appeared again in the distance, Graham would tell the crew, “God saved us again.”
All of his combat missions were conducted with the same crew. They’d send him Christmas cards after the war referring to him by his nickname, “Porky”. The spiky military haircut atop his 125 pound frame made him look like a porcupine; the name stuck for decades.
The joke was reinforced when he was assigned to 433 Squadron — the Porcupines (so named because the unit had been adopted by the Porcupine District of Northern Ontario).
His memory, seven-and-a-half decades later, is refreshed by his mission logbook: detailed, precise notes of his life-and-death struggle over 18 combat missions.
Even without the journal, the Heide raid is indelibly seared into his memory. He still dreams about it.
“Not a night goes by when I don’t dream about the war,” said Graham, quick to add that not all of his dreams are nightmares.
Moments of terror, near-collisions and visions of being shot mingle in his dreams with happier memories and feelings — the end of the war, the faces of long-dead friends, the soaring sense of freedom that comes with being young, flying above the clouds and living on a knife’s edge.
The dreams have become as much a part of his life as any daily routine — and he gives you the sense that he would somehow miss them if they were to suddenly cease.
“Every night. Hard to believe, but that was my life,” he said.
All of Graham’s brothers survived the war — a stroke of good fortune he attributes his mother, Clara, her prayers and the Bibles she gave each of them.
“I’m not religious, but that little Bible saved my life,” said Graham.
He came home married, had two children and worked in the insurance business for most of his life. The Bible he carried through 18 missions stayed in the family.
“I gave it to my daughter and she’s got beside her bed on a table,” Graham said.
“Before she goes to bed every night, she touches it and says, ‘Thank you, Dad. I love you.'”