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'Near thing' almost did in Edmonton vet

Tony Cashman is famous for his lifelong contribution to the history of Edmonton, but less known for completing a full tour of thirty operations as the navigator in a Halifax bomber during the Second World War.
Edmonton veteran Tony Cashman went on to become Edmonton’s preeminent historian.
Edmonton veteran Tony Cashman went on to become Edmonton’s preeminent historian.

Tony Cashman is famous for his lifelong contribution to the history of Edmonton, but less known for completing a full tour of thirty operations as the navigator in a Halifax bomber during the Second World War.

Now 93, Tony was born in Edmonton on April 29, 1923. When Tony was nineteen, he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force, trained as a navigator, and was sent to England, where he “crewed up” with six other men on a mighty four-engine Handley Page Halifax. He joined No. 78 Squadron based at RAF Breighton in Yorkshire.

“We would be together until the end of the war in Europe – through the worst of times, and yet the best of times,” Tony said.

Like all bombing crews, Tony had his share of “near things,” as it was called in the RAF, meaning “close call.” Tony remembers one incident that happened while the squadron aircraft were taking off for a bombing raid.

“The takeoff from the base was always dramatic, because 26 aircraft numbered A to Z would have to get off in 15 minutes, so it was very crowded,” he explained.

“During this period, with 104 Hercules engines roaring, there was a tremendous noise. The aircraft would crawl up one by one to the end of the runway. In quick order, our Q-Queen was third in line, then second, then first, and then we were turning onto the runway, waiting for the smooth voice in the tower to say: ‘Q-Queen cleared for takeoff.'

“We were rolling, hauled forward by all four engines. The bomb aimer sitting in the co-pilot's seat controlled the four throttles. This was always quite a tense time, because you were carrying four tons of TNT, plus incendiaries, plus 2,000 gallons of volatile aviation fuel.

“I was sitting half-way back with the radio operator, and we were looking out the windows on each side. Things were going quite smoothly until I saw that we weren't leaving the runway, but the runway was leaving us!

“The outside port engine was running wild. It was pulling us into a curving path onto the field, as the body of the plane and the right wing began to come around.

“The natural inclination would be to shut down the engines and stop, but our pilot Frank Plumb had all the maturity of his 22 years. He came to the correct decision in one second. ‘Leave ‘em open!' I heard him tell the bomb aimer, Larry.

“Frank knew that if he tried to shut down, three engines would stop, but the wild engine would keep pulling us to the left. We would have gone into a ground loop. The undercarriage would collapse, and one wing would hit the ground. The tanks carrying aviation fuel would rupture, and the sparks would set off a spectacular fireball. Then our bombs would explode!

“We were heading toward the control tower across the grass, which fortunately was frozen. I saw that we were on a path to hit the control tower. Then, we missed it.

“I felt the plane lift, brushing a hedge below, then climb. At 1,000 feet the rogue engine settled down, so we continued on our way and dropped our bombs.

“When we got back to base, we heard the other side of the story. Our controller stood his ground as we bore down onto the control tower, but the deputy controller dove down the stairs and cracked his wrist.

“When Frank and I came into the mess afterward, he was sitting there with his arm in a sling, and gave us a very sour look. By the next day, like all near things, the whole episode was hilarious.”

After the war, Tony returned to Edmonton and pursued a career as journalist and radio broadcaster, publishing sixteen books of local history. He and his wife Veva had three sons.

In 2014 Tony Cashman received the Alberta Order of Excellence. It was the latest in a long line of awards, including Edmontonian of the Century in 2004, the Historical Society of Alberta annual award in 2010, and having a new Edmonton neighbourhood named after him in 2011.

Tony Cashman's story is one of 28 interviews in a new book by Canadian bestselling author Elinor Florence, titled: My Favourite Veterans: True Stories of World War Two's Hometown Heroes. It's available from her website at www.elinorflorence.com, and from Amazon.