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May 06, 2009

"Who Guided Us Here?"

“It’s not every day that you read a book that tells you the name of the person who killed your father, and gives photos and details.”

These are the words Australian architect Mike Alexander (above right) wrote in an e-mail to Salt Spring resident John McMahon (Paddy Mac) on October 30, 2008. He was referring to McMahon’s self-published autobiography, Almost a Lifetime, a harrowing tale of beating the odds in a feature film-type plot that includes parachuting from a crashing Lancaster bomber, German PoW camps, a death march, an unknown woman instrumental to his survival and now an unlikely reunion.

Alexander, 65, never met his father because Leopold G. Alexander (pictured left) was killed four months before his only son was born. His father was a 30-year-old RAF gunner flying out of Lincolnshire, England in a Lancaster Mk III, ED440 (EA-L) heading for Cologne, Germany. He was part of a seven-man crew on their first operation. They were shot down at 9:30 pm on February 2, 1943 by a famous German fighter pilot: Werner Streib. All but one crew member died.

McMahon, the sole survivor, was the flight engineer, and the last person to see ‘Leo’ Alexander alive.

“I can still remember watching the pilot trying to control the aircraft,” said McMahon. I hung on for as long as I could. My fingers were clinging. One of my legs was stuck. The escape hatch was open. I remember saying ‘God’. Then, somehow, my foot released from the stuck boot and I was sucked out of the hatch.” He had donned his parachute shortly before when he got up to check fuel levels.

Sitting in his son’s Salt Spring home, McMahon, 88, still has the twinkle in his aging Irish eyes. He recounts the events as if a few months - not 65 years – have passed.

“On my way down, just before landing, I heard a dog bark. I saw a door. I never passed out. It was dark. It was raining hard and the winds” he said, “they were strong enough to pick up the parachute again and drag me.” He thought he had landed in Germany. Fearing for his life, he dug a hole with his bare hands, buried the parachute and began staggering down a narrow road, missing a boot and in shock.

“I saw cyclists coming towards me and I rolled into the ditch. As I was crawling out I saw two more cyclists – a boy and a girl – they yelled out, ‘You’re in Holland.’” They helped him to their parents’ home. Shortly after, German soldiers arrived, then German air force guys who treated him well. “The village policeman notified them,” he said. “What would you do if you knew that you’d get 3 months food for your children for turning in the enemy?” McMahon was taken for two more years.

Visiting Canada for the first time, Mike Alexander says for most of his life he felt different from his mother and his step siblings. “I knew when my mother and stepfather were gone that I wanted to find out who I was. The only way I could do that was to find out more about my father,” says the lanky man who strongly resembles the wartime photo of his father posted online. Alexander’s mother remarried when he was two years old and rarely spoke of the past.

One day, in 2006, he Googled Royal Air Force 49 Squadron. He found a paragraph describing the fatal mission. One crew member was listed as PoW. Alexander couldn’t believe it. He’d assumed they’d all died. He then contacted the Squadron to enquire and a researcher named Colin Cripps called him back. “I hope you’re sitting down,” he said. He’s alive,” referring to McMahon.

A continent away, McMahon received a call at 10:00 pm. “Are you the John McMahon who lived at 12 Century Street, Belfast, Ireland?” Cripps wanted to verify McMahon’s identity prior to making e-mail introductions between the two.

Sitting in the dining room of his son’s home near Vesuvius Bay, two days after an emotional meeting, McMahon asks rhetorically, “Who guided us here?” Alexander seconds that. “Something; someone higher had a hand in this,” said the man who isn’t particularly religious but called the miraculous reunion that took place at Victoria International Airport last Friday as “inevitable” the moment he learned of McMahon’s existence.

McMahon likes to think that his mother (who died when he was four) has some part in the extraordinary tale; as if every “coincidence” [and there are many] was predestined.

Alexander and his wife Lynne are enjoying Salt Spring this week before carrying on to England, then Holland. They discovered that the 49th Squadron is having a June reunion to which they have been invited. They’ll also make a trip to the crew’s gravesites at Jonkerbos War Cemetary and to the place where the Lancaster crashed in Holland; places that McMahon and his son Jim have already seen. The Canadian father and son (Jim’s only one-week into retirement from BC Hydro) have travelled together extensively and met countless people as a result of their research.

If there has been a higher power in this story, one can’t help but think that Alexander’s father could not have chosen two better men to help his only son get to know him.

Story by story, the little boy inside the Australian man, is beginning to know a father he never had through a Canadian father and son who seem to have the kind of relationship that Mike Alexander could only ever dream about.

It's not often that I write a story that makes me cry. When I wrote the last paragraph of this story, it made me cry perhaps because meeting them in person brings this story alive. It's in The Driftwood today.


Joyce Sandilands said...

Thanks so much for posting this ... I was adding John's book to my Goodreads Account and found you! I met John back in 2005 near Victoria and was intrigued by him and his amazing story. Being an author too, we traded books and I couldn't put it down. He is an amazing survivalist and I was so glad he shared his inspirational story.

This post was particularly interesting because of Mike Alexander's discovery of McMahon. I have a similar story but am still looking for a certain man in NZ whom my dad saved his life by taking his place in a flight that crashed, killing all on board. Mike's discovery brought me to tears and I thank you all for sharing.

Gayle Mavor said...

Hi Joyce,
Thanks for sharing. John is quite the survivor and he has got the Irish storyteller in those Irish genes.
I hope that you find the man that your father "saved" if he's still alive. I don't have any brilliant insights on what avenues you might take.
All the best to you.

Jan Nieuwenhuis said...

Just to let you know that I've just added the crash of Lancaster ED440 into my "World War II Allied Aircraft crashes in The Netherlands" database which is available via http://www.airwar4045.nl
Any comments and/or remarks on the data is highly appreciated!
Greetings from Holland.

Gayle Mavor said...

Thank you. I'll check it out. And your email made me read what I wrote and it still chokes me up in the end.