If you happened to be near campus last Thursday, you would have seen a “Lancaster” and a “Chipmunk” – two vintage warplanes from the World War 2 era circling the campus. They were here to honour UCC old boy John Weir, whose memorial service took place in Laidlaw Hall that afternoon.
I remember meeting John a few years ago. Like many of the men of “the greatest generation,” he was modest and self-effacing, despite the fact that he was a genuine Canadian war hero.
John served as a fighter pilot during the war and was shot down over France. As his plane exploded at 25,000 feet, John was badly burned before he ejected. By the time he landed, he was nearly blind and soon found himself in a German prisoner of war camp.
Think about that for a minute: Your plane explodes. You suffer horrible injuries and facial burns. You’ve lost your eyesight. And you are captured by the Nazis. Some of us may have had a bad day or two, but how many of us in our darkest dreams could ever have imagined what John endured?
But John Weir was resilient. During his time in captivity, he was one of the brave and resilient souls who engineered “The Great Escape.” Steve McQueen had nothing on him.
It’s easy enough for me to talk about character and courage from the safety of my prep school bunker, but all of us must wonder from time to time, how we’d actually measure up in times of crises. John returned to Canada and lived the rest of his life with the quiet knowledge that half a century ago he had passed the ultimate test in a way that leaves the rest of us still with a profound sense of gratitude and awe.
Here is a short excerpt of John’s describing what happened to him when his plane was hit: