Story of a Hero Told by Kitchener Head to Granddaughter
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Anna Marie, here is the story of my Uncle Grant. Grant A. Cahoon was a good uncle and a friend and was always my hero, even before he went to war. This story is as I remember it. My memories seem clear and correct, but I know that after this many years the things I “remember so well” may not be exactly as they were. For instance, I “remember” that his plane reached Scotland and that he died on Scottish soil. When I did a little research I find that he died on English soil. So you see other things I remember may not be exactly as they were. At least this: my Uncle Grant died a hero, and, my age being a consideration, I hope to meet him soon.
Grant Cahoon was born 7 June 1917, in Cardston, Alberta, Canada, and died, 10 February 1945. He died coming back from a bombing run over Germany in the crash of his riddled Lancaster (I think) bomber. The big battered, exhausted plane, which Grant was piloting, came down in the fields of Wetherby, Yorkshire West Riding, England. He was buried in a military cemetery in nearby Clifton.
Uncle Grant grew up on a ranch in the Cardston, Leavitt area where the foothills of the Canadian Rockies meet the great prairie lands of Southern Alberta. He grew up in a large, friendly, religious and musical family where work (called “the chores”) was the way of life even before school age, and the dinner table was always loaded, and the parlor rang with song. He was a hardy, tough young man, always willing to do his share, and more.
Grant was one of my favorite uncles. He was fun and playful but at the same time intense in his activities, work or play. He was born a half generation ahead of me but I have very vivid memories. He was a slight young man but could wrangle the biggest work teams, put them in harness and hitch them to any piece of ranch equipment. He was my second youngest uncle, but seemed pretty grown up and knew a lot about the things that interested me, like gophers and snakes, spugs that covered their nest with a thatched roof and blackbirds that didn’t. He knew about the swimming hole down on 27, in the bend of the big rocks, and the hillside on Uncle Joe’s place, down east of Coyote Hill, where the uncles buried the winter’s snow under the straw so Grandma and the aunts could make ice cream all summer.
Uncle Grant lived at our home in Cardston for a time while he finished high school. I recall when a rival boxing team came to town, and our team didn’t have a man in the weight of their prime boxer who would fight him. Uncle Grant declared he would. I recall the match. Uncle Grant was outweighed by twenty pounds and outreached by 6 inches (those are the numbers I heard) and got beaten badly enough so that I had tears. But Uncle Grant never went down and he didn’t stop fighting and was a hero in the town, a hero to the family and a hero to me. I knew that night that my Uncle Grant was “special and tough.”
In the late 1930’s Adolph Hitler’s Panzer Divisions began to blitzkrieg through Europe and a kind of black foreboding settled over all the world; so in 1939, the British Empire went to war. Young Canadians joined up in huge numbers but the boys who worked the farms and ranches were given deferments. My dad, Nephi Lawrence Head and his brother, John, and two uncles on my mother’s side, Albert and Lervae Cahoon, joined the Royal Canadian Air Force and, with boys from all over Southern Alberta, began to go off to the war.
Grandpa’s ranch was about 2000 acres and lots of work and he asked Uncle Grant to stay home to help, which he agreed to do. Then another uncle, Leon, who was a teacher and married with a son, was called up by the draft, and Grant said, Hey I’m not married, let me go. The draft board just needed men and they were happy with that and agreed; I remember how Grandma cried. Uncle Grant took his training in military bases and aerodromes across Canada and ended up as a Bombardier on a Lancaster (I think) Bomber and went to England.
Grandma and Grandpa never quit worrying and were never easy about Grant being in the war so far from home. I recall that Grandpa, no matter where he was working would come to the ranch house each noon, sit down to a meal (we called the noon meal “dinner” back then), and after the meal Grandma would stand in the kitchen door, twisting her apron, and Grandpa would hunch over in his rocking chair by the “secretary” (a tall desk with a flat door that dropped down over a few cubby holes and a small desk top) and put his ear against a small crackling radio and they would listen to the “war news.” The news came in short bursts, afternoons and evenings, across the prairie, from CJOC, Lethbridge, and CFCN, Calgary, and was either CBC or BBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation or British Broadcasting Corporation). Grandpa would get up after the news and walk out of the house and Grandma would go back to the kitchen. They were deeply brooding and it always made me feel frightened.
In England the Canadian squadrons flew missions out across the English Channel into Europe. Where they went depended on where they were most needed; usually they just hit targets in Germany. It was pretty risky duty because the German anti aircraft fire was deadly and the German fighter planes were always there, harassing and killing.
Uncle Grant wrote letters and talked about England and mentioned some pretty girls who were Church members. Censors opened and read every serviceman’s mail before it was allowed to be sent home, and sometimes his letters would have their black ink spread across what they considered too much information. He always sounded happy and in good spirits.
On a February day in 1945 I was at the ranch house under Coyote Hill. I don’t know what the occasion was because it was no holiday and there was always school in Cardston, which I never missed. It may have been a Sunday. Grandma and Grandpa had been gone in the 1937 Ford truck. I saw them come up the dirt track and turn down by the windbreak, stop the truck and get out. I watched them walk through the trees and I knew something was really wrong. I stepped off of the path through the garden and stood quietly as they walked by. Grandma was crying just a little and Grandpa looked really bad and I felt something terrible was coming. One of my aunts was there, I don’t remember which one, and she told me that they had just been delivered a telegram. Grant had been killed several days before.
Uncle Grant was not coming home. He wouldn’t be there any more. I don’t remember anything else that was said. I do remember that I walked out to the barn and crawled up into the hayloft and cried.
A few days before, in England, the squadron had been on the usual mission. Over Germany, Uncle Grant’s Lancaster had been hit by something, I have no idea what, but it was badly damaged and several of the crew were wounded and I think one or two had been killed. Uncle Grant was wounded but alive. The pilot was trying to get the plane back to England before it crashed. The plane could still fly, but, for whatever reason, could not be landed.
The pilot was a man from Southern Alberta and in fact he and Grant had known each other as kids. The name Spackman comes to mind but I don’t know if he was the pilot or not; but Spackman was from Southern Alberta and, as I remember it, he was on the crew. When the plane had crossed back over the channel, and was over England, the pilot told the crew, those who could, to bail out and he would hold the plane steady until they got off, and then he would try to leave the controls and himself get off. That pilot later told my uncles, including Uncle Lervae, that Grant said, “Look at me man, I can’t bail out.” I have no idea if it was because of wounds or a damaged parachute. What I do know was that Uncle Grant got into the pilot’s seat and held the plane steady while the pilot and the living crew members left the plane.
The Lancaster crashed in Wetherby, England. I don’t know if it ran out of fuel or simply quit flying, but I have wondered many times what thoughts went through my young uncle’s mind as he watched the ground coming closer and closer. I wonder if he thought of Grandma and cried a little or perhaps, when it was so obvious what was about to happen, did he look forward to the end of this life, and the beginning of the next?