Prince Edward County’s Newspaper of Record
June 16, 2024
23° Partly Cloudy

Picture Perfect

There’s a large group photo tucked inside a hallway at the Sergeants Mess Hall at Base31.

A group of 30 soon-to-be graduates of the No. 31 Bombing and Gunnery School have abandoned their daily classes, on bomb-dropping and aerial machine gunnery, to pick up some hockey sticks and play a game of shinny.

Would-be air crew members, gleaming gents from across Canada and the United Kingdom, smiling, momentarily preoccupied with leisurely pursuits, not the death-defying missions awaiting in the skies over Germany. 

In their efforts to revitalize this former WWII installation into a world-class, multi-faceted destination, the partners behind Base31 have done a remarkable job honouring what was once Camp Picton. Everywhere you turn, there’s a photograph, or a road sign, or a lofty hall that reminds of the past.

I’ve taken the opportunity in this column to remember my grandfather, Don Ostrander, and his efforts in western Europe during the second World War. 

But there’s another side of the family contribution to the Allied war effort.

I hadn’t really thought about my Great Uncle Dean much until I found myself in a draughty auxiliary hanger at the Base earlier this spring. In front of me were the pieces of a Canadian-built Avro Lancaster bomber, which I learned would form the centrepiece of a huge new museum. That museum will document the No. 31 Bombing and Gunnery school as well as its later lives, as home to the Royal Canadian School of Artillery and the 1st Battalion of the Canadian Guards.

Taking a peek inside the cockpit of KB 882, I couldn’t help but think of the pilots, and of my Great Uncle Dean, who spent most of the war training fliers at British Commonwealth Air Training Plan bases across Canada.

Whereas my grandfather was a jackknife of a soldier, his brother was a finely tuned instrument. If those two Bloomfield farm boys wanted to go to war together and fight the Germans side-by-side, those designs were quickly dashed. Dean showed great aptitude as an RCAF trainer, carefully instructing pilots that would soon fly Hawker Hurricanes and Supermarine Spitfires in the Battle of Britain, among other air battles over western Europe.

While the skies over England were treacherous, training in Canada could also be deadly. Training missions turned fatal happened at No. 31 just like they did everywhere else. Dean had his own brush with death while flying with a student pilot at a training base in Aylmer. Something went wrong with the Harvard trainer and the engine cut out. Dean frantically tried to fix the problem and at the last moment, realized it was hopeless. He bailed out at the last possible second. For the student, it was too late.

“He was so close to earth that when the parachute opened up, it only swung once and he was on the ground,” his son, Dr. Rob Ostrander, told me. “Dad was so shaken about the student’s death he had to take a few days off to collect himself. It makes me think that it is a miracle that I am here today.”

Dean always knew his role in the war effort was vital, but that didn’t mean he didn’t dream, like all those other very young men, of putting his skills to the ultimate test. “He requested more than once to go to England and shoot down Nazi fighters but the RCAF turned him down. He was too valuable training pilots in Canada,” Rob added. 

“No doubt Dad could have been an ‘ace’ pilot with several trophies, but I am glad he did not get a chance to become that kind of a hero.”

Dean Ostrander was gregarious and chock full of life. 

Near the end of the war, he dropped in on his cousin Keith MacDonald for a surprise visit. Piloting a trainer over County skies, likely on his way between No. 1 Flying School in Trenton and the Mohawk landing field, Dean spied 15-year-old Keith driving about two miles per hour, pulling a two-furrow plow in the middle of a field between Sandbanks and Outlet. The flight instructor dove for the deck and came up right behind the field hand just 20 feet from the ground.

Keith told me he was “as white as sheet” for days after Dean “scared the bejesus out of me.”

“He came up to the end of the field along County Rd. 12 where there are two big maple trees 100 feet apart. He lifted the plane up to about 50 feet in the air, tilted the wings ever so gently, split between the trees and took off into the sky,” Keith told me recently. 

“It was about a week’s worth of excitement packed into 20 seconds.”

While he loved life on the ground, Dean was always more at home behind the controls of an aircraft. He would go on to pilot jumbo jets in the 1960’s for KLM. In fact, he held the record for the quickest flight between Honolulu and London for a number of years. At the end of his career, he was Max Ward’s right hand man; there was nary a Boeing in the Wardair fleet Dean hadn’t checked. The Bloomfield plowboy loved the life of a commercial airline pilot in the 1960’s and 70’s. 

West Lake’s Dean and Don Ostrander prior to deployment in 1941.

My great uncle died after a brief battle with cancer in 1992.

By this time next year, County residents are going to be able to visit Base31’s museum, and see artifacts that will connect us to a time when this community was home to thousands of soldiers, training to take their place in the Allied effort and push the Nazis back. Democracy and freedom hung in the balance high in the skies over Europe. The young men training in Prince Edward County and elsewhere in Canada were on their way to “take up our quarrel with the foe,” as the poem says.

This summer, I’ll cover one of the concerts inside the Drill Hall and the music will carry me to some sentimental place. I’ll gaze at the floor and see the markings where soldiers once performed their drills. I’ll look up into the rafters and wonder if, in the quiet moments, I might hear an echo of 1942, when the world was on its edge. I’ll think about Don and Dean Ostrander, and how they set their hay forks down at Village View Farms and signed up with the Royal Canadian Air Force. And I’ll give a silent “hey men, thanks”— with apologies to one-time County resident Gord Downie.

That’s what the redevelopment of the former base means to me. One of very few former training camps still standing, we are blessed here to see No. 31 at once reimagined and preserved as a historic site, and a place for leisurely pursuits, not unlike those enjoyed by the young bombers-turned-hockey-players for an afternoon, smiling at the camera, frozen in time on the wall of the Mess Hall.

The complete realization of the freedom those smiling faces fought so hard, and lost so much, for.

This text is from the Volume 194 No. 20 edition of The Picton Gazette
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