Meet Cecil Thompson: 'Fear doesn't come into it' (photos)Thursday, January 02, 2014 by: Rick McGee
In today’s change-prone world, young people are advised to expect several career changes during their lifetime.
But that trend isn’t nearly as new as it sounds.
A longtime Saultite living at the Collegiate Heights Retirement Residence provides abundant proof.
Cecil Thompson, now 89, experienced a fascinating variety of jobs and experiences during his working years, which included overseas service with the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) during World War ll.
He first arrived in town from Saskatchewan in 1940.
“There was no money out west,” the war veteran recalled. “I was driving a truck for $30 a month. I originally came east to work in a Nobel munitions plant.”
But he ended up in Sault Ste. Marie where an aunt and uncle lived.
Cecil’s first impressions weren’t exactly positive.
“I remember coming into the Sault by train and you couldn’t see anything but smoke. There was smoke everywhere.”
The main sources were Algoma Steel, the paper mill and the chrome plant.
Despite the air conditions, Cecil stayed and a new job soon presented itself.
“I was only in the Sault two or three days and went to work with McLarty Bros. and Brodie putting an addition on the side of St. Andrew’s United Church where there had been a big fire,” Cecil noted.
He later worked for Cochrane Hardware which had warehouses on Bay street, in addition to its store on the northwest corner of Queen and Elgin streets.
Wartime service would also beckon.
“I had been in the Soo and Sudbury Regiment but had feet problems,” Cecil recalled. “So then I went to North Bay to enlist in the air force. I joined up and went to Winnipeg for training as an AEM [Air Engineer Mechanic].”
Further training followed back in Ontario and on a return to Manitoba (Dauphin) before Cecil shipped out to Europe aboard the Ile de France in 1944.
While in England he was stationed at the RAF Tholthorpe and RAF Wombleton airfields.
Shown below is the former control tower (converted into a house in 1995) at the former RAF Tholthopre site.
Surviving German air attacks
Working on Lancasters (an example is shown below), Wellingtons and Mosquito bombers meant Cecil had to think fast during air raids by the Luftwaffe.
“Fear doesn’t come into it,” he said. “You do what you have to do to survive.”
One German attack began while he was fueling a bomber and standing on its wing.
Reacting quickly, Cecil threw a screwdriver to knock out a blue light that had made him even more vulnerable.
He ended up falling off the wing and hurting himself in the process.
Cecil survived by crawling into a ditch that afforded protection.
He was subsequently hospitalized for treatment of the injuries sustained.
Cecil later learned that the aircraft he had been fueling had been hit 180 times by enemy bullets.
Especially feared were low-flying German Junkers Ju 88s similar to the one shown below.
"There is an absence of the well-deserved praise for what the ground crews did to keep the aircraft in the air and the service conditions under which total air superiority was gained," said The Rev. Phil Miller, a highly respected local military historian. "While air crews suffered horrendous loses, those supporting them were also key targets of the enemy actions, with many paying the ultimate price of their life."
“I left after VE Day (Victory Europe Day on May 8, 1945) and went to the Far East draft,” Cecil said.
“I got out of the air force in the fall of 1945. As a corporal I was earning $2.25 a day. I got trades pay.”
He went on to work with the Algoma Central Railway as a fireman and a locomotive engineer.
Cecil also worked for Algoma Steel as an engineer.
A big career change followed when Cecil became owner of Routledge's flower shop for five years.
Along the way, he also built houses in the Sault and at Hawk Junction and cottages at Prince Lake.
For several years, Cecil looked after his late wife Lorna (née Beilhartz) who struggled with Alzheimer’s prior to her passing.
Cecil and Lorna had five children.
The extended family includes 11 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren.