Nijmegen team marches close to memory

An elderly man in grey, holding a small badge, stands with a large group of people in disruptive pattern uniforms.
Retired RCAF Sergeant Allen Lathem, of Greenwood, Nova Scotia, proudly displays his RCAF cap badge with members of the 14 Wing Greenwood team training for the 2018 Nijmegen Marches, to be held in late July in The Netherlands. PHOTO: Corporal Neil P. Clarkson

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By Sara White

Allen Lathem has likely watched dozens of 14 Wing Greenwood, Nova Scotia, personnel march past the end of his South Greenwood driveway over the past 40 years, training for the Nijmegen Marches challenge.

He’s been there himself, but more for the memory than putting in those miles.

Sergeant (retired) Lathem is 92 years old. He joined the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1943, leaving his tiny Seal Harbour village in Guysborough County for the recruiting office in Halifax. He was 17, and had to have his father’s permission; it was his first time in Halifax.

“My dad was a fisherman,” he says, “and I got seasick every time I went out. I knew I wanted the air force: in those days, they’d take you for anything. Everyone else was joining.”

He took up the air traffic control trade, heading to Lachine, Québec, for initial training, and then to Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, to work at one of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan airfields. He never intended to fly. “I was damned lucky to be on the ground!” he says. “I remember the Ansons were out on the field, and a pilot walked into a prop. I was one of the pallbearers; people get killed in this job, and that woke us all up.”

He worked at Summerside, Prince Edward Island, in operations and the air traffic control tower, and then headed “overseas” to Newfoundland—at that point not a part of Canada. “I thought that was great—until I realized it was Gander, 1945, and wintertime!”

The war ended about eight months later, and Sergeant Lathem ended up working in search and rescue in Halifax: back in a boat, seasick again. He got out of the service in 1946 and, in 1947, signed back in and spent the next 33 years and 240 days in air traffic control.

He was stationed in Greenwood seven different times, and posted across Canada in between. In 1960, he and Marion, his wife of 62 years, who he met when she was a school teacher back in Seal Harbour, were posted for four years to Metz, France, with 1 Air Division. He worked along the war-era Maginot line, controlling heavy radar and aircraft from old bunkers as they travelled between several French and German bases.

While there, he took his family on a vacation to Nijmegen, with one thought: to track down an old buddy, Neil Sponagle, from Coddles Harbour, Guysborough County, Nova Scotia. “I knew his parents before he went overseas, and I’d found out he’d been killed about a week before the war ended. He was an engineer, building bridges, and he was guarding this bridge for the Canadians to cross. It was bombed and he was killed. He was buried over there.”

Sergeant Lathem found his friend’s grave in the Nijmegen cemetery. “Graveyards,” he says. “I don’t know how people have room to live there, there are so many graveyards. When we came back in 1964, I went down to visit his parents, and I had the pictures of his stone and grave. And those cemeteries—there’s not necessarily a body there, that’s the sad part. But there are crosses there for everyone they know of, and rose bushes on every grave. Immaculate.”

Taking a turn at the end of his driveway in late May, Sergeant Lathem was overtaken by the 2018 marching team from 14 Wing. He asked them if they were headed to Nijmegen, and told them, “I was there.”

“That’s not an easy march,” he says. “You need good socks and shoes, and the blisters still show up, but it’s professional pride. I told them I’d been there to visit a chap I knew from down my way.”

(Sara White is the managing editor of 14 Wing Greenwood, Nova Scotia, base newspaper The Aurora.)

Image gallery

  • An elderly man in grey, holding a small badge, stands with a large group of people in disruptive pattern uniforms.
  • An elderly man in a blue plaid shirt, with trees in the background.
  • A vintage black and white photograph of a man with two children in a cemetery.
  • A grave and military headstone with a cross and a maple leaf, and a small red and white flag stuck in the earth.

 

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