Second World War RCAF officer recognized for wartime sacrifices

A cemetery in which a group of people wearing military uniforms stand in rows.
Members of 8 Wing Trenton attend a ceremony on September 22, 2018 to dedicate a Commonwealth War Graves Commission headstone recognizing the Second World War service and sacrifice of Wing Commander Byron Rawson. PHOTO: Corporal Ryan Moulton

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8 Wing Trenton

A Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) headstone was dedicated on September 22, 2018,  at the Hamilton Woodland Cemetery for Wing Commander Byron Rawson, DFC and Bar, Royal Canadian Air Force, recognizing his death in December 1945 as related to his service during the Second World War.

Hailed during the war as the “Youngest Wing Commander in the British Empire”, Wing Commander Rawson rose to serve in the elite Pathfinder Wing in No. 8 Group, part of the Royal Air Force’s Bomber Command. Accompanied by his swift rise through the ranks, he was also awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and Bar for his skill in the cockpit and as a leader.

On December 23, 1945, Wing Commander Rawson took his own life in Hamilton, Ontario. Although not officially recognized at the time, the coroner’s report indicated that his death had been due, in part, to his wartime experiences.

In consideration of this report, in 2017 the Commonwealth War Graves Commission deemed his death as service related due to what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder, entitling Wing Commander Rawson to a commissioned Commonwealth War Graves headstone.

“Almost 73 years ago, Wing Commander B.F.N. Rawson, DFC and Bar, was interred in Hamilton Woodland Cemetery,” said Brigadier-General (retired) David Kettle, secretary general of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission—Canadian Agency on the day of the dedication. “Today, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, alongside the Royal Canadian Air Force, commemorates the ultimate sacrifice of the “Youngest Wing Commander of the British Empire”. According to the War Dead’s nephew, Dr. Peter Jackson, Wing Commander Rawson was “A Brave Warrior – A Son of Christ”; the latter being the personal inscription chosen by the family, which will forever be written in stone.”

“While it has been 73 years since the death of Wing Commander Byron Rawson, it is never too late to recognize him for his dedication, bravery and sacrifice,” said Colonel Shayne Elder, commanding officer of the Royal Canadian Air Force Aerospace Warfare Centre in Trenton, Ontario. “Today’s ceremony demonstrates that the Royal Canadian Air Force will remember and honour those who have served and give them the dignity and respect they deserve.”

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission will inspect and maintain the headstone in perpetuity as they do with all Commonwealth War Graves Commission markers elsewhere worldwide.

About Wing Commander Rawson

Wing Commander Rawson grew up in Ottawa and Hamilton, the son of a United Church minister. His first operational squadron was 429 “Bison” Squadron, flying Wellington bombers and, later, Halifax bombers on dangerous bombing missions over occupied Europe.

On October 4, 1943, Wing Commander Rawson was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross by King George VI. The citation read:

“Flight Lieutenant Rawson has taken part in operations against the enemy on some of the most heavily defended targets in Germany. As acting flight commander and captain of aircraft, he has at all times set a fine example of courage, enthusiasm and devotion to duty.”

Wing Commander Rawson served in the Royal Air Force’s Bomber Command as a member of elite Pathfinder Force, which was part of No. 8 Group, and with 405 and 429 Squadrons, which were part of the RCAF’s No. 6 Group. The Pathfinder Force was made up of pilots and navigators whose task was to improve the quality of precision bombing by locating and illuminating targets for the main bomber force. These crews often faced fierce anti-aircraft and fighter attack.

On December 23, 1945, Wing Commander Rawson took his own life in Hamilton. His memorial service was held by his father and attended by an overflow audience of civilian and RCAF mourners of all ranks.

About post-traumatic stress disorder

“As we reflect on Wing Commander Rawson’s sacrifice, we are reminded of the importance of having open conversations about mental health so that we can help break stigmas and encourage our fellow airwomen and airmen to seek out a wide range of help available to our members today,” Lieutenant-Colonel Bryce Graham, the commanding officer of 429 Transport Squadron, located at 8 Wing Trenton.

Since the Second World War, considerable progress has been made to recognize and treat post-traumatic stress disorder. Today, personnel on certain missions may participate in a third location decompression (TLD) to help ease them back to normal home life. During decompression, each deployed person is encouraged to speak to a mental health professional and to raise any concerns they may have. Mental health awareness, the recognition of “red flags” in self and others, as well as resources available, are discussed during the decompression period.

Before returning home from deployment, most Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) personnel receive a reintegration briefing to help ease their transition to life back home. Mental health teams also provide information about what may await CAF members at home, work, and community life as they re-connect with life in Canada. The families of CAF members are offered similar training at home through Military Family Resource Centres.

Sometimes, the stigma associated with mental health is a barrier to seeking help. The Department of National Defence (DND), the CAF, and Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) are working hard to break down this barrier by encouraging open and honest discussions around mental illness in all facets of life for CAF members.

RELATED LINKS

Royal Canadian Air Force

You’re not alone—Mental Health resources for CAF members and families

Commonwealth War Graves Commission (in English)

Canadian Agency—Commonwealth War Graves Commission

429 Transport Squadron

RCAF in the Second World War

Image gallery

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  • A man wearing a military uniform stoops to place a wreath in front of a gravestone as another man stands at attention behind him.
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  • A group of 20 men and women wearing civilian clothes stand behinds behind two grave stones, in front of which are four remembrance wreaths decorated with poppies
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  • A man stands beside two grave markers that have memorial wreaths in front of them.
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