Airdrie veteran proud of family's historical military background
Airdrie resident Norm McRae comes from a long line of military men.
The 48 year old served in the Royal Canadian Air Force for 22 years, spending much of that time in Edmonton and Cold Lake fixing aircraft as a specialized mechanic.
He also went on a six-month peacekeeping tour to Honduras in 1990 during the Nicaraguan war. Living in the crime-riddled country in civilian housing, McRae stared fear in the face every day.
“You could hear gunfire every night,” he said. “There is a lot of violence there, a lot of gangs.”
Despite the crime, McRae said he had a blast fixing helicopters, shuttling people around and taking in the sights on days off.
McRae arrived home on Dec. 5, 1990, exactly 45 years to the day that his father returned from the Second World War.
“I came back and my dad was in tears,” said McRae.
McRae’s father, Donald Muir McRae, joined the Calgary Tanks Regiment in 1942 shortly after the Battle of Dieppe and was involved in the Allied invasion of Sicily.
Donald later served in France and Germany and volunteered to join the Japanese invasion after Victory in Europe Day, May 8, 1945. However, he was never called up as the Allies dropped two atomic bombs on Japan that August, ending the war.
“He didn’t ever go because they dropped the bomb,” said McRae. “They were expecting somewhere around five million casualties in the invasion, just on the Allied side.”
Donald wasn’t the only family member of McRae’s to serve in the Second World War.
Many of his uncles were also involved and served on many of the war’s famous battles, including D-Day, June 6, 1944.
In fact, one of McRae’s uncles was scheduled to speak at the Nuremberg Trials about the SS shooting of a group of Canadians.
McRae’s family connection doesn’t stop there.
Many of his family members served in the First World War, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, who wrote the iconic poem In Flander’s Fields, was among them. McCrae was the first cousin of McRae’s paternal grandfather, Alexander Norman McRae.
Born just before the turn of the century, Alexander joined the 10th Battalion, now known as the Calgary Highlanders, and served in France.
Alexander was shot in 1918 in France during the Battle of Cambrai. After being shot by a German artillery gun, he walked five miles to an aid station. During the walk back, Alexander, who was born in Manitoba and was later injured in an oilfield accident, was shot twice more.
McRae’s maternal grandfather, Roy Turnbill, who hailed from Springfield, Nova Scotia, was likely part of a company that constructed a vast tunneling network, at Vimy Ridge.
That attack, which took place April 9, 1917 proved to be a turning point in the war, but it didn’t come without sacrifice. The Canadians suffered 10,500 casualties and 3,598 deaths.
McRae said his family was first mentioned in about 1000 AD, before the Norman invasion of Scotland.
“We were basically the police force for the Mackenzie clan,” he said. “We were never a big clan, but there is a huge history.”
McRae said he was encouraged to join the military by an uncle, who also got him involved in Air Cadets as a youth. Some of the friends McRae made during that time are among his best.
McRae said there is a bond between anyone involved in the military.
“Since World War II the Canadian military has been a small group,” said McRae. “When I retired in 2007, there was less than 80,000 people in the military. It’s a very small world. The guys in the military look at it as if we are our own family. We have gone through a lot of stuff that most people won’t believe and they will never understand it.”
Given his family history, McRae said he has spent many hours in the legion and feels his experience has helped make him the man he is.
“To myself and a lot of guys in the military, Remembrance Day is every day that I wake up,” he said. “It is so much a part of my life that it almost defines me. I am named after two men - one was shot and walked five kilometres to an aid station. My middle name (comes from) my mom’s brother who was killed in Korea. Just looking at my name, I am looking at Remembrance Day.”
McRae said he feels frustrated that some Canadians look down on members of the military, calling them “war mongers.”
“Most of us in the military really shake our heads at it,” said McRae, adding people in the military are chief amongst those who never want to witness another war.
“We are No. 1 saying we don’t want a war because we are the ones on the pointy end of the stick and we are the ones that know mostly what the consequences will be. We stand up and say we will accept the consequences if we know our families and our loved ones and everyone else in this country is safe. You might not like war, it’s not a pleasant thing, but it is something that sometimes has to be done.”