Airman 1st Class Christopher McGaughran, at Ellsworth Air Force Base, SD discovered that his grandfather was among a small group of Americans who joined the Canadian military to thwart the tyranny of Nazi Germany prior to America entering World War II.
“I had heard stories that my grandfather, and others like him, were concerned about the war raging in Europe and how it would eventually spread to America,” said McGaughran, a 28th Bomb Wing commander’s support staff specialist. “The United States wasn’t involved in World War II yet. He wanted to do his part and made the decision to go to Canada where he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force.”
He discovered that his grandfather, John McGaughran, was among the approximately 840 Americans who did not wait until the U.S. joined the war and headed to Canada to join the fight. In the spring of 1941, John, who was then 21 years old, made the trek from Memphis, Tenn., to Toronto, Canada, to enlist — a decision some at the time considered to be overzealous and “jumping the gun.”
Soon after arriving at the recruiting station in Toronto, he applied for the infantry but was later convinced to join the air corps. After completing the application and an interview process, he was sent to No. 6 Squadron Flying Training School in Dunnville, Ontario, along with others selected to be aviators.
At the time, the training program covered primary, basic and advanced phases of flight training. After completion, graduates were sent to training units for operational training.
“He completed a total of 163 flight hours in about five months,” Christopher said.
His grandfather was commissioned on Dec. 5, 1941, two days before the infamous attack on Pearl Harbor by Japanese forces that would result in the U.S. joining the war.
“I can’t even fathom how he felt when he first heard that Pearl Harbor was attacked and of all the Americans who were killed, especially when one of the sole reasons he left America was to take the fight overseas and hopefully help end the war before it made its way to our shores,” Christopher said.
John served from April 1941 to September 1945 as a squadron leader. He piloted a Bristol Beaufighter X and primarily targeted German U-boats and merchant ships.
“It’s a great feeling knowing that my grandfather flew an airframe that was the top of its class in precision strike capabilities at the time,” Christopher said. “Being stationed at Ellsworth (AFB) with the B-1 (Lancer), another precision strike aircraft, is a really cool similarity.”
Christopher also learned that like many Canadian aviators, his grandfather was aligned with a British Royal Air Force unit during the war. He was assigned to the RAF No. 144th Squadron, part of the RAF Coastal Command tasked with stopping German shipping.
“The main objective of Coastal Command and the 144th was to target German U-boats and shipping along the coast and in the fjords and leads of southwest Norway,” Christopher said. “The overall goal was to slow German shipping. If the German war machine didn’t have steel, it couldn’t sustain its (production) for an extended period of time.”
During World War II, his grandfather served in Great Britain, a variety of locations in Europe, northern Africa and southern Asia. In May 1944, his grandfather and the rest of the 144th were relocated to RAF Davidstowe Moor in Cornwall, England, to take part in Operation Overlord.
“Their role was to protect the western flank of the invasion fleet against any German naval attack,” Christopher said. “By the end of June, the threat of a surface attack from the west was gone and the squadron moved to Lincolnshire, to attack German shipping off the Dutch coast.”
Eventually, the war came to a close and his grandfather returned to the United States in 1946, working as an electrical engineer in New Orleans. He returned to a normal life, raised three sons and only talked sparingly of his time during World War II with close friends and family.
Christopher said his grandfather died when his dad was seven years old. Most of what he knows about him is through stories his dad offers and those passed down from his aunts and uncles.
“We also have three journals he wrote during the war, which have helped greatly in researching additional details about him,” he added.
Poring through the diaries, Christopher concluded that over time his grandfather learned difficult lessons that can only be taught during war — losing friends and watching the sheer brutality of what one man can do to another in times of conflict.
“… Elroy Bent, Ralph Delbridge, Al Hague and I had become very close friends by the time we were in England,” read a page in one of John’s journals dated Jan. 23, 1943. “When volunteers were requested for Africa we entered together. We lived, ate, talked, planned and hoped together. Elroy was the first, then Ralph, then Al. It was the crumbling of all dreams and the destruction of faith.”
“As I read through the journals, it’s obvious how much the war impacted him,” Christopher said. “After each page he changes more and more.”
Although he never knew his grandfather, Christopher has learned a great deal about the man and what he endured during the war years.
“There are a couple stories that my dad told me, such as when the nose of my grandfather’s plane was shot off during an attack on a German ship, and losing his best friend from flight school he went to war with,” Christopher said. “My grandfather was scheduled to take leave, so his best friend (Elroy Bent) volunteered to take his place on a mission and died in the attack. I couldn’t imagine that.”
Christopher has been in the Air Force for nearly two years and said that the more he learns about his grandfather the prouder he gets.
“My grandfather, and all those he fought alongside, gave up a great deal to stand up for what they believed,” he said. “In his diaries he mentions that he flew with many different nationalities; Aussies, Brits, South Africans, New Zealanders, etc.; who fought together in the RAF squadrons. It’s really a testament of how people from completely different places can come together to accomplish something.”