Aldergrove Secondary’s History 12 class was treated to a visit by World War II veteran John Palen on Oct. 30.
Now 90, Palen clearly recalled the details of his experiences as a 19 year old tail-gunner in a Lancaster bomber, who flew in 58 missions over Nazi-occupied Europe.
Born on Dec. 1, 1922 in Haliburton, Ontario, Palen and his family moved to Toronto in 1932 where he completed his high school years. On graduation he enlisted in the RCAF in 1942 and was sent overseas in July 1943, where he was posted to an RAF Bomber Squadron as a tail gunner on Lancaster bombers.
He flew bombing operations over Germany and occupied Europe from December 1943 to December 1944, in 58 operations.
As a tail gunner he was crammed into a small perspex bubble outfitted with Browning machine guns at the tail end of the bomber. It was a very cramped space and Palen wore a flying suit, harness, life preserver and flying boots, while his parachute hung on the other side of the hatch inside the fuselage.
To improve visibility crews usually cut a hole in the perspex for the gunner but this also allowed a blast of cold air to enter.
On his second mission over the German city of Magdeburg his Lancaster was attacked by a German JU-88 fighter. A shell struck directly below Palen’s turret, which shattered the perspex, jammed the doors and destroyed the controls that fired the Brownings. The shell also started a fire inside the fuselage, which was put out by the crew, but Palen was stranded, helpless, inside the freezing cold turret for its return flight to England.
The Lancaster landed safely in Yorkshire, however, and Palen lived to fly another 56 missions.
He returned to Canada in 1945 and was discharged with the rank of flying officer and decoration of the Distinguished Flying Cross.
In July of 2012 Palen moved to Langley, where he resides in Murrayville.
Palen is returning to Aldergrove Secondary School on Nov. 7 for the school’s Remembrance Day assembly, in the company of fellow World War II veteran Bud Freeston. The ceremony will feature several students dressed in WW2 era military uniforms, loaned by Ian Newby’s International Movie Services company in Aldergrove.