Monday morning’s Remembrance Day service brought out over a dozen World War veterans in Aldergrove – one of them was local retired Sergeant Rudolph Faessler.
Faessler, a survivor of two plane crashes, was 17 when he first enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1954.
As a sheltered teenager from Bridge Lake, B.C., whose parents both migrated from Switzerland, Faessler lived on a farm with no connection to the outside world, other than a battery-operated radio.
When he was around 10 years old, during World War Two, Faessler was enamoured by the hundreds of Air Force planes that whizzed above his families’ rural farmhouse.
“And every once and a while one of these fighter jets would whiz by,” he said. “I thought to myself then, ‘oh boy I want to fly those one day’.”
Joining the Air Force made that possible, along with thrusting Faessler into a world of new discoveries, including the French language at basic training at Saint-Jean Garrison.
“Most of the time, you join the Forces and then you went to Quebec. On the train there I fell asleep and woke up to an employee speaking only in French,” Faessler said.
“I was so worried that I’d taken the wrong train and instead arrived in France.”
He also learned of hockey.
The only sport-like activity he ever was aware of was the spear fishing he did in his youth, catching fish from under the frozen lake with an old pitchfork.
Faessler went on to serve for 28 years as a flight engineer and second pilot, four of those being in Germany as part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces during the Cold War.
NATO was facing off against a possible Soviet threat from behind the Iron Curtain in what was then the USSR.
By the mid-1950s, it is estimated that 10,000 Canadians were stationed in France and West Germany.
“I was lucky,” he said. “I joined up just after the Korean War and before the war in Afghanistan.”
Faessler recalls being tasked with the transportation of a nuclear weapon on certain flights and prepping the aircraft for the possibility of an order of unleashing the device on Russian-occupied territory.
“We had the atomic bomb on the airplane every day just waiting to go. We would fly under the radar and over rivers and into Poland or Hungary,” the veteran explained.
“We had two minutes to get it in the air because we thought the Russians would be there that fast,” Faessler explained, noting it was an automated flight system that would have launched the bomb while flying upright at approximately 2,000-feet in the air.
“The bomb itself was only as big as a grapefruit but the entire thing was maybe the length of these two tables end-to-end,” Faessler pointed out.
“I imagine now that bombs are much worse.”
The veteran saw unspeakable horrors during his deployment overseas, including several prisoner of war camps with visible signs of mass casualties.
“There was a room full of bones,” Faessler explained seeing inside a dormant concentration camp.
Faessler was awarded a rare Order of the Military Merit (OMM) medal in 1977 – the second-highest order administered by Canada’s Governor General on behalf of Queen Elizabeth II.
The medal was created to recognize soldiers who have surpassed their call of duty.
Faessler was awarded the honour for the 11 years he dedicated himself day-and-night to evacuating the critically-injured from Coal Lake, Alberta to a hospital one hour away in Edmonton.
He was on call from spring until end of summer each year.
“Anytime – day or night – I would fly them to Edmonton,” the veteran said, making mention of the upkeep required on his aircraft.
He grew accustomed to witnessing passengers injured within inches of their life due to circumstances such as car accidents, stabbings, and shootings.
Faessler was flown to Ottawa and presented with the prestigious OMM blue cross by then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau on Dec. 12, 1977.
The hospital gave him a large set of carved wooden wings as a thank you when he wrapped up his work there.
It was the staff who recommended him for the medal which now rests above his heart next to his 25 years of service medal.
Faessler still lives in Aldergrove with his wife, their two adult daughters, two parrots, and a cat named Tommy.
In his spare time, the veteran volunteers at the Greater Vancouver Zoo and has done so for many years.