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An Air Warrior’s Last Days

January 20, 2019

A real, unembellished, unHollywoodized war story

A Book Review

Peter J. Usher, Joey Jacobson’s War: A Jewish Canadian Airman in the Second World War (London, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2018).

Joey Jacobson’s War is a moving account of the last months of a young airman’s life told through his diaries and letters during training in Canada, waiting for action in Britain, and finally flying over the skies of Nazi Germany in a Hampden bomber.

The diaries describe a young McGill University hockey player, an armchair philosopher, and a lover of life and close friendships. They present a poignant record of his thoughts and experiences as he prepares for war and then faces it head-on.

His correspondence home reveals an intimate father-son relationship with both men sharing their hopes and fears for the future. “Tough on us to have our only son (left [to] us) in constant danger,” writes father Percy, echoing the thoughts of so many other fathers.

Joey’s letters to a foursome of friends he called the “Pony Club” allow us to enter his thoughts on life, love, family, friendship, his country, and its flawed politics. They also express his unhappiness that club members don’t share his patriotic enthusiasm for joining up.

Author Peter J. Usher, Joey’s cousin, has provided a wide selection of Joey’s candid opinions, his doubts, and ideas. We read about his developing political views, his Montreal Jewish community, the camaraderie of training camp, his fears and anxieties while in the thick of battle, and about his concern that others did not share his outlook on the fight against fascism.

Through Joey’s diaries we fly vicariously into the action over the North Sea in search of German U-Boats or planting “vegetables” (mines) along the coastline. We are in the bomber observer pit with Joey as he spots his target, fails to hit it due to heavy cloud and steam cover. With him we brave the attacks of Luftwaffe night fighters and the “aak aak” of anti-aircraft guns. 

Usher helpfully and unobtrusively fills in the historical blanks, explaining the intricate details of bomber warfare, the deadly blunders of British Bomber Command, the technical difficulties of flying a bomber over enemy territory, or of plotting a bombing raid. But mostly he lets Joey tell his story. Here he describes a battle scene:

“Once the searchlights caught us the aak aak started to pot us & were we ever pounded. They were so close they hit our wings with bits of shell and there was a steady crunching and booming as the gunfire got closer and closer.”

This is real, unembellished, unHollywoodized war from the pen of a young man sitting in the metal and glass compartment of a bomber observer, playing one of the most dangerous roles of air combat, one that many did not survive.

Usher, a geographer, has produced a superlative biographical history of one family’s wartime trials. With a historian’s eye, he spent years searching for the raw material that would help him piece together Joey’s story.

Correspondence with relatives, friends, and people who witnessed the crash of Joey’s bomber, as well as visits to European locations, testify to his dogged pursuit of the facts. And it is with the thrill of discovery that Usher finds long buried artifacts such as the funeral film that he describes in detail.

Usher has merged it all into a fascinating account of a young air warrior’s life with sensitivity and credibility, while refusing to lapse into sentimentality or personal opinion. Both are among the many strengths of the book.  

One Response to An Air Warrior’s Last Days

  1. David Ross on January 20, 2019 at 6:35 pm

    I have read this book and agree completely with your assessment, although I could not express it with your conciseness and clarity. Well done both Peter and Ron, cherished comrades from the Vanier Institute. I urge all to read this book.

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