In a modest apartment in Barrie sits a remarkable man with an even more remarkable wartime story of perseverance that spans two continents and nearly 80 years.
Jim McPhee was born March 18, 1925 on his grandfather’s pioneer farm 40 miles east of Sault Ste. Marie, near Thessalon.
“I was eighth in a family of nine children,” McPhee says.
When McPhee was a teenager, he moved a lot following work while he finished high school, making stops in Burlington to work raising chickens and working at an Algoma steel plant.
“At that time, all high schools required male students to be part of cadets,” says McPhee. “When I passed 18, some of us in the air cadets went to the recruiting centre in Sault Ste. Marie and signed up (for the air force). Almost immediately they sent us to the induction centre in North Bay.”
Adjustment to life in the armed forces wasn’t a big change for McPhee, as he says he was used to working hard and moving around due to leaving home and working at an earlier age.
“By the time I got into the air force, I wasn’t a kid with green behind the ears,” he says.
McPhee began his medical testing and training including wilderness survival, first aiming to make a career as an air force pilot.
“I did pretty well, but it was getting to the end of the war and they didn’t seem to like the way I landed the plane… so I re-mustered as a gunner,” he says.
After completing training in Canada, McPhee was shipped to England to be placed in training there.
“I was a sergeant, so I was in the sergeant’s mess. There I met this very friendly chap from Peace River, Alta., named Louis Besarb,” says McPhee, adding that he and Louis, another gunner, became friends.
The officers were in another mess, so one day McPhee says all the officers and sergeants were put into a big room and were told to find people to fly with.
“There wasn’t much guidance aside from, ‘Find some people and make a crew’,” says McPhee. “A pilot, Ab Steeves, came along and asked if we (Louis and I) were looking for a crew… so he took us on.”
The crew trained together in England on a Wellington bomber plane until they were ready to see action. McPhee says his crew participated in diversion raids across Europe until one night when everything changed.
It was the night of the crew’s second-ever raid, on Nov. 21, 1944.
McPhee was 19 years old.
“It was a main industrial part of Germany… a lot of factories,” recalls McPhee. “Our target was an oil fabrication plant. It was about 50, 60 miles east of Düsseldorf.”
While the weather was forecast that night to be mild, McPhee says the temperature was about minus-50 degrees Fahrenheit. He was wearing thermals and an electric suit, but when he went to turn on the suit, it started to burn him. The suit had malfunctioned, so he had to turn it off.
When it came time to drop the bomb, McPhee says he noticed the blue of a master searchlight.
“I could see that it was heading our way. I spoke to the pilot about the search light. He said, ‘We’re on a bombing run. We don’t want to have to do it again,’” says McPhee.
The bomb was dropped, but then the search light clamped onto the plane. More terrifying was when the search light went out.
“That, to me, was a signal that the fighter plane had spotted us,” says McPhee. “It was going to attack. I could see him at the side.”
“Don’t ask me how I felt. I was cold and I was busy.”
Then, McPhee heard a barrage or tracer bullets on the port side of the plane.
“I heard the flight engineer say, ‘Louis has been hit. There’s blood on the turret,’” says McPhee. Immediately after that, another barrage of bullets hit the plane.
At the same time, McPhee was hit on the head.
“The next thing I knew, I was floating. I was falling. I realized that I was outside in the air,” says McPhee. “I pulled my parachute. I landed on a cobblestone house on my back. As far as I could see, it was quiet there.”
Air cadet protocol was to hide a parachute so McPhee then went immediately back into his training, trying to collect the parachute as quickly as possible after his landing despite being injured.
When he was unsuccessful, he abandoned the chute and ran into some nearby forests.
“For the next few days, I tried to get my bearings. We started getting snow. The only way I knew what direction I was travelling is I had a collar button with a compass in it,” he says.
After ten days of surviving in the wilderness, McPhee came across a barn. He crawled in to try to get some sheltered sleep. The farm dog discovered him and alerted the farmer.
“He was more afraid of me than I was of him,” says McPhee, adding that he indicated to the farmer he didn’t have any firearms.
The farmer took McPhee into his home with his wife and two daughters. They dried McPhee’s clothes and fed him breakfast.
After about an hour, the authorities came and arrested McPhee as a prisoner of war (POW).
He was taken to a police station in Frankfurt before being put on a train to be interrogated in another location.
“An American Thunderbolt (plane) came along and strafed the train, blowing up the engine,” says McPhee. “Everybody just flew off the train. It was quite common then because they were trying to blow up the transportation system.”
A guard found McPhee and took him into custody, continuing their trek to the interrogation centre.
“I was quite vigorously interrogated. They didn’t identify me with the plane that had been shot down because I was miles away from it,” he says.
McPhee recounts that the interrogation centre wasn’t pleasant; filled with lice, fleas and nearly no food to eat.
After 10 days of being interrogated and threatened with death, McPhee was told he was being moved.
Unbeknownst to McPhee, there had been one other soldier who had survived the plane crash and had identified him as a Canadian soldier to German authorities.
“Steeves was very surprised to see me,” recounts McPhee. “He had been told all his crew had been killed. He had been badly wounded. When he had emptied his pockets after being detained by German authorities, he had his flight papers. They did a little cross-referencing and realized I was part of the (crew).”
McPhee and Steeves were the only members of the flight crew who survived the crash.
By Christmas in 1944, McPhee was taken to a POW camp which was located very close to Auschwitz.
“The culture in a prisoner of war camp – the guys get together and they have recreation, sports and classes. I didn’t really get involved in that because by the middle of January, the Russian front was coming in,” he says.
“The Germans didn’t want the Russians to free us, because they wanted prisoners they could use as trading pawns in case they needed to make a bargain. (I think) they knew they were losing the war then.”
On Jan. 12, 1945, the prisoners were prepared for the Russians. They had collected as much as they could for survival, in the event they had an opportunity to escape. The Germans had other plans.
“They made us walk, 150 miles, from January until (mid-February). Through blizzards, snowstorms, 30 below zero. A lot of the guys weren’t in very good shape and many of them just froze to death,” says McPhee.
On Feb. 11, 1945, the group reached Goldberg, Germany. The surviving prisoners sustained numerous permanent injuries. McPhee had blood vessel damage that lasted for a few years.
At that point, the prisoners were taken by boxcar to a concentration camp south of Berlin.
“It was just awful. We were slave labourers,” says McPhee. “These poor stick men who were on their last legs… if they fell down a guard would beat them with his rifle butt until they got up, or couldn’t get up.”
In May, American soldiers came through on a convoy. McPhee saw it as his chance to escape.
“I talked to my buddy and I said, I’m not going to stay here anymore. I’m getting out of here. Whatever happens to me happens, but I’m not staying,” he says.
McPhee then scouted the fence, finding a hole. He followed an irrigation ditch until he caught up with the American soldiers. The soldiers were skeptical McPhee would get through the checkpoints, but told him if he wanted to take a chance, they wouldn’t stop him.
“On the way back, Russian patrols did stop us, wanting to go through the convoy,” recounts McPhee. “The driver did a couple of figure eights, and fortunately this patrol was drunk, so he got away from them.”
McPhee hitched rides and trekked through land and water to make his way back to an American zone.
“Only then did I think I might survive the war,” says McPhee.
But McPhee doesn’t recall feeling relief once hitting Canadian soil.
“I had seen so much terrible stuff. I didn’t have much feeling,” says McPhee.
Upon his return to Canada, McPhee was offered an administration position. He clarifies that this is only one of many war stories he could tell.
“People always ask me how it felt. I don’t know that I was feeling anything,” he says.
For many years, McPhee says he didn’t tell anyone about what happened to him in the war.
“The war… I wanted to forget about it, I didn’t want to talk about it,” says McPhee. The first time he told his story was to a group of veterans who started a meetup group for survivors of the Second World War.
“They said to me, ‘You’ve been suffering from survivor guilt all these years. It wasn’t your fault what happened,’” he says.
When he came home from the meetup, McPhee’s wife asked him what happened, and after sharing his story with her, she encouraged him to share it more.
“She said to me, ‘You’re going to be dead one of these days, and your kids are going to wonder what it was all about,’” says McPhee. His wife passed away earlier this year.
McPhee managed to keep in touch with his crew pilot Steeves, even visiting him on one occasion in Winnipeg in the 1970s. Sadly, Steeves died in 1985.
McPhee continues to tell his story to this day to various groups across the county and beyond, and his hope is that it will help people to understand the sacrifice that was involved in going to war.
“The story isn’t about me,” says McPhee. “I wasn’t a hero. I’m a survivor. The ones that died are the heroes.”