Hazelton’s Unsung Navigator
I don’t believe in being a “war buff.” The term buff trivializes this particular subject, as if one can have an exuberant interest in combat’s destruction and despair like a bird watcher or a train spotter. It’s too close to being a fan.
But war has engrossed me since I was a child flipping through my father’s Time magazines looking at photos of the Vietnam War. My parents indulged my morbid curiosity by purchasing a whole arsenal of plastic weaponry, regiments of various-sized plastic toy soldiers and a coffee table book of World War II movies, the kind of dubious ’70s-era parenting choices similar to driving around with the kids unbuckled, smoking cigarettes at the wheel, Terry Jacks’ Seasons In the Sun on the radio.
I still read regularly about WWII, the natural progression of a reading career that started with G.I. Combat and Sgt. Rock comic books, proceeded to a strange affinity for Soldier of Fortune Magazine from ages 11 to 13, and then latched onto the best of Vietnam War fiction in my late teens and early 20s.
In April, I was reading Max Hastings’ Armageddon: The Battle For Germany 1944-1945. It was my fourth World War title from Hastings, an English war historian who, along with Antony Beevor and Rick Atkinson, is considered the best of the popular contemporary war historians.
In a chapter about the Western Allies’ bombing campaign, a long, harrowing account of an RCAF Halifax bomber, nicknamed the F-Freddie, crash landing in Belgium after a sortie to the German city of Bochum in November 1944 begins with an introductory paragraph identifying some of the ill-fated crew, including, “Jon Sargent, navigator, an accountant from British Columbia.”
Four years ago, I moved into a New Hazelton house belonging to a relative. No one had lived in the place for a decade and so much stuff from that wing of the family was crammed into the house, I dubbed it The Museum.
One day, perusing the attic, I glanced over and saw atop a stack of papers and books an odd-looking map. Upon unfolding it I could see that it was a flight map for bombing Essen, Germany. It, along with the notepads, field guides and other documents beneath it, belonged to the man who had built the house 60 years earlier: Flying Officer John Sargent, RCAF bomber navigator during the Second World War, who had worked in the New Hazelton family store before joining up in Edmonton in 1942. John married Lieutenant Cathy Aitkin, a Canadian army nurse, in England in April 1945, with his pilot David Sokoloff as his best man.
Hastings’ source of the gripping story I’d been reading of the F-Freddie’s nighttime, bullet-riddled escape from fighter planes and subsequent hard-belly slide in Brussels was Sokoloff’s unpublished memoir. Had the pilot got Sargent’s first name and occupation wrong? The words attributed to “Jon” Sargent in Armageddon’s account certainly sounded like the pointed inquiry of the Sargents I knew—waiting for the poor weather to lift, he asked, “Why the hell don’t the bastards scrub it in this weather?”
I asked Sargent’s son Earl, the owner of the “museum” where I found the map, if he remembered much about his father’s plane and crew. At first he couldn’t supply details, only that he knew the machine was a Lancaster. But then from nowhere he supplied the pilot’s name: Sokoloff.
Jon Sargent, accountant, was John Sargent, store manager.
Once the euphoria of realizing that I had discovered a war story of a kinsman in a well-received book abated, it struck me the crash landing account lacked something vital.
While there is no indication of how long after the war Sokoloff wrote his manuscript, we can surmise it was at least a few years. Although the captain had seemingly misremembered two things about Sargent, had Sokoloff omitted the most important thing of all about his navigator?
Navigator with nerve
The Sargent family knew the Belgian crash-landing story well, although Earl said his father did not often talk about the war. Some of the family’s memories were based on the recollections of Sokoloff and the crew’s flight engineer Dick Richardson in personal letters—Sokoloff’s to the family after Cathy Sargent passed away 2001 and Richardson’s that Cathy received 20 years after John Sargent’s passing in 1979, addressed to John. The family presented me with that correspondence and an RCAF commendation report reprinted in the Terrace Standard in 1945. These sources expand on Hastings’ exposition: “They set a course for home, hampered by the loss of all their maps and logs,” which were sucked out of the fuselage when Sokoloff pitched the plane into a steep dive to put out an engine fire. One wonders, Well, how did they get back to Brussels without maps at night?
The answer is: the skills and steel of the navigator.
Sokoloff tells the tale in the commendation report soon after the Belgian crash landing. He says, “It was certainly a ‘shaky-do’ and might have had a different ending if the navigator hadn’t his wits about him. It was the nicest bit of navigation one could wish to see. The only person hurt was the wireless operator, who sprained his ankle getting out of the aircraft.”
Fifty-two years later, on June 19, 2001, Sokoloff writes from near San Francisco: “I think often of John. He was more than just a friend; our war experiences created a special bond between us. We flew at night and essentially we were alone. We were totally dependent on each other so that we were kind of tuned to each other.” So much for Sokoloff misspelling John.
A couple of years earlier, Richardson had these words for Sargent: “Thanks to your skill in navigation we eventually arrived in Brussels and managed to survive a crash landing.” Sargent’s abilities were recognized at the war’s end when he was asked to stay in the service to instruct navigators and awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
The record, re-written
My interest in this incident derives not so much from the epic crash landing tale itself—for that and for other reasons I recommend Armageddon—or from discovering the story in the book, but from how it found its way to me. I had heard the saga before in minimal detail, but knew that Sargent had played a key role in the crew staying alive. Hastings’ retelling was far more comprehensive and had great colour to it, even humour—after the crew’s tense wait for the weather to clear, he writes, “their spirits were further clouded by the padre’s visit.”
Sokoloff’s cool head and bold moves were described, but it seemed like Flying Officer Sargent, through omission, was given the short shrift. Why this occurred is unclear. I hope to redress the balance, to change FO John Heitmann Sargent’s role from that of a crusty, profane member of the supporting cast to—along with Sokoloff—the hero of the tale.
This article serves as an afterword to the story of the Belgian crash landing, one of thousands of crash landings during the Second World War. Written words have power in that words become history, become truth. Hopefully, my nouns and verbs and their modifiers can act as darning needles and thread to fix the hole in this story.