Donald McLaren Goes To WarFriday, April 02, 2010
John Gray and Eric Peterson’s Billy Bishop Goes to War premiered at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre in 1978. I did not attend that performance of this Canadian play that has become an icon about Canada’s transformation from being a colonial dominion of the British Empire to a full-fledged country through its heroic involvement in WWI. My first performance was a remounting of the play at the Playhouse Theatre in August, 1982. And I saw it again on Wednesday night.
1978 was an important date for me professionally as in August I had my first Vancouver Magazine cover. It was a feature written by Valerie Gibson about 7 British Columbians in their 80s who had achieved lofty stuff. Two in particular are in my memory. One was the delightful Jessie Richardson and the other was an 85 year-old man who had a connection to Billy Bishop.
By Valerie Gibson
Vancouver Magazine, August 1978
“Don’t you try to make a hero out of me,” said Donald McLaren. “I’ve lived longer, that’s all.” And done a little more, too. Like becoming one of the four top Canadian flying aces of World War I. “These things are accidental, you know – whether you get a chance to shoot down enemies or not. Men like Billy Bishop and I came along when there was plenty of opportunity.”
Grounded with a broken leg (wrestling match with a junior officer) for the last month of that conflict, McLaren in the previous eight months had downed 48 aircraft, destroyed six balloons and rose to command the 46th Squadron. He came back to Canada with the DSO, Military Cross and Bar, a DFC and no desire at all to talk about it. “Too many lives…But some fun times, too."
“I well remember one of the first patrols I went on in France. I was a second lieutenant – nobody in those days –in the winter of 1917, and my flight commander and I were just flying on the outside and I thought, ‘Well, there’s the enemy.’ You could see them over you, you know, and I wondered, ‘Are we going to have a fight with these guys?’ I tried to remember everything I’d been taught, and I remember saying a prayer about it and…well, we’re here now, make the best of it. The patrol came by us no more than a hundred yards away. There were five of those fellows, painted very color of the rainbow, and they paid no attention to us. Just singing’ right on by, sunshine on them…beautiful sight.
“But my flight commander didn’t make a move. We might just as well have kissed each other. They used to call that the Peacetime of November. We’d meet them on the front. They wouldn’t shoot at us; we wouldn’t shoot at them. After the March Push began, it was different altogether. Remember Von Richtofen? You couldn’t go near him. They’d be after you, you’d be after them.”
For someone with no early compulsion to fly (he signed up to get to see a sweetheart in the east), aircraft became an important factor in the life of Donald Roderick McLaren. When the Canadian government, interested in the potential of the new-fangled machines, decided to set up a branch for fisheries patrols, aerial mapping and for training civilians, McLaren was called to Vancouver to choose an air base location. He picked Jericho. That was 1919. In 1924 he bought a second hand HS2L flying boat, then a “Jenny”, and started freight and passenger service between Vancouver, Victoria, Seattle and upcoast settlements. In the lean times of 1928, his company, Pacific Airways, was taken over by Winnipeg financier James Richardson’s Western Canada Airways LTD. McLaren stayed on in charge of Pacific Lines when the assets of WCA and an eastern company, Aviation Corporation of Canada, were combined to form Canadian Airways Limited, making it the largest of the country’s air companies.
Air travel was moving out of the bush leagues by then. They were flying a ten-passenger Sikorsky and buying Fokker Supers and Fairchilds when C.D. Howe, then Minister of Transport, asked McLaren to help in the formation of TCA. That was 1937, and five days later the Trans Canada Airlines Act was proclaimed, one D.R. McLaren being employee number one.
After a long an eminent career (he is a member of the Canadian Aviation Hall of Fame), McLaren retired 20 years ago at 65. Today, he is a reflective, religious man active in the Bahia faith. “If you believe in it, you’re active in it. Oh, I’d like to fly again but I won’t.”
“I never wanted to do something like Charles Lindbergh did. I felt very happy about the fact that we were providing a service where it was needed, and we weren’t just playing in a game. Some of it was dangerous and some of it wasn’t. When you are sitting at six –thousand feet near Mount Waddington, looking at that beautiful scenery, there isn’t anything more beautiful…and you’re part of it. “
Billy Bishop 74 kills.
Raymond Colishaw 60 kills
Donald Roderick McLaren 54 kills, Donald Roderick McLaren died on July 4, 1989 when he was 96.