A Great-Uncle's Medal

Catriona Le May Doan always figured she was the family member who brought home the fancy medals. After all, she'd won two Olympic golds plus an armful of other medals as a world champion speed skater. Then, in 2003, she learned for the first time about the wartime service of her great-uncle, Walter Le May, and a very different kind of medal he won back in 1944.

A Scottish navigator with the Royal Air Force during the Second World War, he was awarded the prestigious Distinguished Flying Cross after he and his crew discovered the location of several German defences while flying risky, low-level reconnaissance missions over Normandy, France, prior to the D-Day invasion.

Le May Doan had never known or thought much about her ancestors' military connections until that moment in 2003, just before going to Scotland to visit her family, when her dad told her about Walter's wartime heroics.

"I never knew any of this," she says. "And then my husband and I went over to visit, and I said, 'Uncle Walter, can you show us your medal?' He was shy about it, but he eventually brought it out, showed us, and I was just amazed by what it represented. It seemed to me a pretty remarkable thing."

Rich Family Legacy

The DFC a small, ornate silver cross, awarded for "acts of valour, courage or devotion to duty whilst flying in operations against the enemy" inspired in Le May Doan a new interest in her family's long legacy of military service. Her grandfather, Walter's brother, served in the Scottish Home Guard during the Second World War.

A second brother also flew for the Royal Air Force, and both he and Walter had trained in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, as part of the 131,000 airmen schooled for the war in Canada by the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan.

"How strange," she says, "that way back then my great-uncles were training in Moose Jaw, in the same province where I grew up."

Le May Doan's mother also lived through the war, growing up in Glasgow, Scotland, during the Blitz. The apartment buildings in the neighbourhood where she lived as a child were bombed by the Germans, and air raid sirens regularly forced her family to scramble into bomb shelters, until she and her siblings were sent to live in the country for safety.

Le May Doan never met her mother's father. A veteran of the First World War, he enlisted in the British army at 16, and came home from the trenches in France and Belgium emotionally shattered. He died long before Le May Doan was born, when her own mother was only a child.

"We Have a Responsibility"

In 1963, Le May Doan's newly married parents emigrated to Canada from Scotland and began a new life. The wars of the past and their impact on each family receded from memory, and until recently few wartime stories were passed on to Catriona or her sisters.

"I've discovered a lot of this family history quite recently, and it's pretty fascinating," she says. "From my perspective, it's like something out of a movie. It's hard to imagine here in Canada this little bubble world that we live in where we have so much freedom, and so much stuff. Yet at one time for my family, the war was real.

"These people witnessed a lot of stuff, and did a lot of things that we can't even comprehend. But when you realize that your own family was part of it, all of a sudden it becomes personal and it really hits home.

"We're getting farther and farther away from the people who fought in World War Two," says Le May Doan. "The generations coming up are bound to feel more removed from it. I consider it my fault for not knowing until recently what my own family did during that time."

Walter Le May died of old age less than two years after his Canadian niece celebrated Olympic athlete, winner of some of history's most coveted medals was humbled by the sight of a small, silver cross he received for courage while flying over Normandy.

"The world we live in would not be the same if not for the people who fought for us," she says. "We have a responsibility to keep their memory alive."