“I knew the enemy fighters would try to approach to a distance from us of about one thousand yards in order to shoot. They knew I could only shoot up to 500 yards, so they had a huge advantage over us. My job was to see them before they saw us.”
This quote is from a new book to be launched just prior to Remembrance Day, which tells the story of a quietly remarkable and highly decorated hero of the Second World War, Sechelt resident Marcel Croteau. Now 96 years old, Croteau is a veteran of 39 missions over France and Germany as a rear gunner in Royal Canadian Air Force bombers.
“Marcel is very modest and says others did more than he did, but 39 missions was extraordinary,” said Sechelt writer and artist Lynda Manson in an interview, who, with Croteau, co-wrote the book, Conquering the War Within. “The losses were something like 80 per cent for [Canada’s] Bomber Command during the war,” noted Manson.
One of the 47 photos in the book shows then-Sgt. Croteau receiving the Distinguished Flying Medal from King George VI at a 1944 ceremony in England attended by other members of the royal family, including his eldest daughter, now Queen Elizabeth II. The citation for the award noted Croteau’s “great gallantry in the performance of his duty.” He was also made a Knight of the Legion of Honour by the government of France.
“Of those 39 missions, seven involved firefights where he shot planes down,” Manson noted. “He had to wait until the enemy was close enough for him to fire. He actually could see the faces of the pilots. That must have been just horrendous. It’s no wonder he’s had PTSD [post traumatic stress disorder] for years.”
Croteau’s struggle with trauma was a much more prolonged ordeal than his few years in the war and inspired the book’s title. “He was wise enough to get therapy,” said Manson. “He’s worked very hard on himself to get healthy again. It’s not like the trauma has ever really gone away, but he has it in a place now where he has more control.”
Manson said she met Alberta-born Croteau in 2013 when he visited the small art gallery in Trail Bay Mall in Sechelt. They started chatting about a painting there of a vintage Canadian bomber, one of the types he told her he’d served in during the war. They met several more times for conversation and eventually agreed on co-writing a memoir. “I think he always thought that his story might make a good book and he just needed a little encouragement to follow through on that,” Manson said. “I wish I was as sharp as he is. He has some incredible memory for detail.”
Croteau and Manson officially launch the book, released by New York’s Austin Macauley Publishers, at the Sechelt Legion on Saturday, Nov. 9 at 3:30 p.m.