Hugs, Not Handshakes - the Final Gifts of Charlie Fox

 Charley's final flight

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Charley Fox, at the request of Canadian Forces photographers, recreates the famous image of him standing beside his Spitfire from some 60 years before. Taken at the 412 Squadron hangar at the time of his being awarded his Canadian Forces Decoration (CD) medal. DND Photo

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Charley steadfastly eyes the Chief of the Air Staff, Lieutenant General Angus Watt at the moment he is pinned with his CD. The look of pride on Charley's face says it all, but also seems to be saying "You've done well young fella!". DND Photo

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Events in honour of Charley seemed to attract aircraft like ants to a picnic. Here, for his CD award ceremony, the Vintage Wings of Canada Spitfire and Mustang roll up to the doors of 412 Squadron while in the background stands a dark blue 412 Squadron Canadair Challenger 601 VIP jet. Photo: John Davies

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Led by members of the Canadian Armed Forces, the family of Charley Fox walks his Air Force ensign-draped coffin beneath a maple tree on his way to be lowered into the soil of the country he loved so much.  DND Photo

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412 Squadron pilots begin the ceremonial folding of the ensign at Charley's interment.  DND Photo

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A lone trumpeter plays the Last Post - a poignant moment under the maples and the fall sky. DND Photo

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Once again, if it was for Charley, then aircraft would be there. In this particular case - many!  Nine yellow Harvard trainers of the Canadian Harvard Association execute a Missing Man formation and climb out over his grave site while an honour guard of Air Force personnel stand at attention. These were followed by a Spitfire and a Hurricane from the Russell Group in Niagara Falls Ontario. These three aircraft types represented most of the service career of F/L Charley Fox, DFC and Bar. Photo: DND

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The final fold. Second Lieutenant Barry-John Dickson (left), author Captain Chris Strawson (Center) and a fellow 412 officer fold the ensign to be presented to Charley's family. DND Photo

My name is Captain Chris Strawson and I have the privilege to explain to you the role of an Honourary Colonel in the Canadian Air Force and to discuss some of the many contributions HCol. Charley Fox made to 412 Squadron and the Canadian Forces.

I have to say that there have been many kind words spoken of Charley today, however I occasionally saw another side of him.  For example, on a mission over to Pisa, Italy in 2004 with Charley, he introduced me to his second vice.  With ice cream of course being his first (navigating from one ice cream parlour to the next), this vice was instrumental in the development of the Fox-Clutch!  It was scotch. And I have to say that after being introduced by Charley to this elixir, I am still a little fuzzy as to exactly how much that famous tower in Pisa actually is leaning!

But let’s get back to the role of honoraries.  The Canadian tradition of appointing honoraries to units originated with the British military but has only been in practice within Canada for a little over a century.  Honorary rank is granted to persons who have rendered distinguished service to the Canadian Forces (CF) or who, from an educational or administrative point of view, are likely to promote the well-being of the CF.  The Honorary Colonel of a unit is seen to be the guardian of Squadron traditions and history, an advocate of the unit’s identity and ethos, and an advisor to the Commanding Officer on virtually all issues.

Did Charley meet these prerequisites?  Well let me say that it may have been his distinguished service to the RCAF in World War II that got 412 Squadron excited about this man, but it was the secondary prerequisite of promoting the well-being of the CF where he truly delivered.

Charley was one of the few people that you’ll meet in your life that has “it”!  And what is “it”?

In June 2004, 412 Sqn had the opportunity to participate in some of the 60th anniversary D-Day events that took place in Normandy.  Of course Charley was there and was busily travelling from event to event and interview to interview on a non-stop pace for days.  When June 6th did come, it was simply wonderful to participate and walk the beaches of Juno with him.  Through this opportunity we were able to meet a couple of Charley’s 412 Squadron mates from the war.  One of those men was Barry Needham of Wynyard Sask.  Barry was another accomplished aviator of 412 Sqn with a distinguished record.  I will get back to Barry in a moment.

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Charley visits with old friends - the cemetery at Beny-sur-Mer where thousands of Canadians are buried including many airmen. Though always meeting and enjoying people, this was a time for Charley to be alone with his old comrades. DND Photo

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Charley was a constant advocate for veterans and youth. He always had time for an interview with the press even if it meant missing a flight over his old hunting grounds - Normandy. Standing on a balcony at Normandy on a foggy morning, Charley is being interviewed by FOX News. DND Photo

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The 412 Challenger was decked out with Charley's old aircraft code (VZ-F) and a set of "Wasp Wings" (Invasion Stripes) in honour of the 60th anniversary of D-Day. Photo: John Davies

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Charley's name beneath the cockpit window honours their beloved Honourary Colonel Fox. Photo: John Davies

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On the engine cowlings, the 412 Squadron Challenger 601 wore the same codes as Charley's Spitfire did on the missions he flew on D-Day. Photo: John Davies

As luck would have it, 412 Squadron was tasked to pre-position our Challenger aircraft  the following day, the 7th of June,  after the celebrations.  Because we had Charley’s D-Day painted Challenger over in France with us, we thought it would be appropriate to take him for a quick jaunt across the country-side.  But as many of us know, Charley is a very busy man and would not be able to make the flight.  However he strongly suggested that we should take Barry Needham, his fellow 412 Squadron fighter pilot friend from Saskatchewan.  Well, I’m from a little town in Saskatchewan as well.  It’s called Rose Valley (and there’s no roses and no valley there).  And it’s just north of another small prairie town called Wynyard.  And we used to just hate going to Wynyard to play hockey because those guys were tough and the women were tougher.  If the grandmothers didn’t like the way you were playing hockey, half the way through the third period they would turn on all the hot water taps in the washrooms, drain the boiler, and leave you with nothing but a very chilly shower following the game.  That was Saskatchewan tough.  So with respect to taking a guy up from Wynyard, Saskatchewan up in the Challenger, well I just wasn’t sure about that!

But Charley had strongly recommended it, so we arranged it.  On the morning of June 7th, 2004 we picked Barry Needham up and left for the airport.

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Standing in front of 412 Squadron Challenger VZ-R after their flight back in time, the crew pose with veteran Barry Needham who flew and was shot down in a Spitfire with the same code letters 60 years ago to the day.  From the top - Derrick Holwell, Barry Needham, Nicole Bujold, LCol. (Ret) Marc Robert, Captain Chris Strawson. DND Photo

In previous chats with Barry, we learned that he had the misfortune of being shot down by German anti-aircraft fire near the city of Falaise on July 7th, 1944, in his aircraft marked VZ-R.  Using great initiative, our Transport Canada AME, Derrick Holwell went out to prepare the aircraft early, and to all our surprises had quickly changed the VZ-F call letters of Charley Fox’s plane, to VZ-R of Barry’s, as it was his aircraft that day!  Our Flight Steward, Nicole Bujold (formerly Durant), also pulled out all the stops in preparing a breakfast on board the aircraft, prior to departure, that would have been fit for the King of England back in 1944.  As we all sat and enjoyed the breakfast, we discussed the upcoming flight and decided on a suitable flight plan for the morning.

As we took off mid-morning with Barry sitting in the jump seat, it was a beautiful and clear day.  We first went over to the exact location where Barry had tangled with German anti-aircraft batteries and quickly found that the landscape had remained unchanged.  Barry easily talked our eyes onto the location where he bailed out of his aircraft, the long and narrow band of trees where he attempted to evade capture, and was eventually captured by German ground forces.  After reviewing the ground and event, we pressed on to the Canadian War Cemetery in Beny-Sur-Mer.  We paid our respects with two passes, enjoying the waves of many Canadians and friends from below.

From Beny-Sur-Mer, Barry took us to the beaches of Normandy where he completed two missions on D-Day.  The people down below at Juno Beach once again were able to appreciate the Allied invasion stripes painted on the wings of the Challenger over their heads as they gazed upwards.  After a flying tribute to those who lost their lives below, we flew up the coast to Vimy Ridge, and paid our respects there before transiting to our destination.

I do have to say at this point that it was LCol Marc Robert (ret) who did most of the flying, but not by choice.  He asked me if I would like to fly a bit at one point, but I selfishly had to reply that I would take control only if he needed a break.  Watching Marc fly, having Barry talk us through his experiences, and feeling the emotions on the ground below was simply too much fun!  To this day, I feel a little guilty putting those two hours in my log book as I did not do much, however I will say that it is the best two hours that I have entered in it.

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Charley's entourage at the D-Day Memorial. Left to right: Chris Strawson, Nicole Bujold, HCol Charley Fox, Marc Robert, Derrick Holwell.  DND Photo

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During the D-Day Anniversary ceremony, aircraft of the RAF's Battle of Britain Memorial Flight overflew the site. One can only imagine what Barry Needham and Charley Fox were thinking as two of their beloved Spits thundered overhead.  DND Photo

And because there is a chance that the Chief of the Air Staff may read this, I feel obligated to say that all flight levels that day were well within the rules of safe flight, by D-Day 1944 standards!  Barry Needham will attest to that!

When we landed, the 412 Squadron members quickly disembarked the aircraft so we could greet Barry at the bottom of the stairs.  When Barry got to the bottom, he extended his hand in gratitude….but within seconds and before his hand could be shook, he took it back sharply.

It was at that that moment that it hit me.  And it hit me with the same clarity of that clear blue sky that we departed in that day.  In those two hours of flying, we had done something that was immeasurable.  We had given Barry what few aircrew had the opportunity to experience at war’s end, a last flight (or a victory flight).  Although it was long overdue (60 years to the day), it was deserved, it was important.

When Barry pulled his hand back on the tarmac following that flight, it was because a shake of the hand was not good enough to this man.  He gave us all a hug.

I asked earlier, what is “it”?  That’s “it”.  Charley could have gone flying that day with us.  But he saw the depth and importance in this act of going flying with Barry.  Many of us could see the hand-shake, Charley was able to see the hug.

That’s one of the first things that Charley taught members of 412 Squadron, identify what’s truly important, focus your efforts, and influence those around you effectively towards that goal.  Leadership.  It seems so easy, yet it is the most complex element of command.  Charley had “it”.  Thinking long-term success.  Hugs, not hand-shakes.

Another key characteristic that Charley taught the members of 412 Squadron is knowing and understanding your Centre of Gravity.  It was very clear that Charley’s Centre of Gravity was his family and friends.  By ensuring that your core is strong, you will never be limited by your reach.  If you do not nurture and protect this core, the balance in your life cannot be maintained.  And although Charley’s life at times may have seemed chaotic, there was always balance.  Charley’s Centre of Gravity was strong, deep, and aligned with success.  Those who had the opportunity to get to know this man were all part of his core of success.  But I can also say that he is part of ours!

As such, 412 Squadron is proud to be part of Charley’s Centre of Gravity, and honored to be part of Charley’s family.

In conclusion, I would like to pass on 2 words that were mentioned by Marc Robert on the day of Charley’s funeral in London.  I feel these two words define Charley’s success at 412 Squadron, his contributions to the Air Force, and the impact that he has had on the Canadian Forces.

“Mission Accomplished.”

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"See guys.. it's like this..." While the 412 entourage waits for table service in Normandy, Charley Fox teaches. DND Photo

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Even after his death, Charley was a teacher - here Ottawa-based Air Cadets read some of the display material that Charley had created and carried with him everywhere. These didactic panels tell the story of the RCAF in the Second World War. DND Photo

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The author reading his eulogy and tribute to his friend at the Memorial Ceremony. DND Photo

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Elements of the Air Force band played a tribute and Vintage Wings of Canada supplied a special banner for Charley's memorial (now hanging permanently in the VWoC hangar) as well as two aircraft. DND Photo

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Need we say more? DND Photo

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