Blackfalds' Neil Kennedy reflects on service during and after the Cold War

RCAF veteran Neil Kennedy stands outside the Royal Canadian Legion Lacombe Branch No. 79. Ashli Barrett / Lacombe Globe

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At 17 years old, Neil Kennedy just wanted to get away from the family farm, and the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) was his ticket out of there.

Growing up in a rural Saskatchewan community, the now 62-year member of the Royal Canadian Legion and current Blackfalds resident said he’d had enough of the farm life, and was left with few other options to escape what seemed like never-ending work.

“As soon as my dad put the new headlights on the tractor, that meant I had to work nights, too, as well as day,” he said. “I had to join the air force so my dad couldn’t touch me.

“They asked why I joined the air force – I said it was because it was the closest recruiting office.”

With his parent’s consent, he signed up in December 1949 and left Saskatchewan for RCAF Station Aylmer in Ontario, where he was to commence pilot training, which he said was exciting because he’d never been in an airplane or seen one up close before.

His excitement was shared by his mother, who told everyone in their town about his pilot training which would’ve made him the only pilot in town.

However, three weeks later, his mother hadn’t heard from him, so she phoned the commanding officer of the air base.

The officer told his mother he thought her son must’ve been too embarrassed to phone her “as we washed him out because he froze at the controls the first time he got in the airplane.”

However, he said Kennedy was a different case than most – his airplane was still parked in the hangar.

While he wouldn’t become a pilot, he would work in logistics for the RCAF after completing boot camp.

Neil Kennedy, pictured after he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force. Kennedy is now a 62-year member of the Royal Canadian Legion and a Blackfalds resident. Photo supplied

In 1955, he was sent to Germany during the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) peacekeeping mission to prevent the Soviet Union from attempting an attack on Western Europe. He was assigned to CFB Baden–Soellingen, a former German base, and the Sabre jet fighter squadron, named for the CL-13 Sabre they piloted.

While there was no full-on fighting,  he says everyone was always on alert regardless of the time of day, and the first thing they’d do every morning would be to send four sabres on patrols, with four more waiting and ready at the end of the runway for emergency takeoff if something should happen.

It was an interesting time to be in Germany, however, as the country was vulnerable following their demise in WWII, not to mention high tensions between the capitalist-minded west, including the U.S., Canada and Britain, and the communist east led by the Soviets.

“The Germans were innocent. We were protecting them because they were down and out from all the battles they had during WWII – any country that wanted them, they were up for grabs,” Kennedy said. ” They were nervous, of course. I think they were really pleased to see all the Canadian squadrons come in there…We were well organized and there was lots of military support for them.”

Still, he says the Germans were determined to get back in their feet.

“They were rebuilding like mad – everybody was employed. Their wages weren’t that good, but they all jumped in and went to work. Kids were going to school and everybody was trying to by cars,” he said. “They built the autobahn and that was a really nice highway – there weren’t too many German automobiles, but they fought and worked hard and save their money. Next thing you know, they’ve all got Volkswagens in their garage.”

Eventually, the Soviet Union would back off, which he said they were pretty happy about.

Kennedy left Germany in 1959, and spent the rest of his RCAF career at various posting throughout the country, starting with RCAF Station Sea Island in B.C. It was at this time when a neighbour took him to the legion in Whalley, B.C., which was when he first joined, following in the footsteps of his uncles and father in some way, if not farming.

In 1962 he was transferred to Rivers, Manitoba, followed by St. Hubert, Que. in 1967, and Kamloops in 1969. His final post would be Inuvik, which was still part of the Northwest Territories but would become part of Nunavut.

He’d retire from the RCAF in 1975, long before the Cold War officially ended with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

He went back to Kamloops where he rejoined the legion branch there, and became a steam engineer, firing boilers in what he called the hottest place he ever worked.

“I said I could hardly wait to get to hell because it won’t be this hot there,” he said, laughing, but it wasn’t the family farm.

By 1980, he transferred to the legion in Houston, B.C., the Osoyoos, B.C. in 1990. Seven years later, he’d find himself in Princeton, B.C., but went back to Osoyoos in 2003. He’s been involved with sports and entertainment committees, as well as poppy sales.

Ultimately, in 2010, he’d finally settle in Blackfalds, where he’s been since. He first joined the Red Deer Legion, but switched to Lacombe Branch No. 79 in 2012 where he’s helped out with poppy sales, and is the man in charge of distributing and filling poppy boxes in the town.

But as WWII veterans become fewer, and so, too, do Cold War veterans, he says he’d like to see younger people join.

Part of the reason they haven’t been, he surmises, is their parents and older generations don’t talk about it.

“I wish we could get more young people in there. You don’t have to be a military member,” he said.

“I don’t think they realize how important it is. No one is taking them aside and their parents and grandparents…they wouldn’t talk too much about it. A lot joined Afghanistan, and they’re now most of the veterans….There’s not too many WWII vets left.”

As for Remembrance Day, he says he doesn’t wait for Nov. 11 to remember pilots killed overseas, neighbours that never returned from WWII, or other personnel that wrote themselves off with car accidents.

He does, however, attend the ceremonies, saluting by the Cenotaph as the parade passes him by – which is where he’ll be Monday.

Ceremonies begin at 11 a.m. at the Lacombe Memorial Centre.

Blackfalds resident and Cold War veteran Neil Kennedy, who served in the Royal Canadian Air Force, salutes outside of the Lacombe Legion building on Monday, Nov. 4, 2019 in Lacombe, Alta. Ashli Barrett / Lacombe Globe