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Dad, son share 71 years of service

Jack Whitehead, front, and his son, Ken, seen here at the Camp Hill Veterans' Memorial Building on Nov. 6 have a combined 71 years of military service.
Jack Whitehead, front, and his son, Ken, seen here at the Camp Hill Veterans' Memorial Building on Nov. 6 have a combined 71 years of military service. - Ryan Taplin

A pair of retired Canadian Forces officers will lay a wreath Monday at the cenotaph near the Camp Hill Memorial Veterans Building.
The two have combined 71 years of active service with the Royal Canadian Air Force.

“I thought it was kind of unique to have a father-son combination like that,” Ken Whitehead said of his 34-year air force career, eclipsed in longevity by his dad, Jack Whitehead, who proudly boasts 37 years in uniform.

“There are probably not too many families that have that record of service,” the younger Whitehead, 69, said this week while visiting his father at Camp Hill.

“We are both very proud of it.”

The 71 years of service began with Jack Whitehead’s enlistment in 1942 in Edmonton and ended with Bill Whitehead’s retirement from the air force in 2005. There were even eight years of overlapping service before Col. Jack Whitehead retired from the air force in 1980.

“He actually presented my wings,” retired Maj. Ken Whitehead said of his dad’s role in his graduation at the Winnipeg air force base.

The military marvel began with Jack Whitehead graduating from high school in Edmonton at the age of 17 and impatiently waiting a full year before he could join the Forces.

“It was just the thing to do,” Whitehead, 95, said of enlisting for military service in the Second World War years. “Most of my schoolmates did the same thing. It was just expected.”

The elder Whitehead said he was always interested in the air crew but his military medical uncovered that he was colour blind and not eligible to join an air crew. He decided instead to get involved with radar technology, which was in its infancy at the time.

After intensive training at the University of Alberta while in uniform, Whitehead graduated top of his class from a range and detection finding (RDF) mechanics course in Ontario. He was then sent on a special Royal Air Force mission to Washington and was chosen as one of three Canadians to learn about a special piece of equipment that was being manufactured in the United States, a bad-weather landing system for bombers and fighters called ground control approach.

Col. Whitehead was dispatched overseas along with the first ground control unit built in the United States on a Royal Navy aircraft carrier.

“It was during that trip that D-Day happened and rumours were ripe that we were going to land on the beaches,” he said. “We had a deck full of torpedo bombers.”

Instead, the aircraft carrier landed in Liverpool and Whitehead helped set up the first training base for the new landing equipment in England. 

He worked on the systems in Belgium and Holland throughout the war years, arriving at Pier 21 in Halifax on New Year’s Day 1946 to accept a discharge from the service. With future wife, Irish-born and Edmonton-raised Adelaide, waiting at home, Whitehead studied electrical engineering at the University of Alberta with the aid of Veterans Affairs’ funding.

Before graduation, the air force came calling again and offered Whitehead a permanent commission, a peace time career that took him all over Canada to set up and work on radar systems.

One of the stops was Cold Lake, Alta., about 300 kilometres northeast of Edmonton, where son Ken and his two siblings started school.

“They grew up on air force bases, basically, in civilization and in the wilderness.”

Ken Whitehead said he enjoyed his days as an air force brat and when the family located to Nova Scotia, he went to high school in Dartmouth and then on to Dalhousie University.

“Initially, it (military) wasn’t in my plans,” retired Maj. Whitehead said. “I was at Dalhousie University and I suppose, like a number of young men, wasn’t entirely sure what I was going to do. I knew the air force life having been an air force brat. I went to a recruiting centre and they told me that air crew positions were open and they would pay for the rest of my university, tuition and books, if I would commit to three years after graduation. 

“I said, that sounds good, I will have some money to spend at university. I’ll only have to give three years and by then I will have figured myself out. After those three years, what I figured out was I loved being in the air force.”

Ken Whitehead found another love in Dartmouth, his wife Marilyn Merrick. While his career took the family, which later included three children, to different parts of the country, Whitehead said he always leapt at opportunities to return to Shearwater or Greenwood in Nova Scotia.

A career highlight was working as detachment commander on HMCS Huron during the Persion Gulf war. 
It was March 1991 and hostilities were pretty much over, Whitehead said,  but the oil well fires were raging. The Huron had two Sea King helicopters aboard.

“We had two main jobs, one was to patrol the Arabian Gulf because the bad guys had put these mines in, tethered on the bottom, but when they detected ships going by they would release,” Whitehead said. “They were a hazard to warships. We patrolled looking for these mines and when we found them we’d put flares around them and the U.S. navy or German navy would come with their explosive ordnance people and destroy the mines.”

Later on, Whitehead manned Sea Kings to bring Canadian firefighters and equipment in to battle the many oil well blazes in Kuwait.

The elder Whitehead did not push Ken or his two siblings toward a military career but he applauded Ken’s career choice.

“I was all for it,” Whitehead said. “ I had a good career. I was proud of him for picking the air force.”

Neither did Ken Whitehead encourage his children to join the military.

“They grew up on military bases like I did, travelling and moving. None of them ever expressed any interest and I didn’t push them in that direction.

“I guess this ends with us two.”

Remembrance Day is about endings and courageous sacrifice. 

“For years, I would go off by myself and think of my friends that I’d lost,” said Jack Whitehead, the memories leaving him sad and sombre. “That was it.”

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