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Letters Home

He was at Malton Air Base in Toronto, Canada when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941. In his letter home to his fiancé, Mary, he mentioned it, along with the expectation that, rather than fighting in Europe, he might now be sent to the Pacific at the completion of his training, due early in the new year and so there was a chance he could come home on leave and make her a war bride. You could sense the excitement in his words. He was living his dream on the adventure of a lifetime that he’d been waiting for all his life.
To his mother Mary, in a letter home, dated 7 October, he shared his hopes and dreams of seeing an end to the war very soon and being home in time for Christmas. He also told his mother of his intention to marry Mary, “for only then will I be truly happy”.
In an another letter home, his last, to his family, dated 26 December 1941, he described his last Christmas, his first away from his family, and his last ever, with another family, the home of the WW1 civilian pilot, Charles Rutherford, who was flying their plane that vanished. Bede described the festivities with all the trimmings, a traditional roasted Christmas dinner, complete with all the trappings of a picture perfect white Christmas: A far cry from the cold buffets in old Manly town. The atmosphere was warm and welcoming and he said it felt a lot like home. Though, between the toasts and cheers, he’d get a swift kick under the table, as his mates could see that all too familiar melancholic state, that servicemen were prone to, ‘in the pink’ as it were, as he wrestled the doldrums of being far from home and missing his family and fiancé on his first ever Christmas, in his 31 years, away from home. He wrote, “I miss my little mother and all my loved ones at home more than you can imagine”. They never heard from him again…
The next letter home was a telegram, delivered by hand, in a beige-coloured envelope, addressed to his father. It read:
Dear Mr Sutton,
It is with great regret that I have to write you about your son Bede Bernard being missing from a routine navigation flight on January 8th, 1942. The flight departed from Malton, Ontario, at 2pm, arriving at St. John’s, Quebec, in time for supper.
The “AVRO ANSON” took off from St John’s at 6.18 pm… They reported at Montreal that they were on their course for home (Malton) but no word was heard from them after that…
The weather was clear, visibility unlimited… but fog and snow were reported south of the track. An intensive search has been carried out… to date the aircraft has not been found. So they are presumed dead.
The words kept fading, in and out, to grey, as tears welled up in his father’s eyes.
There were three other personnel in the aircraft… and two Canadians, civilian pilot Mr Charles Rutherford ….
“RUTHERFORD”, he gasped, “the fella he had Christmas with.”
A close watch … but it is feared… buried in snow… not be found until spring. Any further word… forwarded to you immediately.
I trust that in your sorrow, you and your family will derive some measure of consolation from the realisation that your son died in the service of his King and Country.
The family kept a constant vigil, holding on to hope against hope, that their son, Bill’s only biological son, would be found, alive and well, rescued by Indians in the Canadian wilderness, suffering from amnesia, but alive. Anything but this! They wrote letter after letter to the Home Office in Ottawa, begging for news, keeping their hopes alive. “No news is good news”, they would write. The hopefulness was palpable, and yet, you could sense the heavy weight of sorrow, banging at their door.
And then, at last, that final letter came. Once more, the telegram boy, entered through the gate, and slowly made his way along the garden path, towards the front door, as if the pathway was a church aisle, and the front door, the altar, and he, like the angel of death, etching silently towards them, with the ominous intent of finality. Mary was sitting in the front sunroom, by the window, staring out to sea, lost in her own thoughts, while her husband Bill, sat beside her reading the newspaper.
She came to, when she heard the creaking of the noisy hinge, as the delivery boy entered through the gate. She gasped as she clutched the string of pearls around her neck, and gripped her throat with both hands, before steadying herself by holding onto her husband’s broad shoulders, made strong from the years in construction. Together, they made their way to the front door. Part of her wanted to run the other way, but the anguish of not knowing all these months, had taken their toll on her and leading her to an early grave. They braced themselves for what came next.
The doorbell rang out, like church bells at a funeral, and with a silent prayer, they opened the front door. The young lad took the beige envelop out of his satchel, his eyes lowering towards the ground. He knew what was coming. He knew, that with this letter, he would smash their hopes to smithereens. He knew that his favourite footy hero, one of Manly Rugby Union Club’s all time highest point-scorers, who represented NSW in the 1935 nail-biting, grand final against Queensland, bringing them to glorious victory with his superb, goal-kicking, would never again take to the field and make the crowd roar. He, and all of Manly, had been holding out in hope too, these past eight months, for news of their golden boy, and would also share in their grief.
The letter, dated 11 September 1942, from the Canadian Minister for Defence for Air, said:
“It was with deep regret that your son, Leading Aircraftsman Bede Bernard Sutton, previously reported missing is now presumed to have died on January 8th, 1942″.
He gallantly and in the full measure…gave his life…King and Country…”.
On hearing the news Mary went to her bedroom and locked herself in, and didn’t come out for thirty-six hours. She was 66 years old and had now lost a second son. She’d already tasted the bitter-root of losing an infant son in her first marriage. Bill and their four daughters knew better than to disturb her. She’d come out in her own time. That’s just how she dealt with things. The house was cold and quiet, while outside, the warmth of an early spring, Mary’s favourite time of year, was bringing everything to life.
End of word count 1086 words.
Family photos
Happier days at “Euglo” Ocean beach Manly, before the war. With Bill and Mary Sutton seated left and centre, Mary’s son Les Lipman from first marriage, Bede Bernard Sutton standing, and four Sutton daughters from back left Phyllis, France Jean, Faye and Hope. In 1942 all the daughters were living back at home while their husbands were away at war. Phyllis’s husband Stan came home TPI (totally permanently incapacitated and was eventually in a wheelchair.The other husbands came home uninjured. Les was refused entry to WW1 due to his flat feet.
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Bede with fiancé Mary most likely on 6 September, 1941, his 31st birthday on his final leave before embarkation two weeks’ later. Their last goodbye by prolifically captured by a random street photographer outside St Matthews Church on The Corso, Manly; a favourite tourist spot for Australians between Sydney Harbour and the Ocean Beach.
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Bede with his ‘little mother’ Mary. He inherited his father’s height and cheerful disposition. He was dearly loved by all.
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📷Bede’s final flight. This letter was sent to his fiancé Mary, along with his possessions after his death. Mary gave the photo to his mother.
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Figure 1 First letter from the Home Office in Ottawa, Canada
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Figure 2 Final Letter from the Home Office in Ottawa, Canada