Howard and Annie McNamara both served in the Royal Canadian Air Force before finding love back home in Montreal.
He was a dashing Spitfire pilot dodging German Messerschmitts and strafing enemy supply convoys in the Italian mountains.
She was a glamorous dancer in a travelling military revue, entertaining the troops and living out of a kit bag.
They fell in love, had kids and lived happily ever after.
If it sounds like the plot of a Hollywood movie, it’s not far off. But that was real life for Howard and Annie, who are still married 71 years later.
Now both approaching 100, the veteran couple radiates the domestic satisfaction of a life well lived in their cozy house in Saint-Laurent, Que.
And neither has lost their sense of humour in old age.
“You saw the picture in the bedroom there,” Annie said when asked whether she found Howard handsome when they met after the war, in Montreal.
“Very, very good looking,” she said, before adding “he’s changed!” and bursting into laughter.
Patrolling the desert skies
But Howard didn’t join the RCAF to look good in a flyer’s uniform.
Growing up on Northcliffe Avenue in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, he had a fascination for airplanes, buying and building model aircraft kits.
When the Second World War broke out in Europe in 1939, he and his younger brother James avidly consumed news about the conflict, especially by way of movie newsreels.
What they saw was the U.K. besieged by Nazi Germany’s air force, the Luftwaffe, especially during the bombing of London.
“My brother and I decided, maybe it’s time that guy was stopped,” Howard said, referring to Adolf Hitler.
So the brothers signed up at a local RCAF recruiting office, but while James passed with flying colours, Howard was deemed too skinny for his 20-year-old frame.
“My mother helped me make special eggnogs every morning,” Howard said. “After a month, I put on enough weight to go back down.”
After flying school in Canada and Carlisle, U.K., the newly minted pilot was shipped off to North Africa in 1942, where the British Army was locked in battle with the German Afrika Corps, under the command of general Erwin Rommel — known as the Desert Fox.
Based out of El Alamein, Egypt, under the command of the Royal Air Force, Howard and his fellow Commonwealth pilots flew Hawker Hurricane fighter aircraft on sorties to protect Allied troops from German dive bombers.
Howard’s job was to watch his squadron’s tail for enemy fighters looking to ambush the Hurricanes.
“One time when I looked back I had a German right up my tail,” he remembered. “I was trained to move your backside so I kicked out as he pressed [the trigger]. So that’s why he got my wingtip, otherwise if he hadn’t slipped out, I wouldn’t be here.”
He says while there was plenty of contact, he only scored one hit on an enemy aircraft.
“I’m listed on the squadron records as having hit a German dive bomber, but I only damaged him,” he said.
Black stockings and a 10-piece band
Little did Howard know, his future wife, Annie Goode, a 21-year-old from Verdun, Que., was also serving in the RCAF, but with a much different mission: entertaining flyers like Howard as part of a travelling air force variety show.
“All the boys were leaving and I said, ‘Gee I don’t wanna be left here.’ So I went too,” she said.
The production was titled All Clear, and featured a team of eight female dancers backed by a 10-piece orchestra. There were also songs and skits.
In 1943, they toured air force bases across Canada, and even made a stop at National Naval Medical Center in Washington, D.C., now known as the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where they performed for men wounded in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor — to a little too much acclaim, thanks to the dancers’ racy costumes.
“They were all yelling so loud and whistling that we didn’t hear the orchestra,” said Annie. “It was bedlam.”
The outfits were toned down for the troupe’s subsequent stint in the U.K., but Annie says the men in uniform still got a big morale boost anytime the entertainers hit the stage.
“They enjoyed every minute of it,” she said.
Annie says the gruelling schedule of travelling shows helped the women, who hailed from all across Canada, bond.
“We were like a family,” she said. “The only thing we fought over was if there was hot water.”
Spitfires over Italy
Meanwhile, Howard had been reassigned to the Italian campaign, as Allied troops worked their way up the “boot” trying to dislodge the German forces who occupied the peninsula.
His squadron had made the transition to the faster, Supermarine Spitfire fighter, and was stationed on the French island of Corsica.
From the island, Howard and his fellow airmen conducted search-and-destroy missions, scouring the mountain routes for German convoys carrying troops and supplies.
“We would attack trains and road convoys which was more or less fun. Because we had nobody to jump us,” he said.
But Allied air superiority wasn’t enough to protect the pilots from surprise attack, especially when they were sitting on the ground.
Howard remembers one night when the Germans decided to bomb his airfield.
“That night we lost about three pilots who were not near their slit trench and dove under a truck,” he said.
He remembers having to clean up the wreckage the next day, with little time to mourn his fallen comrades.
“We had to go walk in line to pick up all the shrapnel that was left on the airfield because we had needed the airfield to go to work,” he said. “So you just forget what happened.”
Giving the wounded a reason to smile
Despite being relatively safe in the U.K., Annie had her own brushes with the horrors of war.
Part of her troupe’s task was to visit the wounded in hospitals, including at a burn unit outside of London where men tried to soothe their charred skin in bathtubs full of ice.
“Their faces would be burned and we had to visit them. That was hard,” she said. “But that was our job.”
As the war wound down, All Clear crossed the English Channel and started performing in areas once held by the retreating Germans.
The entertainers also visited the Nazi concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen. A newspaper from the time described Annie’s impressions.
“What touched us the most and really made us feel like weeping, especially the Jewish boys in the show, was when we visited the children’s ward. Those poor kids! Some of them know nothing else but concentration camps,” she said.
“We only saw 38 of them and they are all orphans … the kids were deformed too. Most of them have had their growth stunted.”
A postwar love story
After his tour of duty in Italy, Howard was given leave back to Montreal. It was then that he learned his brother James had been shot down over France. The family held a funeral service even though they never found any trace of him or his aircraft.
“You expect him to get through as well as you did but sometimes things don’t turn out that way,'” he said.
James’s death in action, along with a declining need for pilots as the war entered its final stages, gave Howard the chance to stay home.
“I had this opportunity of retiring,” he said. “My family says, ‘Why don’t you take it?'”
After the war, he went back to his job selling Gurney stoves, and spent his off hours with friends at weekend dances at the Mountain Club on Mount Royal.
At one of the Saturday functions he met Annie, who said the handsome ex-fighter pilot rarely flew solo in those days.
“When I first saw him, gee whiz, he always had a different girl!” she said, laughing.
But when the two began dancing, Howard fell hard.
“Oh it hit me,” he said. “She was a good-looking girl with red hair.”
They married in 1948 and had three children, eventually settling in their current home on Tassé Street in Saint-Laurent.
Despite their combined military service, the two rarely discussed the war.
“Nobody ever talked about the war.” Annie said. “A lock went on the mouths of everybody that had been overseas.”
Returning for 75th anniversary of Italian campaign
Over time, that changed. The pair went overseas five years ago for the 70th anniversary of the Italian campaign.
On Nov. 26, Howard will head to Italy again to mark the 75th anniversary, with a contingent of other Canadian veterans. This time, his daughter Judy will accompany him, and Annie will stay at home.
“I could have gone, but as a chaperone,” she said. “How could I, at 98, chaperone him? He’ll be 100 by the time he goes!”
Howard says he’s not going overseas to sightsee, but to visit military cemeteries, where thousands of Canadian dead are buried.
Some, whose bodies were never found, like his brother, have their names listed on monuments.
“It’s like the prayer that’s generally done, ‘They will not grow old. As we are who are left grow old,'” he said referencing the section of Laurence Binyon poem For the Fallen, which is a fixture of Remembrance Day ceremonies.
“We’re honouring these young guys that didn’t get a chance.”