Joseph Romanow (1921 – 2011)

War hero helped displaced Ukrainians



War hero helped displaced Ukrainians

Saskatoon-born flying ace was the first person of Ukrainian descent to become a general in the Canadian Forces


Special to The Globe and Mail

April 27, 2011

Well-spoken, calm and respectful, Joseph Romanow did not seem like a hard man. But he was tougher than duct tape. He lived through the Depression and the Dirty Thirties, saw buddies perish on the battlefield – almost dying himself – and witnessed brutal conditions after the Second World War in displaced persons camps.

Rather than embitter him, the grim experiences, he said, “made me more laid-back, accepting [of] life … looking at life more casually, respecting other people.” As he related to a military archive a few years ago, “I think most veterans are no longer violent people. There are no violent veteran criminals. I’m not sure what the right word is, but you see life in a much [more] acceptable way. As I say, I can feel it, but I can’t express it.”

In Canada’s Ukrainian community, Romanow was a hero. A decorated soldier, he was a leading force in the scouring of displaced persons camps after the war to locate Ukrainians and bring them to this country’s safety. And he was the first Canadian of Ukrainian descent to become a general in the Canadian Forces.

He died in Ottawa of cancer on March 21 at the age of 89.

“He was one of a large group of Canadians of Ukrainian heritage who volunteered to serve overseas with our armed forces at the outbreak of the Second World War,” said Lubomyr Luciuk, a professor of political geography at the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont., and an expert on Ukrainians in Canada.

“While in England, he helped organize the Ukrainian Canadian Servicemen’s Association and its ‘London Club’ at 218 Sussex Gardens, a home away from home for thousands of Ukrainian Canadian servicemen and women.” It was there that he and other Canadian-Ukrainians created the Central Ukrainian Relief Bureau, which helped thousands of Ukrainian political refugees and displaced persons find asylum in Canada, among them Luciuk’s parents.

“Like his comrades-in-arms,” said Luciuk, “Joe Romanow was truly one of the heroes of his day.”

In the hurly-burly of Ukrainian-Canadian politics, Romanow professed neutrality. He was “most reluctant,” he told Luciuk in a 1981 interview, to get involved in Ukrainian politics. He rued the postwar rift that developed in the Canadian community between newcomers for whom Ukrainian independence from Moscow was paramount, and the more-settled prewar

immigrants who were less engaged in the issue. He called the divide “an unfortunate waste of energy.”

Joseph Roman Romanow was born in Saskatoon on May 3, 1921, one of five children. His parents had come to Canada from the Ukrainian village of Kitzman, his father in 1911 for “political reasons” – he had been an active resister of Polish colonization. While many Ukrainian immigrants chose to homestead, the elder Romanow worked for the Canadian National Railway. The couple married in Saskatoon and were among the founders of the city’s Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of St. George, a parish that will mark its centenary this year.

Life revolved around the Ukrainian Catholic Church and Joseph was active in church youth groups. As a teenager, he helped out at the New Pathway (Novy Shliakh) newspaper print shop.

“Being paid a dollar for a 10-hour day on Saturday gave him enough to take his girlfriend to the movies that evening, buy them both a Coke and have 25 cents left for the collection plate the next morning,” noted the newsletter of the Ukrainian Canadian Professional and Business Association of Ottawa.

Early on, Romanow’s parents instilled certain values of multiculturalism. “It was important there were cultural activities – music, poetry, religion,” said Walter Romanow, Joseph’s brother. “But it was also important to appreciate that we were living in Canada. It was important for us to be Canadian.”

Joseph enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1939 and was accepted in 1940. After training in a Tiger Moth biplane, he was sent to pilot anti-U-boat patrols and convoy escorts over Canada’s west, then east coasts. Following a short stint in England, he was transferred to Burma, where he flew with the RCAF’s 435 and 436 Squadrons. He also trained Gurkha paratroopers and dodged Japanese fighter aircraft.

In a remarkable online video archive at the Veterans Affairs Canada website, Romanow provided, in 2004, his memories of that little-known theatre of the Second World War. They alternate between light-hearted and harrowing.

“A lot of the fighting was done with Gurkha regiments, and [for] Gurkhas, I have nothing but the greatest admiration,” he recalled. “They were nice, they were fierce, and sometimes I think they were crazy, you know.”

How fierce? At night, roll call was never taken because there would be several Gurkhas missing. “They’d sneak into the Japanese bivouac and just lop off heads with their khukuris (15-inch curved blades). By dawn, they were all back in their bivouac.” This apparently led to a dark joke among the enemy: “Well, we lived through another night,” one Japanese officer would say to another, to which the reply was, “Shake your head.”

Another horror story he told with great composure was a close call on a flying mission over Burma’s Imphal Valley. Caught in a violent downdraft, his Dakota DC-3 was plunging at a stomach-churning rate of 3,000 feet per minute.

“The aircraft tumbled like a leaf in a high wind,” Romanow recalled in his interview. “I know at one point we were upside down because we were hanging in our seat harnesses. When we dropped below [the] 3,000-foot level, still in cloud, I was certain that we would not survive. We were below the level of the hilltops. There was nothing left to do but pray.

“Suddenly, we were spit out of the bottom of the cloud at 2,000 feet over the Chindwin River Valley. I regained control of the aircraft and followed the winding river eastward towards the tunnel formed by the hills on either side and the cloud above. It led us out of the hills into the plains country. We had survived. It was the most helpless, frightening experience of my life.”

For a year at war’s end, Romanow joined other Ukrainian-Canadian servicemen in an effort financed by the Ukrainian Canadian Committee (now the Ukrainian Canadian Congress) to locate displaced Ukrainians in several zones newly occupied by the Allies.

“Things were rather chaotic,” he recalled of the time. “That permitted things to be done, which in a more structured period would not have been possible.” He did not elaborate.

The most immediate concern was physical survival, amid conditions Romanow found “inhumane” (he could not spend more than five hours in any camp). The long-term goal for displaced persons was to avoid a lifetime of slave labour.

According to Luciuk, many Ukrainians deemed to be Soviet citizens were obliged to return home.

“There were millions of them, mostly slave labourers who had been press-ganged into the service of the Third Reich during the war. Many refused to return to the Soviet Union but, under the terms of the Yalta Agreement, they were expected to and the western Allies began the process of forcible repatriation.”

The Soviets were promising an uneventful journey home, but would often lock the transporting boxcars and route the returning trains to Siberia, or just slaughter the returnees.

With the Allies’ approval, Romanow and the other Canadians entered the camps and, after building trust, gathered lists of names to publish in Ukrainian-Canadian newspapers. Readers could then identify relatives and sponsor their immigration to Canada. “Truth be told,” conceded the Ukrainian Canadian Professional and Business Association of Ottawa, “many of the claims of relatedness were rather tenuous.”

Between 35,000 and 40,000 displaced Ukrainians came to Canada from the end of the war into the early 1950s, Luciuk said.

Following his work in the camps, Romanow entered the University of Saskatchewan and graduated in 1950 with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. He rejoined the RCAF, which sent him to England to complete a master’s in aeronautical engineering.

From there, he began a torrent of activity, including work on the doomed Avro Arrow, the supersonic jet that was scuttled by the federal government. He was the senior Canadian representative at the U.S. Bomarc missile program, and was the officer responsible for the final installation phase and operation of Canada’s first nuclear missile site in North Bay, Ont.

Posted to the National Defence College in Kingston, he attained the rank of Brigadier-General in 1971. From there, he spent three years in West Germany helping NATO reorganize its air command structure.

In 1974, he was awarded the Commander in the Order of Military Merit and the Canadian Forces Decoration.

Two years later, he retired as director general of Organization and Manpower at National Defence Headquarters in Ottawa and became president of the Machinery and Equipment Manufacturers’ Association of Canada.

He wrote six books on family history and a personal memoir, Just Joe.

In 1996, Romanow returned to Burma as part of a Canadian delegation that attended the interment ceremony of six of his wartime buddies whose C-47 Dakota crashed in the jungle in June, 1945, and went undiscovered for 45 years. Said his daughter Paula, “He felt it was an honour to be able to honour them.”

Joseph Romanow was predeceased by his wife, Josephine Sawchuk. They had four children: Mary, a retired air force lieutenant colonel; Gregory, a retired navy captain, John and Paula, and seven grandchildren. He also leaves brothers Walter and Morris. Roy Romanow, Saskatchewan’s former premier, was a cousin.


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