At 10:30 a.m. on Aug. 18, the 97th annual Warriors’ Day Parade will take place at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto. The parade recognizes and honours all those who have served and continue to serve in Canada’s military. This year also marks the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War and the 70th anniversary of the first United Nations peacekeeping mission.
Leading the parade as one of two honorary parade marshals will be Capt. Mort Lightstone, who spent 28 years as a navigator in the Air Force.
Lightstone, 85, first marched in the Warriors’ Day Parade 40 years ago, shortly after moving to Toronto from Belleville, Ont. He waited in front of the Princes’ Gate, where the parade begins, found an Air Force unit and marched with them.
“It was a particularly hot August day and I thought, ‘this marching is for the birds. I’ve done enough while I was in the Air Force. I’d better get on the committee,’ ” he said.
So he did. Lightstone volunteered for the Warriors’ Day Parade council the following year, slowly worked his way up and, in 2013, he was named president of the council.
“I held that position for two years and thoroughly enjoyed it, particularly because the total parade, the total Warriors’ Day Council, is organized by volunteers – 100 per cent volunteers. Some of them have no military background; it doesn’t take long until they wish they had,” he said.
Lightstone joined the Air Force out of high school. He had planned to become a lawyer, but his parents were struggling financially. At the time, one generally needed a university degree to become a commissioned officer, but there were some opportunities to become an officer at “the sharp end of the business,” as Lightstone called it, doing dangerous work.
In the Air Force, that meant volunteering for air crew. He was offered a five-year commission as a non-university graduate.
“I used to joke, ‘no thanks, straight salary is good enough,’ ” Lightstone said.
He did a six-week bootcamp in Prince Edward Island, a year of navigation school and then went to serve in the Korean War. He flew over 1,000 hours, as part of the Korean Airlift, which provided support to efforts in Korea.
“We moved millions of tons of freight, I don’t know how many thousands of passengers and tons of mail,” said Lightstone.
He was offered a permanent commission after the Korean War. Having completed a stint as a teacher at a navigation school in Winnipeg, he was transferred to Nottingham, England. From there, he supported the Royal Canadian Air Force’s 12 European squadrons, which were spread out over four bases – two in France and two in Germany. He left for England with a suitcase and a kit and nothing in the hold. After four years, he returned to Canada with nine suitcases, 21 crates in the hold, a wife and a son.
He also said he was part of a 15-man team that delivered secret communications equipment and a communications officer to Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Vietnam. The team was supposed to get in and out within four hours or they’d be in violation of the Paris Peace Accords, but the government wanted them to stick around in secret, in case an emergency evacuation of Canada’s 200 troops became necessary. They were so secret that they weren’t even allowed any shelter or provisions.
So Lightstone and the other 14 men remained in Vietnam, sleeping in an abandoned French cell block and smuggling food from the American camp. Finally, after a week or two, the Canadian government order him and his team to go to Bangkok. When Lightstone applied for a medal for his service in Vietnam, he was denied – officially, he was only there for four hours.