Alberta Second World War veteran Jack Hilton died on March 7 at age 99, the Royal Canadian Air Force has confirmed.
Hilton died peacefully in his sleep at St. Teresa Place in Calgary. He is survived by four children — two daughters and two sons ranging in age from 62 to 75 — and multiple grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
As a Typhoon fighter pilot, Hilton completed more than 100 operations across Europe during the Second World War — including getting shot down over Dunkirk and flying on D-Day — and later went on to train hundreds of other young men to fly.
“In 28 days, I flew 28 times — and 28 times you take off and land, you’re pushing your luck,” Hilton told Global News on Remembrance Day in 2018.
He said every time he took to the air, a quarter of the men who went up didn’t return.
“I went over to France with 28 pilots,” Hilton said of his overall mission. “Eight of us came home to Canada. I’ve seen things that humans shouldn’t see.”
‘Go forth and bomb some more’
Hilton was born in Toronto on April 22, 1919, and straight out of high school he joined the Air Force.
In 1939, Hilton moved to Fort Macleod, Alta., to train pilots. He met Ethel on the Air Force base in 1940 and they tied the knot in 1942 — a marriage that lasted 71 years.
“They were always holding hands,” said Sandra Kratz, Hilton’s eldest daughter, on Wednesday.
At the start of the war, Hilton flew reconnaissance along the Pacific coast of Canada to ensure no attacks were imminent.
Following a pit stop in Toronto to visit family, Hilton headed to Europe to fight in 1944.
“[After getting shot down] they got picked up, taken back and put in another airplane, and go forth and bomb some more,” Kratz said.
A lot of his crashes were in England, she added.
“It was when he was coming back from a bombing run, and he said the engine started really acting peculiar,” Kratz said.
“He knew he had his wheels shot out from under him. He literally had one leg outside, ready to bail. Apparently, something happened and the plane kicked in again, so he climbed back in and was able to get it on the ground.”
Hilton was awarded France’s highest military decoration, la Légion d’Honneur, in 2015 for his contribution to the country’s liberation from the Nazis.
“He never considered himself a war hero,” Kratz said. “He said the heroes are buried in Europe.”
‘Suck it up, buttercup’
After the war, the Hiltons moved to Lethbridge — where Kratz’s dad worked delivering bread with a horse and wagon — Calgary and B.C.
The family was always new in town, so it was beneficial that they were a cohesive unit.
“We, as a family, laughed a lot and had good times,” Kratz said. “Mom and dad were instrumental in doing that for all of us.”
In 1951, Hilton rejoined the military, working radar in top secret locations, and later retired in the mid-1960s.
After that chapter of his life came to an end, he worked sales jobs, selling office supplies, houses and cars — until he “officially” retired at 92, Kratz said.
It was only after Ethel’s death five years ago that Hilton put pen to paper.
“She wouldn’t allow it,” Kratz said. “She wouldn’t deal with the nightmares because she said it was just too hard on him.”
To help deal with the horrors of war that he witnessed, Hilton wrote a book about his experiences called The Saga of a Canadian Typhoon Fighter Pilot, which was released in 2015.
“My dad didn’t talk to us kids much about his war years because it was too fresh for him,” Kratz said. “I only know his war experiences from what I read in the book.”
“These guys came back with the same PTSD as these guys do now but nobody was there to help,” she added. “So you just had to suck it up, buttercup, and get on with your life. I’m sure there were a lot of nights of nightmares because there was no help. Dad said he got a new suit and $100, and [they] said go forth and do your thing.
“It made him a tough person but my dad was very positive about everything. It didn’t matter how doom and gloom things were; he always saw the bright side.”
Kratz said her dad’s optimism contributed to his longevity.
“A very kind, loving, caring and a very positive-outlook-on-life kind of a person,” she said. “He was friendly with everybody, he was kind to all of us kids, no matter what stupid things we did.
“He really enjoyed life and he enjoyed people, and he was very positive about everything that came his way.”
Kratz said her father’s involvement with the cadets has inspired young people, especially with how Hilton kept active with age.
Polite, respectful and humble
“He was a wonderful gentleman,” said Don Ross, a member of the board of directors at the Hangar Flight Museum in Calgary, on Sunday.
Ross got to know Hilton over the past three years, when Hilton would participate in Remembrance Day events, and they would chat about both being in the Air Force.
“I’d see him at a function where he was tied up and a lot of people wanted to go spend time with him,” Ross said.
“He just liked to talk to people. I mean, he would sit down and talk to anybody.
“Always polite, always respectful of other people. Never one to toot his own horn,” Ross added.
Hilton’s humble nature, combined with his experience facing atrocities, made him want to focus on life after the war, Ross said.
“He didn’t like to talk about what he did too much,” Ross said. “He was very quiet about that, like most people that were involved in the war.
“He wanted to talk about the good things.”
– With files from Carolyn Kury de Castillo