No matter who you ask, once you met Francis Otto Fertich, you had a friend for life.
So when Frank left this earth shortly after Thanksgiving last year, the loving father, grandfather, great grandfather, uncle and friend to many, left a legacy of humorous and wise narratives spanning 90 years.
From his early days in Willow Bunch Sask., to joining the war effort at 17, alongside older brother Joe Fertich, marrying Dorothy Fox of Rossland and becoming the city’s Deputy Chief Firefighter in 1952, re-joining the Royal Canadian Air Force and the long and diverse fire fighting career that followed – so many memories to leave his three children, extended family and friends, from a life fully embraced.
But there were stories Frank kept close to heart and rarely spoke of. Those were his memories from the Second World War, when barely out of his teens, he served as an air gunner on a Lancaster Bomber.
So it wasn’t until Frank’s service at the Trail Legion in May this year, that the family first heard his thoughts of war, immortalized in a poem they happened upon while packing up his belongings.
Tucked away in an operations log book from WWll, on pages brittle with age, was the teenager’s ode to his fellow air gunners – many who didn’t make it back home, alive.
The Trail Times was first introduced to Frank’s poem two weeks ago at the first poppy pinning in the Trail Cenotaph. Vern Schneider, past president of the Trail branch, scrolled through his iPad on that crisp October day, sharing words written 70 years ago. From there, Legion administrator Glenda Reilly provided information about Frank, and that launched the journey into this man’s incredible life story.
Frank Fertich’s history shows he was a quiet but decorated Canadian war hero. Even more than that, he was truly cherished and loved by all.
Thank you to Vern Schneider, Glenda Reilly, and most of all, Frank’s family, for sharing his memory.
“Dad was very private about his time in the war, in many ways,” his daughter, Cheryl Fertich told the Trail Times from her home in Victoria.
“We discovered (the poem) going through his things so it made sense to have it read at Dad and Mom’s internment (May 29),” she added. “Dad used to write goofy poems and draw goofy pictures so it was really emotional to hear his voice come through those words after he was gone. It took us to the time when he would have been over there…also re-affirming that was very much who he would have been with his friends and war colleagues. And he really did appreciate that he came back safe when many of his best friends didn’t.”
Frank’s nephew, Craig Fox, held a special bond with his uncle from the moment they met.
Fox, now living in Trail, was a combat engineer with 1 Combat Engineer Regiment.He disabled landmines in Bosnia, and later served in Afghanistan, receiving the Task Force Commander’s Commendation and a Governor General’s Commendation.
He was instrumental in planning the Legion send off his uncle was so deserving of, and says every Remembrance Day, he’d call Frank to say, ‘thank you’ for his service.
“He didn’t talk about his experiences, that’s something we don’t do,” said Fox. “But he was very special to me, and hearing that poem for the first time at his service, was powerful, very emotional.”
Frank received many medals of service, including one of the highest honours, the Distinguished Flying Medal (DFM).
Though his uncle remained tight lipped about wartime, Fox recalled one flight he did speak of.
“The life expectancy of a Lancaster (crew member) was one flight,” said Fox. “And my Uncle Frank flew thirty Lancaster missions over Germany.”
The lone operation Frank did tell the family about involved a tail gunner who fell asleep at his post. A German plane came up behind the Canadians, and killed the tail gunner, began Fox.
“And that blew out my uncle’s Plexiglas dome, took out the plane’s hydraulics,and he had to turn his turret by hand, ” he explained.
Frank, positioned as a mid-upper turret gunner, shot the enemy from the sky, saving himself and the other crew members.
“There was a light up in the sky, so obviously he got them,” said Fox. “And after that, they pulled over 500 pieces of Plexiglas from my uncle’s back,” he added.
“That’s where he got the DFM, which is the second highest award you can get besides the Victoria Cross, which is usually given when someone dies.”
Back in Victoria on Nov. 11, Cheryl and her 11-year old daughter, will spend the day thinking about her dad.
“Remembrance Day, now with dad’s passing, is almost like his memory day for our family,” she said.
“My daughter totally idolized her papa but it was really hard for her, initially, to understand why he would have fought. But now she’s very proud he fought for our freedom and she understands much more that he lost many friends during the war and put himself at risk every time he was in an operation,” Cheryl added.
“So I think the poem really meant a lot to her as well. It is really special to us and keeps not only his memory alive but the memory of all the brave men and women that served over there and the sacrifices they gave.”
From far and near you’ll often hear of the pilots skill and dareBut little is heard of the straight AG or why he is really thereTo be exact as a matter of fact, he’s the backbone of the crewWhen you take account of the amount of work he has to do
He’s needed on returning home, when nights are dark as sinHis job is then to defend his plane and save the pilots’ skinHe knows his job without a doubt you really can’t denyWhen smashing huns with Browing gun, he’s really quite a guy
And if a pack hits the plant and bail out beginsHe knows he doesn’t stand a chance so he just sits and grinsAnd in his eyes before he dies is a glint of devil may care
As he meets his fate in a burning crate go sailing o’er the blueRemember there’s an AG aboard and thank God it isn’t youHere is the men of the RCAF. Here is to the men who flyHere’s a toast to the straight AG – and God bless those who die!
The above poem was written by Air Gunner and Veteran Frank Fertich on one of his missions during World War Two.