Article by Rich Thistle ©

'Beacons of Liberty' By Rich Thistle © The adrenaline was running out. I stood,on slightly rubbery legs, in the first gallery room of the Jersey Museum, trying hard to focus on the words of Senator Jean Le Maistre, chairman of the Jersey Fiftieth Anniversary Liberation Committee. I had just met him moments before, but I couldn’t really remember our conversation!

My mind, what was left of it, surveyed my upcoming speech. Protocol! Jean stopped. I knew it was my turn. Eleven months of research, painting, publishing, phone calls, faxes, letters, and endless planning were about to climax in the unveiling of my painting, BEACONS OF LIBERTY. I stepped up beside the painting, secreted for the moment under a white cloth, and turned toward the group assembled there.

“Mr. Bailiff, Senators, ladies and gentlemen. First may I say I feel honored to be here among you in your beautiful island. Thank you for your most warm welcome to our little Canadian group. As some of you have no doubt already heard, there were times over the last two days when we felt we would never get here....”. The past thirty-six hours had proven to be a trial of physical and mental stress to which no traveler wishes to be subject.

It was 5:00 p.m.Sunday September 17, 1995 as our group of ten gathered in the Toronto British Airways check-in line for flight 092 to Heathrow and Jersey. My wife Jay and I hovered around the large crate of paintings spilling well over the edges of the luggage dolly, leaving precious little room for the rest of our luggage. Inside the crate, packed in laboriously constructed layers, were five original works, including the piece to be donated to the people of Jersey, as well as the seventy-five artist’s proof reproductions of the image which we were taking with us to be signed by the three Canadian World War II fighter pilots at the ceremony in Jersey. Little did I know how much I would come to despise that crate before the end of our trip!

Behind us in the line gathered the rest of our party. There were three of the four fighter pilots depicted in my painting. In a little-known Canadian wartime connection to the Island of Jersey, one of the Channel Islands, fourteen miles off the west coast of France, Len Wilson of Stratford Ontario, John Mallandaine of Bowser British Columbia, and Bob “Rusty” MacRae of Stellarton Nova Scotia, had flown with several of their 442 Squadron RCAF mates in their Mustang D’s as “top cover” over the Island’s liberation from five years of German occupation on May 9, 1945, two days after hostilities in the European theatre had ceased. Their wives,and two of Len’s grown children completed our expectant party.

The excited air of anticipation in the check-in line suddenly gave way to one of moderate foreboding. “Flight delayed, update at 6:30” was the impersonal message flashed above the wickets. But,this was only the beginning, as major foreboding took over! Trouble comes in bunches. Aircraft landed in Montreal...engine trouble... flight postponed until sometime tomorrow (Monday!)... bus ride to hotel... lug detestable crate and luggage on and off bus... stand in line in hotel lobby for over an hour... check in... carry cursed crate... late supper in restaurant filled with other frustrated travelers... call British Airways “information” line... “update 10:00 a.m.” ... fitful sleep... up early... begin the search for alternate method of getting to Jersey... over three hours on the telephone to British Airways... lunch holding the telephone...finally all ten booked on Air Canada flight to Paris, then London, to arrive Jersey at 2:00 p.m. local time, four hours before the ceremony.

Great trip so far! A trip through the mill! After some more annoying crate lugging and lining up we are finally waiting to depart Toronto in an Air Canada 767. It’s 7:00 p.m. Toronto time. And, of course, the plane is delayed thirty minutes for a late passenger. Finally even he is aboard, running the gauntlet of first and economy class to sarcastic cheers of the passengers, and we are actually moving! “Time to spare, go by air.” It already had a familiar ring to it. My eyes won’t close on the trip over. I’m too stressed out. My friends’ wishes kept running through my overactive brain. “Enjoy your trip, relax, have fun! “Right! Since I wasn’t sleeping anyway, I thought I might do my part to keep the captain awake, and sent one of my aviation art catalogs up to the flight deck with an attendant. This strategy hasn’t failed yet. Getting quality time in the cockpit is one of the perks I enjoy as an aviation artist. I spent an enjoyable hour and-a-half conversing with the pilot about his days in the RCAF on F-86 Sabres and F-104 Starfighters. I watched a very colorful Venus rise on the eastern horizon and was privileged to see dawn break over Europe.

The captain then invited two of the World war II pilots up to the flight deck to sit in on the landing and, as we taxied at Charles De Gaul Airport, Paris, he announced to the whole aircraft our presence, and the details of our excursion to Jersey. I’ve never met a pilot I didn’t like.

More stress! Flight twenty minutes late arriving Paris... thanks tardy passenger!...see dastardly crate go by on baggage truck...rush through huge foreign airport to make connection...two passport checks, three security scans...too late of course...connecting flight to Heathrow has departed without us...scramble to make other arrangements with British Airways...eight booked on direct flight to Jersey... unlucky two, Len Wilson’s son and daughter, on next flight to Heathrow and on to Jersey...five hours heel cooling...British Airways treats us to lunch in Paris... Are we having fun yet?

As we take off on the final leg of our torturously convoluted trek, I am both relieved and concerned. Relieved that our next stop is actually Jersey. Concerned that the three hours between scheduled landing on the island and the 6:00 p.m. presentation ceremony would not leave enough time to cab from the airport to the museum, uncrate the paintings, set up the display, get to our hotel, scrub and polish for our meeting with the Bailiff, and get back to the museum for the presentation. One was not to arrive after the Bailiff, the head of state of Jersey! Protocol!

Oh yes, remember the troublesome crate? It came off the aircraft at Jersey airport in less than pristine condition, a classic example of under-engineering and over-zealous miss-handling. I should have used titanium instead of wood. Luckily we were met at the airport by a calm, friendly Jersey Tourism representative, with a vehicle large enough to transport the loathsome crate, and our luggage, and us. We rushed away with barely a backward glance to the other six, trusting we would meet again soon.

There were some anxious moments at the Museum, unloading the paintings and prints, which, miraculously, were unscathed. The rebuilding of the confounded crate in the museum workshop would almost make my Wednesday morning in Jersey seem like just another work day at home. I couldn’t have done it without some skilled help provided by the Museum staff.

Remember the two unlucky Wilsons? They arrived at the Museum breathless and in their traveling clothes with only minutes to spare. Even if they had arrived in time to change clothes, it wouldn’t have mattered. Their luggage didn’t arrive until the next day. Our trip was in desperate need of a turning point, a change of luck, a watershed, a defining moment, a turn in the right direction. As I continued with my speech, I began to gradually feel more centered and calm. I was finally here. I was about to unveil the reason for our trip. I was surrounded by those who understood the real significance of my painting. The emotion which the story of the Channel Islands’ occupation, subsequent liberation, and Canada’s role in it had aroused in me, when I first accepted the commission to paint BEACONS OF LIBERTY, surfaced again.

Unveiling Beacons of Liberty“As a Canadian aviation artist, I am impressed with the great effort put forth here to remember the past. I think it is important that Canadians be encouraged to remember their past too, and especially to remember with pride Canada’s contribution and sacrifice during World War II... I am proud to be a Canadian. I am proud to say that my father Calvin, and both his brothers, John and Rodney, served their country in uniform during World War II. I am proud to know that my painting will be a lasting memorial to Canadians who served their country and their ideals. And I am proud to know these three men who are here with me tonight, Len, John and Rusty, and many others like them, who put their lives on the line for freedom. “I am proud and happy to present this painting, BEACONS OF LIBERTY to the people of the Channel Islands as a lasting memorial to your liberation and to all those who gave so much to see Europe free again. May it serve as a constant reminder to all those who see it that freedom is indeed precious.”

  Finally, the moment for which I had been preparing for ten months was at hand. I pulled off the cloth and my image took up residence in the country it depicted. I was relieved. Against all odds it had happened after all. The evening continued with more speeches: a thank you response from the head of state of the Island of Jersey, the Bailiff, Mr. Philip Bailhache, and some words and greetings from Col. John David, OMM CD, Air force Advisor, Canadian Defense Liaison Staff, over from London, England for the presentation. He added his thanks to the pilots present for their service during the war, and to the artist for helping to focus attention on Canada’s proud military history.

Meanwhile, standing quietly in the background, representing their recently deceased father, Wing Commander J.A. (Jas) Storrar, the fourth pilot depicted in my painting, were his son Jim and daughter Penelope from Wales. Later, Len Wilson commented that, when Jim Storrar walked into the Museum, even though it had been fifty years since he had seen W/C Storrar, he recognized him as Jas Storrar’s son immediately.

Pilots Co-Signing the Artist ProofsLater in the evening, the special signing of the artist’s proof reproductions of BEACONS OF LIBERTY took place. As I watched these three fine men co-sign each of the seventy-five reproductions we had brought with us in the despicable crate, I was again filled with pride. These men made history, and through this ceremony, they confirmed their role in it. As the evening came to a close, the weariness and frustration of the past thirty six hours had transformed into a sense of calm accomplishment. Finally we all had the feeling that the rest of the week would begin to meet our expectations. We were now out of the clutches of the airline and into the capable and generous hands of Jersey Tourism and Senators Jean Le Maistre and Corrie Stein.

We were not disappointed! The rest of the week was a hectic, happy flurry of fine Jersey-style French dining, perfect weather, breath-taking coastal vistas, exciting aerial tour of all the Channel Islands, stimulating encounters with the Island’s history, from 13th century Norman castles to the massive German fortifications of the occupation, the old-world charm of the city of St. Helier, the picturesque, winding, narrow lanes and hedge-rows of the countryside, and the genuine friendliness and generosity of the Jersey Islanders themselves.

I brought back to Canada many fond memories of our flying visit to Jersey. During our bus tour of the Island on Friday, laid on by Jersey Tourism, we visited the famous German Underground Hospital, an extensive complex of tunnels and rooms beneath a towering hill of granite. Although we visited several sites around the coast which preserved the heavy German fortifications and gun emplacements, it was the Underground Hospital, built by slave labor during the occupation, which forcefully and emotionally brought home the reality of life on Jersey from 1940 to 1945. As I walked through the extensive displays, I somehow felt the presence of those who toiled and died there.

'Willing Pembroke' By Rich Thistle © On Wednesday, six of our party, including the three pilots, experienced first hand the generosity of Jersey. We were treated to a first-class aerial tour of the islands in a 1950’s vintage aircraft, a twin-engine, six-place Hunting Percival Pembroke C Mk1 which had served extensively in the RAF Communications and Transport Service, and was now the pride and joy of her owner Captain Martin Willing, a Cathay Pacific pilot who lives in Jersey. For the pilots who flew over these islands fifty years ago, and to the rest of us, this will remain one of the highlights of our trip. WILLING PEMBROKE was the painting which resulted from that memorable flight.

Personally, I carry two images of the Island which will never fade. Thursday evening we were invited to Senator Corrie Stein’s home on the east coast, for cocktails prior to yet another evening of fine French dining at a beautiful restaurant overlooking the ocean. As our bus rounded a corner coming down a steep incline on the side of the coastal cliff, we were suddenly overwhelmed by a fairy tale vision of Mont Orgueil castle, an early thirteenth century castle from the time of King John which dominates the east coast. Bathed in low, early-evening light, the light that a watercolorist might wait days for, the castle seemed like an old friend. I had already painted it in a large watercolor called MUSTANG OVER MONT ORGUEIL, which I had brought with me in the dastardly crate as part of my exhibition. The bus stopped. I got out and stood in awe.

The other profound moment was finally standing on the cliff overlooking La Corbiere lighthouse, the famous Jersey landmark which I had chosen to depict in BEACONS OF LIBERTY. The lighthouse was surrounded by fierce Jersey granite formations and connected to the island by a long, narrow walkway, exposed by the low tide, looking for all the world like the yellow brick road leading to the Emerald City. It was a deja-vu experience of considerable impact for all of us.

Jersey and the other islands offer so much to visitors that our short stay was not nearly sufficient to experience it all. Preparing to leave the Island, we all felt that we might return some day. The experiences we shared and the generosity of the Jersey Islanders was a tribute to the three World War II pilots from a people who understand the value of freedom.

;Mustang Over Mont Orgueil; By Rich Thistle © And yes, the tide had indeed turned. Our trip home with British Airways was a happy haze of special treatment, executive lounges, and upgraded business class. They even brought gifts to the hotel before we left. They did their best to make amends. The abhorrent crate? It did fulfill its mission. The original paintings and the precious, signed artist’s proofs were safe and sound. My last view of the crate was as it sat with the rest of the trash, waiting for the early morning garbage collection. Revenge is sweet!

The original painting, BEACONS OF LIBERTY is now in the collection of the Jersey Museum in St. Helier, Jersey. The limited-edition prints are no longer available.

NOTE: Sadly, Len, John & Rusty, the three pilots who made this trip with me and who made the experience one of the most memorable events in my life, died in 2012.