He was one of the last of an extraordinary generation.
When Cmdr. William Atkinson passed away on July 18 at age 92, he was mourned by his wife and daughter, other family, friends and former colleagues from the Royal Canadian Navy.
In other times, he would have been celebrated by the general public as a ‘war hero’. That’s a term that’s fallen into disfavour now – as many, rightly, focus on the awful injustice and suffering that is the product of all wars.
But in this season of remembrance, when we honour veterans for their service to their country and their sacrifices for freedoms we take for granted, it is well to meditate on the nature of such service.
It is well to remember that there is such a thing as heroism – a kind that sometimes seems straight out of movie and comic-book fantasies – and that it is a commodity highly prized in dark and desperate days of all-out, total war.
Probably most who knew Bill Atkinson around White Rock remember him as a kindly, soft-spoken, somewhat frail old man.
A few, like White Rock’s Larry Spouler, who’d had a chance to meet and chat with Atkinson this spring, knew something more – that as a young man, in his very early 20s, he’d been a RCN fighter pilot attached to the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy. That he’d flown Grumman Hellcats from the aircraft carrier HMS Indomitable in the Pacific War in 1944 and ’45, and had earned the Distinguished Service Cross for his exploits – which included downing three Japanese aircraft in one patrol.
When Spouler drew our attention to Atkinson’s passing this summer, colleagues who know my interest in war history asked whether I’d ever met him him.
“Sure,” I said. “Wild Bill Atkinson.”
It was a wartime nickname all-but-forgotten when I met the quiet, unassuming Atkinson 10 years ago. He was helping to promote Wayne Ralph’s invaluable history of Canadian Second World War pilots, Aces, Warriors and Wingmen, to which he’d contributed as a retired, and distinguished, senior officer.
But in the twinkle in his eye I could still see a vestige of the fresh-faced, spirited ‘kid’ from Minnedosa, Man. he’d been, when daily he’d put his life on the line.
‘Hairy ops’ – to use the parlance of the times – had included flying a Hellcat back to the carrier with half of the engine blown away, after a dive through deadly anti-aircraft fire to shoot up a Japanese airfield.
I remember him recalling, with a chuckle, the drawling disapproval of a British C.O. who didn’t care for the youngster’s casual, insubordinate attitude – or his persistent gum-chewing in the mess.
“He’d say, ‘for Christ’s sake, Atkinson, stop chewing that gum!’” he told me in 2005. “So I’d take it out and put it on my plate, which would just about make him sick.”
Atkinson hadn’t endeared himself, either, when he disobeyed orders to pursue a low-flying Mitsubishi ‘Zeke’ after his flight had been ordered home.
“That usually meant a senior officer going back to report the results of a kamikaze attack,” he remembered.
“We’d been ordered back, but I was damn sure that guy was right there. I broke starboard 180 degrees, saw a flash. I caught up to him and let him have it. I shot him at long distance, around 800 yards. I just wanted to get the job done.
“When I got back to the wardroom the C.O. said, ‘That was pretty wild, Bill’. And from then on, I was Wild Bill.”
Alex Browne is a reporter at the Peace Arch News.