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The aunt I could have had

Updated: Feb 15

Blanch McRae

When my uncle Ellsworth was killed in a plane crash in September 1945, my grandmother began writing letters to the families of the other men on the plane and to people he knew during the war. One of them was Blanche McRae, a young Canadian woman that Ellsworth met when his train stopped in her small town on the way to the Alaska-Canada highway construction project. Ellsworth was posted there as a medic before transferring to the Army Air Forces. I don't have my grandmother's letter, but I do have Blanche's response, written in October 1948, and it sheds a light on Ellsworth, who went by the nickname "Blackie," that I don't have from any other sources. Here are some excerpts.

I will tell you how I came to know him. I lived in a little town in northern Alberta through which the American trains passed going to the Alcan highway. The first troop trains that went through were quite a novelty in our little town and we used to go to see them pass through. Trains seemed to be part of the entertainment.

I grew up in a small town bisected by a train track. I can understand where Blanche was coming from. She continued:

I was about 16, I guess, and we used to get autographs from the American boys and they used to take ours. Blackie stood out in the crowd and he signed my book and I signed his.

They began to correspond.

Then he sent his picture, and I was so surprised that it was the handsomest boy who had written to me. He was the only one I ever wrote to and I was so proud of his picture and the other girls were just green with envy.

Here they were, a 16-year-old small-town Alberta girl and a 19-year-old small-town Illinois boy, exchanging letters while the world burned.

Blackie wrote to me quite often and I thought so much of his letters, because they were such interesting ones, and he sounded so fine.

The seeds of love were planted, perhaps. Then war got in the way.

I only wish I had known him better. I guess he stopped writing when he was posted away from the Alcan highway, and I moved to New Westminster in 1943, so we completely lost touch with each other.

Blanche continues that, after the war, she and her brother decided to drive to Chicago. Remembering that Ellsworth was from Illinois, she decided to try to call him. There was no phone in the Croissant house, but the operator in Spring Valley told Blanche that Ellsworth had died in a plane crash. And now, the hard part:

I know, Mrs. Croissant, how it is to lose someone you love so dearly. I lost my youngest brother in the war too. He was a flying officer in the R.C.A.F. (Royal Canadian Air Force), a wireless air gunner, and only 20 when he was killed on a raid over Germany. It is sad remembering them, but I never cast thoughts of him aside. I like to remember all the funny things we used to do when we were kids and keep his memory alive.

In closing, Blanche McRae, who could have been my aunt had things gone differently, wrote:

I am glad I knew Blackie, if ever so slightly, for apparently he was a very fine boy, the type who makes one proud to have known them.

I am proud of Blackie, too, Blanche, and I wish I could have known you both.


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