Local war hero honoured in St. Catharines
2364 Air Commodore Leonard Birchall.
Dignitaries, bagpipers and military personnel descended on Connaught School for a ceremony that finally gave the man known as the Saviour of Ceylon his local due.
The event, dubbed Honouring Niagara’s Len Birchall – Canadian Hero, was held at Connaught because Birchall attended school there.
Students, soldiers and Birchall’s relatives raised a flag, unveiled a plaque and watched student skits for the late Second World War hero, who alerted the Allies that a Japanese air fleet was en route to attack Ceylon, known today as Sri Lanka.
Then-British prime minister Winston Churchill dubbed it the turning point of the war.
The ceremony went better than expected, said Jim Lawrason, chairman of the organization committee. It included a timed fly-by from a Canso warplane, similar to the Catalina plane Birchall flew, from the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum.
“When that plane flew over, it was breathtaking,” Lawrason said.
Born in St. Catharines, Birchall attended St. Catharines Collegiate and joined the Lincoln and Welland Regiment in 1932. That led to the Royal Military College of Canada and then the Second World War.
While alerting the Allies to the attack on Ceylon – now Sri Lanka – in 1942, Birchall’s plane plummeted to the ocean. He was taken to a prisoner of war camp, where he remained for three years.
Once released, he and others provided aid for Japanese civilians hurt in a train crash. Birchall returned home safely and received the Order of Canada, the Distinguished Flying Cross and among other medals. He died in 2004 at age 89.
For Connaught students, Friday’s event coincided with lessons about Canadian heroes, which also included lessons about cancer fighter Terry Fox
“We talk about the character of a hero: respect, honesty, kindness, dedication to others,” said Grade 3 teacher Justin Pysar. “This (event) probably doesn’t mean a lot to them now, but it will when they’re older.”
At St. Catharines Collegiate, Grade 9 and 10 students formed the letters POW on the field for the passing warplane. Birchall arranged fellow prisoners into a similar formation so Allied planes could spot them from the air.
As the plane approached, “it got kind of quiet, which is really interesting for a group of high school students outside on a field,” said teacher Rick Young. “It was really quite moving to see that plane. It floated.”
Birchall’s daughter, Sharon Chandler, and nephew, Ellis Landale, donated a new flagpole for the island in front of Connaught school, now known as the Len Birchall Memorial Circle. A new tree was also planted, replacing a memorial tree planted for Birchall and others feared dead in 1942. The tree became diseased and was chopped down in 2005.
Ardeth Staz, District School Board of Niagara superintendent, told Connaught students they could follow Birchall’s lead. Birchall, she said, is “Connaught’s most famous student … so far.”
“I wonder whether his traits of respect, responsibility, courage, compassion and service to others were learned here,” she said. “I wonder.”
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