Colonel (Ret’d) David K. Lett, 5919 (RRMC 1959-61, RMC 1961-63)
After attending Royal Roads and RMC, Col (Ret’d) Lett joined the air force as a pilot. He served for a total of 37 years and retired from the military in 1996. He and his wife Carol now live in Victoria, BC where they enjoy golfing and sailing.
This interview was conducted by Royal Roads University staff person, Karen Inkster, and is part of the Royal Roads Oral History Project, a university initiative to preserve the military history of Royal Roads. Please contact Karen at [email protected] if you would like to contribute photos or stories to the project.
Karen – Did you always know that you wanted to be in the military?
David – No, I was never an academic and my mum and dad recognized that when I was going into high school. My family had gone to Bishop Ridley College in St. Catharines, Ontario for a long time. My great-grandfather helped found it and my grandfather and my father and uncle went and so they decided if I was going to get through high school I needed to go to private school. So I had a tremendous amount of discipline in private school which led up to a degree of comfortableness with the concept of going into the military. My family wasn’t impoverished, but we certainly didn’t have any real money and as a result I was looking for a means to get to university without burdening my parents to any great extent.
And so I put my name in for the Regular Officer Training Plan (ROTP) program in 1959, as well as for Queens University. And coming out of a private school at Ridley College, my marks were abysmal and were abysmal throughout my entire academic career – but with a 61% average coming out of a private school, I got accepted to Queens and I also got accepted to the Regular Officer Training Plan. No one would ever get accepted today with an average of 61% – I mean it’s just unheard of! However that was 1959 and they were looking for folks.
When I was accepted I was absolutely shattered to learn that I wasn’t going to the Royal Military College. I had to come out here, to Victoria, to Royal Roads and it was terrible! I’ll never forget having to get on that train and we came out on the old cross-Canada CN run and we started meeting the guys that were coming out to Royal Roads. By the time we got here we had a huge bond – it was just fantastic. And then when they bussed us out to the college and we took a look around it and – this is paradise! I spent the rest of my entire career trying to get back here! So that’s what happened. I didn’t have any real bent or intent to be a leader in the forces or anything like that. It was a matter of being comfortable with discipline, having come through private school. But it wasn’t destined, it just sort of worked out that way. The path of least resistance perhaps.
Karen – And were your parents pleased?
David – Ah no, no over the years my father used to quite often say, “When are you going to get out and get a real job Dave?” No, my Uncle Steve was Commander of the Queens Own Rifles in WW II, from Normandy forward and Bruce McDonald, my uncle, was a two-star general in the forces during the first 10-15 years that I was there and my grandfather served in both the Boer War and the First World War in the artillery. And so I mean the military was around us as children I mean uniforms here, uniforms there.
Karen – So when was it that you had to decide which service?
David – Well they asked us right away. I went to Hamilton to the Recruiting Unit. They were chatting with me about various things, “What would you like to do?” and I said, “Well I think I’d like to be a pilot.”
It sounded glamorous and so then you go through a series of tests. By the time you get selected as a member, an individual for Regular Officer Training, you’ve gone through about ten processes, be it just scribbling your name on a form to an interview in front of senior officers and they look at your marks, they look at your accomplishments. And then you go into the Personnel Applied Research where they check your motor skills and your aptitude with numbers. And they did tiny little leadership exercises. They’d put you in a group of eight people and there’d be a platform here and a rope and a platform over there and there was a minefield in the middle and you were the leader having to get everybody over to the other side and someone scribbling notes on the side. So you go through those kinds of things as well as the obvious, they just check your ears and everything like that.
Finally for whatever reason they decided that yes, I could be a pilot but I couldn’t be a navigator. I thought, oh darn (laughs). I did not want to be a navigator! I didn’t have the academic strength to be a navigator. I wasn’t strong enough in math, physics and the rest of it to do the job that had to be done in the back end of that aircraft. I was much better at flying the thing, so, anyway, I thought it was cool they were telling me I wasn’t really very good. As it turned out, it was a lot of fun. I came out here in ’59, as I say, disappointed that I wasn’t going to Kingston but that’s how I got into the air force.
Karen – So what was it like when you got here?
David – Well it was an awful lot like Ridley. I mean I had a huge leg-up because I knew that the seniors in their second year were running the college and there was a squadron commander that was an officer in the armed forces at the captain level. And he was there to ensure that the program was met and that the kids didn’t get out of hand. Because they were 19 years old and they were in charge of the recruits and there was just as many of us, if not more, than there were of them. And as a result there was a huge amount of responsibility for the second year cadets to manage the first year cadets and get them in mind and teach them the discipline and the obedience and the program.
But I recognized stepping off the bus that this was exactly the same as the system that we had at Ridley College where the senior class was responsible for that program there. So I didn’t have any difficulty with that at all. I knew that we were going to be there next year and I knew that our job was to learn that system, to be able to teach it to the guys coming in. So it was far, far easier for me to accept all of the stuff that was going down, because you just have to take it with a grain of salt. I mean there’s good leaders and there’s average leaders and there’s poor leaders – some of them have their own agendas. But you know, having come out of a system that was virtually identical, I was totally comfortable with it – which was to my detriment, cause I was always in trouble. I didn’t take any of it seriously at all. And it wasn’t serious you know, it was a leadership training program for the seniors. And so not taking it seriously I was always getting in trouble.
Karen – For what?
David – Well you know I didn’t worry too much about whether you could bounce a quarter off my bed. I never slept on the floor because I wanted to keep my bed neat and tidy because I knew the guys were going to come in and find something anyways. So when they felt along the top of the door and found a little bit of dust, pheww, okay, spit on your glove next time, get it all for christ’s sake. I never worried about the finer points. Yeah I made my bed, yes, it looked good. Was it perfect? No. So if someone came in and it was looking to give you a couple of circles because they didn’t bounce a quarter off the top of the bed, phttt, I was out there running the circles. So it went on and on and on like that. That’s one of the reasons I got into the band, cause then you know we were just released from an awful lot – and it was a lot of fun. I didn’t take things very seriously. I mean I wasn’t overly concerned about it. I mean the discipline wasn’t life and death to me because I knew it was all sort of a training experience. And that to an extent was a detriment. I really never, ever took any of it as a life and death, absolutely important, critical aspect of it.
Well you know my buddies – I was close to most of the guys that rose up to be general officers in the military – I’m now retired as a colonel – but the guys that really got ahead and did well were all round individuals. They were strong intellects, did well within the academic side, strong as well in the athletics and guys that ended up with the bars you know in the command positions either as a squadron commanders or the cadet wing commander himself. So you know – Wayne Hutchinson, 5907 was squadron commander and he and I are close friends still today. Johnny Pirquet, 5936 was the cadet wing commander here – we’re close today. Scottie Clements, 5868 was the commander of air command – three-star – we’re still close. I was fairly close with almost all of those guys and so you know I rose up in the military basically because the people I associated with – not so much because I was sharp! (laughs) I was lucky.
Karen – But you were a good pilot?
David – Ahhh I’d say I was pretty average. I had a number of near-death experiences caused by just not paying attention close enough. I was a capable pilot and I flew a lot of aircraft. I was in training I flew air defence; I flew air-to-mud fighters and I got into search and rescue; flew transport. Most of the time out here on the west coast I flew the search and rescue helicopters, the Labrador helicopter and I commanded the squadron out here in search and rescue. There are a lot of good missions and good people there. I think I was, to be honest, a better administrator and a better judge of character and a better developer as an officer than I was an operational pilot – just a plain, ordinary pilot. I was okay, capable; I didn’t crash; didn’t break anything. But I was lucky.
Karen – So what were some of your more memorable times at Royal Roads?
David – Well for sure the people made an indelible impression. I remember my senior class as being really solid troops. You know there was a glint in their eye, destiny, where they were going, what they were doing. And they instilled that in us as juniors. So I give our seniors a great deal of credit for making our class as strong as it was. And so many of our class actually staying in the military and rising to very senior command positions. Our seniors did a really good job on us and I hope we did a good job on our juniors too.
There was a real responsibility in the people to do that and that’s something that’s fallen by the wayside and is slowly being re-recognized as if not the most important aspect of the military colleges. It’s not getting the degree in engineering, it’s being given the opportunity to work with people that are juniors to you to show them what’s important within the military and where you’re going. You know Truth, Duty, Valor – the motto of the college – you need to instill in those individuals over a short period of time what it’s like to be a senior officer and be responsible. And you can’t do that without being given the opportunity to screw up. So first and foremost the college provided for us, at that period of time, the opportunity to learn how to lead, to learn how to teach, to learn how to do it by example. And you know use your muscle and make it right. So the people were really important.
And the next thing was you know, Victoria, Royal Roads. I mean it’s just absolutely incredible. The experience here as you know is just fabulous. Anybody that comes from any other place in the world or mostly any other part of Canada and goes through a year or two here, there’s so many things just about the environment here that are wonderful.
And of course because Victoria, back in 1959, 1960 was still a pretty small area, the University of Victoria didn’t exist. Gordon Head was just becoming a campus and so young ladies in Victoria looked to the cadet wing for social events of a reasonable magnitude. So you know the balls and the big events out here were very, very well attended and we used to maintain a list. So that kind of social organization was a lot of fun when we were here. It was a good time, a nice place to grow up and a great place to go to college, in addition to the responsibilities.
And back in those days we flew in the summertime, I mean, nowadays you go through all your four years before you get into any serious military training but after being here for seven months we went directly into flying training and started flying in our first summer. So it was fantastic. I mean I was actually flying aircraft in addition to going to college. So it was a good deal, yeah.
So – the people, the environment, and the athletics and I suppose after that, the academics were there and they were strong – strong enough because ours was the very first class that was actually getting a degree – an engineering degree from the Royal Military College. You know it takes a period of time for colleges to gain their status for degree-granting and they’ve got to go through the hoops and the Royal Military College up until our year had sent their graduates – four-year graduates – to an extra year and they would get their degree from Queens, McGill, or wherever, and our class was slated to get our degree from the Royal Military College – the very first one.
So the academic program got beefed up quite considerably during our year and in third year at RMC was a very, very difficult year. I put my nose to the grindstone for about five months – they had drilled into us, coming out of here, that if we didn’t get it done in the first term at RMC, we weren’t ever going to catch up. So I paid attention to that. I was never stupid when it came to people telling me when it was time to get down to work so we paid attention in that year. We lost a number of kids at Christmas time at RMC in third year. And if you made it through third year, then fourth year wasn’t quite as bad. They really separated the wheat from the chaff then.
Although keep in mind that military college is a shock to people just coming off the street. And our seniors were tough on us. We lost more than 50% in the first year. We lost I think 59%. We had I think 16 guys didn’t get off the bus. We had come all the way out from Ontario, picking up folks in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Alberta on the way through. In fact some of them had come all the way through from the east coast. And by the time they got here they were just shivering with fright and our seniors were just screaming at them. I mean they were just a harangue before they got off the bus. I thought it was a skylark – thought it was just great – look at this – this is a hoot! Some of those guys were absolutely petrified, dribbling down the side of their pants. I mean that was it – they did not get off the bus. That was it.
Karen – Did you participate in any skylarks yourself?
David – I participated in a whole bunch but I didn’t plan any. I can remember one morning we got up and the buzz went around very quickly that we weren’t to put our shirts on with the ties in the front – they were all going to the back so we had to put our shirts on backwards and everybody had to help everybody to button and tie at the back. Then we came up on parade and we all looked like Roman Catholic ministers. That was really cute.
But our seniors, I know, you get to chat with some of the boys that graduated in 1960, they took one of the old clinker-built whalers – they got to weigh 600 pounds anyways – they’re immense – maybe even more if they’re wet. And they put it on top of the castle, on the roof. I don’t know how they did it. Just amazing. Good guys. All sorts of stuff like that.
To be honest, we needed our sleep. I mean we were out parading in the morning and between the academics and then the athletics all afternoon and just a little bit of study in the evening – by the time we were done, we were dead. And I did seven circles a day every single day out there so in addition to all the rest of it, in between classes and lunch and before dinner – I mean you only had four opportunities to run around there – I had to get seven in every single day. I used to wear out my boots running those circles! I was always in trouble. My tie wasn’t straight or I would always forget to put the damn spiffy in or the thing would be dangling off on the side or something like that. Never had my tie straight.
Karen – Did you ever get any worse punishments?
David – Oh yeah I did B punishment for I guess it was two weeks. Chuck Leishman, 5918, my good buddy on the rugby team and close friend was the squadron commander and so Chuck had me out there in his booming voice and I was running around in dungarees and spats and with a rifle, doing rifle drill. One of the terrible girls from Oak Bay (!) had me out till all hours of the night and I came over the wall and got caught about three o’clock in the morning. I had to go up before Captain Bale and – “Have you got anything to say for yourself Lett?” “Well, no, sir, terribly sorry sir.” So I ended up with two weeks of B punishment – a rifle at the high port and drill and all the rest of it, running around – tough work. But I didn’t mind it. Chuck was a good buddy. That’s about the worst you could get would be ‘B’. You were confined to barracks and doing drill – it’s a demotion. They finally took my bars away when I was in third year. I was the cadet band master but not in the last term. When I came in over the wall late and got the B punishment and ended up demoted so. I told you I was NEVER doing well!
Karen – Do you think it’s important to remember the stories?
David – I think it’s really important to look back on the way that we as individuals were given the opportunity to learn our business from the military. I know that the Royal Military College has gone through a period where they have removed all of the responsibility of the senior class for teaching and being responsible for the development of those cadets that are underneath them. And that’s just ill-conceived. If you don’t have the opportunity to lead, to take responsibilities for whatever your venue is – I don’t care whether it’s the band or the squadron or you name it – but you’ve got to be given the responsibility of operating the college cause if you don’t do that then you can’t make the mistakes, you can’t be given the opportunity to be creative, to pay attention to what’s important, to sit down and talk a bit about policy with folks that are going to be making it. And to work your way up so that you get a feel for whether or not you want to do this – and whether you can do it. It’s wasted four years if you don’t give them that opportunity. So I know that the college has begun to recognize that again and they’re going to start giving the senior cadets greater responsibility. So I think that this kind of opportunity for folks like myself to look back on the years that we spent and try to figure out what was important and what worked and what didn’t work, is useful.
And from the perspective here at Royal Roads as long as this physical plant stays together – it isn’t cut up and turned into condos – if they’re trying to maintain some sort of a continuum of who are we and where did we come from – well I mean from the [Dunsmuirs] through the military through the university – I think it’s important to be able to bring us into perspective what part did we have and was it important. I know that the folks who spent time here still feel a very, very strong commitment to this college, even as a post-graduate university. We’re proud to have you folks helping Canadians to do something that’s better for them, better for the world, whether it be for the environment, engineering or management – it doesn’t really matter. This college, these hallowed halls, are still doing a good job and so our participation in that and some of the heritage we have been part of is important to all of that.