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Saturday January 15, 2011

Pilot hand-picked for risky evacuation of British scientists from Antarctic

Peter St. Louis braved fierce weather and lack of spare parts, earning a rare postwar decoration for Operation Corkscrew

Special to The Globe and Mail

Continued from Page 1

After struggling for three hours to propel their boat through the pack ice, the two scientists finally climbed into the Norseman and St. Louis took off. But he had to wait a week to rescue the other three. There were also two emperor penguins destined for the London Zoo. The Biscoe ship later took the other six scientists home.

Childhood in China

Peter Borden St. Louis was born on Oct. 6, 1923, in Camp Borden, near Barrie, Ont. His father Archie, a captain in the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals, commanded the Signals school there.

Family lore states that on the day Peter entered the world, Billy Barker, the legendary First World War fighter pilot and winner of the Victoria Cross, ran the wheels of his aircraft on the roof of the St. Louis home to celebrate his birth.

In 1929, the elder St. Louis, a pioneer in telecommunications, moved his family to China. For the next six years, the family lived a comfortable life in Shanghai complete with servants. From the Chinese boys who taunted Peter as a "foreign devil" to watching the Japanese bomb the city in 1932, life there was an eye-opener.

After spending three years in Britain studying at Scarborough College, St. Louis joined the RCAF on Nov. 27, 1941, shortly after his 18th birthday.

He'd always been interested in mechanical things like cars and airplanes so he applied for pilot training. Fifteen months later, he was awarded his pilot's wings and an officer's commission. Then the brass decided to keep him in Canada as a flight instructor. He finally reached Britain on Feb. 10, 1945, but the war was winding down and he never saw combat.

Once demobilized, St. Louis attended the University of British Columbia, but he missed flying so dropped out and got a job with Peace River Northern Airlines, one of many tiny outfits struggling to carve out a niche for itself in the competitive, postwar aviation world.

He enjoyed the life, much of which was spent refuelling, maintaining, loading and unloading his Anson aircraft before flying it.

The company's finances were shaky, though, and when it collapsed St. Louis was out of his bush-flying job.

Fortunately, the RCAF was recruiting and he got back in without any trouble. The force was preparing to enter its postwar golden era - it reached 56,000 men and women and 2,000 aircraft by 1958 - and St. Louis made the most of it.

At home in uniform

Getting back into uniform was "like coming home," he said later. After instructing at Rivers, Man., followed by his Antarctic adventure, St. Louis was back in Canada by July, 1950.

After a promotion to flight lieutenant the next year, he spent four years with the Ottawa-based 408 Squadron. He flew all over the Arctic and played a major part in installing Shoran (short-range navigation) ground stations across the Northwest Territories. They helped in charting Canada's North by using radar to establish the accuracy of aerial photos for mapping purposes.

St. Louis, who was quick with a joke and who had an easy way with people, was reborn as a fighter pilot in 1960 when he was posted to the RCAF's No. 3 (Fighter) Wing, based in Zweibrucken, Germany. Commanding No. 427 Squadron and its F-86 Sabre jets, he and his pilots were the sharp tip of the NATO spear, ready should hostilities ever break out with the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies.

In 1962, 427 was disbanded and St. Louis moved on to command 439 Squadron at Marville, France, until it was also disbanded in November, 1963.

St. Louis's final command appointment was in 1966 when he was sent to Canadian Forces Base St. Hubert, Que., to take over the Electronic Warfare Unit. Leonard Jenks of Victoria served with him there. "Without a doubt he was an outstanding commanding officer. Patient, perceptive and professional, he encouraged his officers and enlisted personnel alike to achieve the highest standards. Everyone enjoyed working with [him], they would not let him down."

After retiring from the Canadian Forces in 1972 as a lieutenant-colonel, St. Louis spent two years instructing at Ottawa's Rockcliffe Flying Club before working at the Canadian Transport Commission's Air Transport Committee and the Department of Transport. He retired for good in 1982 and devoted himself to his family and golf.

He leaves his wife, Frances; his children Margot, Archie and Paul; brothers John and Charles; and eight grandchildren. He was predeceased by his daughter Brenda.

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