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Burly doctor remembered for the size of his heart

Part of a series of stories about correspondence from soldiers killed in the final days of the war

Globe and Mail Update

Victory in Europe was already in sight by the time Easter Sunday rolled around in 1945. But in the Pacific, a new horror made its debut that day, aboard a British carrier called Indefatigable.

It was April 1, 1945, and Alan Vaughan was right where he belonged -- in the sick bay, tending to the men he called "my boys" -- when a Japanese plane, carrying a 250-kilogram bomb and a suicidal pilot, came out of the clouds.

In a letter home to Toronto 14 months earlier, when he was still in Europe and kamikaze had yet to enter the layman's lexicon, the young doctor had reassured his mother that "we are amply equipped to finish off any fools who might try to attack us from the air."

But once the smoke cleared from the carrier's deck, 14 men lay dead, including the big, burly 29-year-old physician known as Doc Vaughan to the crew, and Beefy to his friends.

"Apparently, there wasn't a mark on him," said his nephew and namesake, Alan Manchee of Toronto. "It was the concussion" of the blast that killed his uncle.

Similarly, Indefatigable, the first British ship to come under kamikaze attack, was relatively unscathed, with only a slight dip in its armoured flight deck.

Soon enough, the dent was smoothed over with concrete, but Doc Vaughan's death left a hole that took far longer to fill.

"I guess anyone who dies in combat has a certain amount of heroic quality," said Mr. Manchee, born nine years after his uncle's death, and raised amid his lingering legend. "But with him, he really seemed a larger-than-life character."

Before he enlisted in the Royal Canadian Navy Volunteer Reserve in 1941, Alan Vaughan had distinguished himself not only as a medical student at the University of Toronto, but also as a gregarious and impulsive young man, with an iconoclast streak.

"He was a bit of a maverick," Mr. Manchee said, recalling tales of Uncle Alan driving to Muskoka, where the family had an island cottage, and swimming to it if there was no boat waiting for him.

The aspiring doctor raised his university tuition by creating and operating a summer camp for boys, on that same island.

Just before the war, while interning at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, Dr. Vaughan proposed to a woman as they rode in a car along University Avenue. When she turned him down, "he took the ring back and threw it out the window," his nephew said.

Overseas, similar antics and a deft bedside manner made an impression on the sailors and airmen around him. That much is clear from the vast collection of letters Mr. Manchee, 50, has been leafing through since his mother, the doctor's only sister, died last autumn.

Many were written by shipmates after the Indefatigable's captain put out a call for condolence letters from his 2,200-member crew, and was flooded with about 300 replies.

In one, an air gunner recounted a jungle-training trip ashore in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), for which Dr. Vaughan volunteered after an airman dropped out due to illness.

The letter-writer, surnamed Sage, was skeptical of an officer who would stoop to such gruelling duty. "The Doc, as I studied him, appeared comical and definitely out of place there," he wrote, describing "a large, perspiring, but very cheerful character with a soft Canadian drawl."

But when the Doc volunteered to cook and clean at the campsite, and managed to match the airmen's pace as well as their constant jibes, "this really gripped me," he wrote. "Doc's body may have been big, but his heart was surely bigger."

Another shipmate of lower rank wrote of going through a mental breakdown at sea, and that "after a few minutes with Doc Vaughan, I felt as though I were talking to my own brother."

These letters were forwarded to Dr. Vaughan's family in Toronto, who were deep in grief and exchanging their own poignant correspondence as the wider world celebrated victory in the war in Europe.

The eldest sibling, Bryan Vaughan, was in Toronto and unable to serve overseas, but sister Charmian (Mr. Manchee's mother) and brother Denny, the youngest, were in different parts of Europe.

Denny, a musician who went on to renown as a bandleader, heard the bad news first, then telegraphed home on April 14, 1945: "Dearest Mom and Dad. Don't know what to say or do. All my sympathies with you."

Charmian, in Italy working for the Red Cross, had heard only that her brother had died, and for several agonizing days, didn't know which one. On April 21, she sent this message home: "How is Mum. If necessary will try to get home immediately. All my love."

A week later, Bryan sent his sister the first of several dispatches that spring and summer, with updates on how their parents were coping.

"Sitting on that wide windowsill in the sun, Easter Sunday, you were thinking of us, as we were thinking of all of you, who are away from home," he wrote. "But much as each of us was in the others' thoughts, little did we dream what good old Al was up against."

Bryan went on to reveal his own burden, hinting at survivor's guilt weighed down by his dead brother's unrealized potential: "I'm almost ashamed to say it's been an inspiration," he wrote of Alan's death. "Now I feel I have to do the job of two, and what's more, have the power to do it. And I've pledged myself to try."

As a young man, weaned on epic tales of his uncle's exploits, Alan Manchee felt a similar obligation, and even tried to steer himself toward medical school.

"It was not the right thing to do," said Mr. Manchee, now a senior communications adviser for Hydro One, "but he was such an important person in my mother's life."

Such efforts have since given way to subtler forms of remembrance, most notably in Muskoka, at the family retreat. There, decades ago, Bryan Vaughan climbed the tallest tree and hung one of Doc Vaughan's jackets in it, and the ashes of several deceased family members have since been placed around it.

"Even today up there," Mr. Manchee said, "the children still call it 'Uncle Alan's tree.' "

In conjunction with the Dominion Institute and its Memory Project, we asked readers to submit the last letters of Canadians who died in the final months of the Second World War. This week, we have presented three of the soldiers' stories.

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