73 years later, WW II pilot with PTSD finally gets hero's send off

Byron Rawson shot himself three months after returning from war. He is simply buried as "Byron." On Saturday, he'll get a full military commemoration, including a flyover by a war plane.

'I wish my grandfather was here,' says Byron Rawson's nephew

"I wish my grandfather was here," says Peter Jackson with his daughter Catherine, at the new marker commemorating his uncle, Byron Rawson. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Tucked away at Hamilton Woodland Cemetery, the grave of Wing Commander Byron Rawson hardly looks like that of a war hero.

There's a larger family stone that reads "Rawson." On the grass, a flat rectangular marker simply reads "Byron. 1922-1945."

Tomorrow, all that will change.

"I thought he was a very cool dude," says Peter Jackson of his uncle Byron Rawson. (Charles Johnston's WWII McMaster Honour Roll project)

Rawson was 23 when three months home from the Second World War, he shot himself in the head with his own revolver. These days, he would be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But this was 1945, and few people recognized it as a war-related injury. Now they do.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) will unveil a commemorative marker for Rawson recognizing his service, which last saw him dropping bombs on enemy targets to help seal the fate of the German army. 

A military band will play. Around 11 a.m., a CC-177 Globemaster will fly overhead. Rawson's great-niece, Rev. Catherine Jackson, will co-preside over the service, much like Rawson's grieving father did at his funeral in 1945.

"I wish my grandfather was here," said Peter Jackson, Rawson's nephew, who travelled from Maryland for the service.

He remembers his uncle as "a very cool dude."

The Rawson family, including young Byron in the back row, lived at 51 Robinson St. (Patrick Shea)

"He was a very friendly, suave kind of guy. He seemed so sophisticated to me," he said.

"He wanted to appear to older and more mature because he'd worked so hard and achieved the rank of Wing Commander. So he grew a mustache and had a pipe." 

The Rawson story began in Sturgeon Falls, Ont. in 1922.

"Barney" moved to Hamilton when he was 15 with his father Norman, a Methodist minister, as well as his mother May Maud and three sisters. His father led Centenary United Church. The family lived in a manse on 51 Robinson St.

After high school, he enrolled at McMaster University and thought he might become a lawyer. He left at age 18 to enlist in the RCAF. He received his pilot wings in April 1942, and went overseas a month later.

"It was a double tragedy because it was so close to Christmas," says Peter Jackson of his uncle's suicide. (Patrick Shea)

He quickly rose through the ranks. He flew 51 missions and served in the RCAF's elite Pathfinder Force, No. 8 Group. He also served with 405 and 429 Squadrons, No. 6 (RCAF) Group. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross twice.

At one point, he piloted a Wellington III BK 162, says a biography by Charles Johnston, a McMaster University professor emeritus. He decorated it with a Betty Grable-like drawing he called "our lovely girl."

Rawson's final mission, says Johnston's biography, was on April 9, 1945. He capsized and damaged German warships and shipyards in Kiel as part of a 591-plane raid of mostly Lancaster bombers.

He returned home via Trenton, and on Sept. 20, was discharged from the air force. He studied law at Osgoode Hall and did numerous speaking engagements.

Jackson recalls being five and traveling from Virginia to see his maternal uncle. He remembers Rawson swinging him around and bouncing him on his knee. His uncle's mustache made such an impression that Jackson, at 78, still has one.

"Failure to completely recover from intensive duties and responsibilities of his war experience," reads Byron Rawson's death certificate. His father signed it. (Patrick Shea)

Rawson was a kind and God-fearing man, Jackson said. Dropping bombs knowing the threat of casualties "would have been wrenching for him."

Some friends who saw Barney in his last days said he was his old self, Johnston's biography says. Others say he complained of insomnia and nightmares.

For the Rawson family, "his depression came on very rapidly," Jackson said. "He didn't show a lot of signs until suddenly near the very end. It hit him and he didn't recover."

On his death certificate, his cause of death is listed as "shock and hemorrhage, gunshot wound to the head." The coroner at the time was explicit.

"Failure to completely recover from intensive duties," he wrote, "and responsibilities of his war experience."

This current marker at Hamilton Woodland Cemetery has no indication of Rawson's military career. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Patrick Shea, a partner at Gowling WLG, uncovered the story as he researched law students killed in the Second World War. He was arranging their honorary calls to the bar.

Rawson was a law student, and a decorated pilot, Shea said. But "he was not recognized as war dead." So he wrote to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and asked them to recognize Rawson.

Rawson's new stone reads "A brave warrior, a son of Christ."

Jackson hasn't seen his uncle for more than 70 years. Still, this is emotional.

"It's wonderful in his memory to see this happen," he said. "It doesn't reflect on me. But it reflects on him and his memory, and the things that he did for his country."


Samantha Craggs is journalist based in Windsor, Ont. She is executive producer of CBC Windsor and previously worked as a reporter and producer in Hamilton, specializing in politics and city hall. Follow her on Twitter at @SamCraggsCBC, or email her at samantha.craggs@cbc.ca