This Cold War veteran did his shooting with a camera, not a gun

Mort Lyons' Cold War missions included photographing Russian ships and satellites, and flying high over the Arctic to make Canada's first maps of the region.

Murray Harbour's Mort Lyons, 86, photographed Russian warships, Canada's Arctic from the air

Mort Lyons flew in CF-104 fighter jets to conduct aerial photography during the Cold War. (Brian Higgins/CBC)

Mort Lyons, 86, is known in Murray Harbour, P.E.I., as a man who can fix anything — appliances, cars, you name it.

People may not know that during the Cold War he photographed Russian ships and satellites, and flew high over the Arctic to make Canada's first detailed maps of the region.

"I'm not sure there's much to tell," said Lyons. "I just did my job."

Lancaster bombers on the tarmac at CFB Summerside. Lyons served as photographer on bomber training sessions over the Gulf of St. Lawrence. (Morton Lyons)

'I'd never held a camera in my life'

Lyons joined the Royal Canadian Air Force in Halifax in 1954, when the Cold War — pitting western nations against the Soviet Union — was heating up.

Military intelligence at the dawn of the nuclear age was vital, and the means of obtaining it were evolving fast.

Lyons found himself being trained to shoot. Not a gun, but film, as an aerial photographer.

"I'd never held a camera in my life," he said.

'We don't need another Cold War,' said Lyons. (Submitted by Mort Lyons)

'Something fishy about' the trawlers

In the early years, Lyons flew in Second World War-era Lancaster bombers, based in Torbay, Nfld.

"We photographed Russian fishing trawlers on the Grand Banks. We'd come back the next day and they'd have painted new numbers on their stacks over night," said Lyons. "Something fishy about that."

Lyon's career included stints at CFB Summerside, where his aerial photography was used in bomber training.

In the high Arctic he used his skills to photograph vast areas of Canada's uncharted northern lands.

Specialized photography in pre-digital era

"We flew thousands of miles, three miles high, taking one photograph after another," said Lyons.

Lyons' special cameras produced oversized negatives — 25 cm by 25 cm.

"We used them to make great big prints, 12 feet by 12 feet," said Lyons. "Those photos were used to make some of the first maps up there."

By the late 1960s, Lyons was riding shotgun with camera and film in the CF-104, Canada's cutting-edge jet fighter at the time.

The Cold War pitted Canada and its NATO allies against the Soviet bloc. (Mort Lyons)

Stationed in Germany, assignments included tracking Soviet submarines and warships in the North Atlantic.

"It was the Cold War," said Lyons, "We watched their moves. They watched ours."

Lyons served 32 years in the RCAF. His wife Joyce Lyons, followed him across Canada and overseas. They've now been married 61 years.

"Travelling to all those places was interesting," said Joyce. "It opened your eyes to different parts of the world."

Deep in the woods of New Brunswick

In the 1970s, Mort Lyons took on a new assignment — photographing satellites.

He used a large, floor-mounted camera with a lens more than a metre across.  It was housed deep in the woods of New Brunswick, for clear views of the night sky.

"We took photos every night of satellites drifting by," said Lyons. "We wired the photos every morning to the American military."

Joyce and Mort Lyons have been married 61 years. She accompanied him across Canada and overseas. They will mark Remembrance Day at their local church. (Brian Higgins/CBC)

Mort and Joyce Lyons will mark Remembrance Day this year at a ceremony at their local church, Murray Harbour Baptist.

Asked about the U.S. election and the leadership of Russia, Lyons drew his reply from his military experience.

"We don't need another Cold War," he said.


Brian Higgins


Brian Higgins joined CBC Prince Edward Island in 2002, following work in broadcasting, newspaper and magazine writing in central Canada. He follows law courts and justice issues on P.E.I., among other assignments.