'That's the sacrifice of young Canadians': Preserving 150 letters from WWII Avro Lancaster pilot

Andy Thomson formed a deep connection with an uncle he barely knew by finding 150 letters from the Second World War.

Donald Plaunt was a prolific writer who often wrote to his family in Sudbury, Ont., from overseas

Donald Plaunt sent 150 letters to his family in Sudbury, Ont., from overseas during the Second World War. His parents kept them in a golden florentine box that was passed onto his nephew Andy Thomson. (Chris Dunseith/CBC)

Andy Thomson combs through dozens of envelopes stacked chronologically in an aging golden florentine box. 

The family heirloom was passed onto him by a cousin at their family home in Sudbury, Ont. 

It contains 150 wartime letters from an uncle he barely knew, but has been able to form a connection with thanks to the messages. 

"Right now my tail gunner is battling away on the piano and every now and again he is playing 'Yours,' which just about makes me weep," one letters reads. 

"Yes, in spite of his antiquity it's still my favourite piece. One just doesn't hear any of that over here."
Andy Thomson, 76, is a retired history teacher from Toronto whose uncle, Donald Plaunt, served as a Avro Lancaster bomber pilot in the Second World War. (Chris Dunseith/CBC)

Uncle Donald Plaunt's writing has become a passion for Thomson, who is a retired history teacher from Toronto.

Thomson, 76, has transcribed all 150 of Plaunt's letters, and has self-published a book about the stories entitled Write Soon and Often.

Thomson has dug up every military file from the moment Plaunt enlisted for the Second World War at the age of 18.

'Did what I would've done'

In the section that asked Plaunt what his main reason was for joining the air force, he wrote it was: "the proper thing to do."

Plaunt paid a great price for his service. He died two months shy of his 21st birthday when the heavy bomber he was flying crashed over Nazi Germany in 1943. 
One of the two last flying Avro Lancasters in the world is located at the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum in Hamilton, Ont. (Marie Morrissey/CBC)

All seven men onboard, including Plaunt, were killed.

Thomson was just a baby at the time, but remembers being drawn to his uncle's black and white photographs in uniform growing up.

"He kind of did what I would've done," Thomson said. 

"The fact that he died means that might've happened to me."

Thomson said a tsunami of grief overcame his family. The only silver lining was that his uncle was flying an aircraft he loved: the Avro Lancaster. 
Donald Plaunt was 18-years-old when he enlisted for the Second World War. He noted it was, "the proper thing to do." (Chris Dunseith/CBC)

It was a dark grey, steel aircraft with thundering engines and propellers that helped the Allies win the war. 

'Remarkable that he has that history'

One of the two last flying Lancasters in the world is stationed at the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum in Hamilton, Ont., where David Rohrer is president.

Rohrer said he has heard countless stories about the Lancaster, but none as well documented as Thomson's.

"It's remarkable that he has that history," Rohrer said.

"There's his uncle Don Plaunt, and when you think of it he had 11 missions. He didn't survive his 11th mission, and he wasn't even 21 yet and that's the story of the sacrifice of young Canadians."
David Rohrer, president of the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum, calls the level of documentation from Andy Thomson's uncle rare. (Chris Dunseith/CBC)

More than 70 years after his uncle's death, Thomson's eyes fill with tears as the Lancaster comes into view on the Hamilton tarmac.

"There's something between him and me that I can't explain," Thomson said. 

"There's some connection I have with my uncle"

It is that connection that has allowed Thomson to preserve his uncle's story to make sure he, and the lives of thousands of other Canadians who served in bomber command will never be forgotten.
Andy Thomson self-published a book based on his uncle's wartime letters. (Chris Dunseith/CBC)


Olivia Stefanovich

Senior reporter

Olivia Stefanovich is a senior reporter for CBC's Parliamentary Bureau based in Ottawa. She previously worked in Toronto, Saskatchewan and northern Ontario. Connect with her on Twitter at @CBCOlivia. Story tips welcome: