Canadian war hero Syd Shulemson has died

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Pacific Historian
Jun 4, 2005
Orange County, CA

Canadian war hero Syd Shulemson has died
Updated Sat. Feb. 3 2007 11:46 PM ET

Canadian Press

VANCOUVER -- Syd Shulemson never lost the fighter pilot's dash he displayed as Canada's most highly decorated Jewish soldier of the Second World War.

Shulemson, who died in Florida last week at 91 following a heart attack, helped pioneer techniques for low-level rocket attacks on Axis powers' shipping in the North Atlantic. The tactics were used for decades until smart weapons and long-range missiles supplanted unguided rockets.

After the war, he was part of the group that helped equip the embryonic Israeli armed forces for its War of Independence.

And he recruited veteran pilots, including famed Canadian ace George (Buzz) Beurling, to fly for the new Jewish state.

Plans are underway for a memorial service in his hometown of Montreal but arrangements have not been finalized.

Shulemson's Clark Gable moustache might have been white when he settled into 404 Squadron's flight simulator at CFB Greenwood, N.S., last October during the 65th anniversary of squadron he flew for during the war.

But the 90-year-old Shulemson, who hadn't flown in 60 years, astounded his hosts by quickly adapting to the four-engine maritime patrol plane's flying characteristics.

Shulemson set off alarms when he took the Aurora below its 30-metre minimum altitude to perform his trademark low-level attack on a simulated ship.

"He kept trying to fly lower than we were allowed to fly because when they flew during the war, they normally flew at 50 to 75 feet off the water," said squadron historian Maj. Chris Larsen.

Sydney Simon Shulemson, born Oct. 22, 1915, in Montreal, was a natural pilot.

He dreamed of becoming an aeronautical engineer and his high school marks were strong enough to win entrance to McGill University despite its quota on Jewish students at the time.

But money was tight in Depression-era Canada so Shulemson was forced to quit and find work, first with a New York advertising firm, then his uncle's Montreal printing business.

The day Canada declared war on Germany, Sept. 10, 1939, the former army cadet signed up with the RCAF.

Shulemson graduated near the top of his pilot-training class in 1942 and was sent to Charlottetown for advanced training.

He was in hospital recovering from minor surgery when the rest of his class was dispatched to India to fight in the Pacific war against the Japanese.

Shulemson instead was sent to RCAF 404 Squadron, then stationed in Wick, Scotland, as part of a Royal Air Force Coastal Command wing whose role was to attack German shipping along the Norwegian and Dutch coasts.

"The result of that of course is that he's thrown really into the deep end of the pool," said aviation author Wayne Ralph, who interviewed Shulemson for his 2005 book Aces, Warriors and Wingmen.

Shulemson quickly made his mark by shooting down a German flying boat and sharing the destruction of a second on his first mission.

The squadron was equipped with twin-engine Bristol Beaufighters, a powerful, snubnosed fighter-bomber.

Though heavily armed with four 20-millimetre cannon and six machine guns, the Beaufighters suffered heavy losses when attacking ships with torpedoes because they had to fly straight and slow.

The RAF was experimenting with wing-mounted armour-piercing rockets but was on the verge of discarding them because pilots had a hard time making accurate hits with the unguided projectiles.

Shulemson and his British commander, Squadron Leader Ken Gatward, concluded the problem lay in the free-for-all approach to the attacks and pilots' tendency to guess at the right aiming point.

Using his background in aeronautics, Shulemson systematically worked out the proper speeds, angles of attack and release point for the rockets.

He and Gatward also replaced the squadron's cowboy attack style with a methodical approach that quickly paid off.

Rocket-equipped Beaufighters of 404 Squadron - now folded into the RAF's Banff Wing - were not only sinking vital Axis cargo vessels but also powerful warships that protected them, including two 8,000-ton anti-aircraft escort ships during the Normandy invasion.

Shulemson became technical officer in charge of training other pilots on rocket-attack techniques.

"At the end of the war Shulemson was training up to nine squadrons," said historian Stephane Guevremont, who is completing Shulemson's biography.

His expertise was such that even though he was a junior officer, Shulemson led multi-squadron attacks.

"It was quite clear to me that he was leading combat missions as though he were a wing commander," said Ralph.

Eventually he was barred from any more missions, his knowledge deemed to valuable to risk in operations.

Only a few months into his combat tour in 1943, Shulemson earned a Distinguished Service Order, a medal just below the Victoria Cross rarely given to junior officers like him.

After successfully attacking an enemy convoy, he kept a German fighter busy for 18 minutes to allow a damaged wingman to escape.

The more agile Messerschmidt 109 was forced to break off the attack eventually and Shulemson nursed his now damaged Beaufighter back to base.

Six months later Shulemson won the Distinguished Flying Cross for his work in turning the Banff Wing into a deadly anti-shipping strike force.

Yet Shulemson ended the war as lowly flight lieutenant. It would be 10 years before he was promoted even to squadron leader in the peacetime reserve.

The reasons were probably complicated. Shulemson was never less than candid in stating his views and Guevremont also believes he worried promotion would have meant a desk job.

But there was also a lingering suspicion of anti-Semitism within the higher levels of the British military.

Shulemson told Guevremont of an incident when he was assigned to train some Royal Navy fliers in his rocket attack techniques.

An admiral called 404 Squadron to find out who he was and what kind of name was Shulemson. The week long assignment ended after two days.

After the war, Shulemson rejoined his uncle's printing firm but soon became involved in the fight for a Jewish state in Palestine.

Israel's supporters were scrambling to equip and man the infant state's armed forces for the expected Arab onslaught once the UN mandated partition became final.

Shulemson went to meetings in New York and claimed he persuaded Israel's backers that air power would be crucial to winning the war.

"He said you won't have independence without an air force," said Guevremont. "So he found them airplanes and he found them pilots."

Shulemson was able to acquire 200 surplus British de Havilland Mosquito fighter-bombers originally purchased by China and divert them to Israel.

He also began recruiting veteran pilots.

The work had a cloak-and-dagger quality because Canada was treading a fine diplomatic line at the United Nations.

Shulemson claimed then-external affairs minister Lester Pearson warned him to keep his efforts under the radar.

"You had this strange situation where there's no question a lot of the activity was under RCMP surveillance, " said David Bercuson, director of the University of Calgary's Centre for Military and Strategic Studies, whose 1984 book The Secret Army tells the story of Israel's foreign volunteers.

Shulemson's most famous recruit was George (Buzz) Beurling, Canada's highest-scoring ace of the war with 32 confirmed victories, most during the siege of Malta in 1942.

But Shulemson was leery of Beurling, a maverick loner who he suspected was a mercenary at best or even an agent of the British, who were backing the Arabs.

Worse, Beurling could not resist shooting off his mouth.

"He was meeting Beurling at secret places and trying to hide him, and Beurling was going to the press (saying) 'hey. I'm going to Israel,' " said Guevremont.

Beurling never made it, dying along with copilot Leonard Cohen when a Canadian-built Norseman bushplane he was test flying caught fire and crashed outside Rome in May 1948.

Many, including Shulemson, suspected a British agent sabotaged the plane.

Pearson sent a letter of condolence to Beurling's family in Quebec but declined to pay to bring the legendary flier's body home to Canada.

He was buried in Rome but in 1950, Shulemson arranged for an Israeli navy destroyer to take Beurling's body to Israel. He was buried in Haifa military cemetery and given a posthumous commission in Israel's air force.

Israel honoured Shulemson with a citation as a Fighter for the State of Israel.

Shulemson was also deeply involved in the Canadian Jewish Congress until the early 1990s. He sat on its community relations committee, which dealt with interfaith relations, anti-Semitism and the pursue of Nazi war criminals living in Canada.

"He didn't speak on everything but when he did speak, especially on the issues that he cared passionately for, it came out with such gravitas that you couldn't help but not take into account what he had to say," said Bernie Farber, the congress's regional executive director for Ontario.

Shulemson is survived by his wife Ella, whom he married at age 74 after a lifetime of "playing the field," and stepsons Rick and Jerry Lozoff.

He had a credo, said Guevremont.

" 'I can prove with my life that I can be totally loyal to two
nations.' He gave himself to Canada during the war . . . then he devoted his post-war career to the building of the state of Israel."

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