Joseph Fall, 1895-1988 (93 years)
Your Honor, Mr. Bakker, members of the Canadian Museum of Flight, ladies and Gentlemen, I am hugely honored to be invited here this evening to tell the story of my father’s life. Before I begin, you must know when it comes to my father’s achievements and character, I am incredibly biased and not the least bit ashamed of it. My father’s military medals include the Distinguished Service Cross with 2 bars, the Air Force Cross and 7 other decorations; 2 with oak leaves. In my opinion dad was one of Canada’s top WW1 pilots and unquestionably the least recognized.
There are approximately 120 aviators in the Canadian Aviation Hall of Fame. Lloyd Breadner and my father are not among them. It should be a huge embarrassment to ‘The Hall’ if they are still missing after all your hard work and the Vimy fly over in 2017.
My Father - What a great man!
In 1909 the Victoria doctor who operated on young Joe Fall was surprised he had survived the train ride from Hillbank, never mind the crucial brain operation. Dr. O. M. Jones, a world famous surgeon, removed nearly half of one of the rear lobes from the 14-year old farm boy’s brain after he fell out of the hay loft and struck his head on a disc harrow at his father’s Cobble Hill farm. Joe’s father Harry said to Dr. Jones, “ You don’t know Joe, he just won’t die.” That statement would be tested many more times over the next 80 years.
Joe Fall was born in 1895 near his father’s farm in Kilaalem Valley. Kilaalem, a Coast Salish word meaning “Valley of the Leeches” was the name the First Nations people gave to the rich and fertile valley that runs northwest from Dougans Lake, near Cobble Hill, through Hillbank and to Cowichan Station on Vancouver Island. It’s also the name Joe gave to his highly successful dairy farm roughly 60 years later.
In 1897 Harry Fall put farming on hold in order to fulfill a contract to design and supervise the construction of 3 riverboats on the Yukon River. While Harry and his wife Lallie travelled to Dawson City, Lallie became one of the first white woman to traverse over the Dyea Summit and the Chilkoot Pass. Young Joe was sent to stay with relatives in San Francisco and later, also traversing the Pass, joined his parents at Dawson City.
After the gold rush, Harry and his family returned to the Cobble Hill farm and Joe began his education, traveling by pony to the Cowichan Public School and later, the Quamichan Lake Private School which prepared boys for entrance to the Royal Military College. One of his school mates and life-long friend was the only Cowichan-born recipient of a title, Air Marshal Sir Philip Livingston - but that’s another story...
In 1915 Joe tried to join the army but was rejected because of the head injury. He was determined to serve and joined the Montreal School of Flying which never actually functioned. While waiting for the school to build an aircraft, he took a preliminary flying training course at Dayton, Ohio with the Stinson School of flying “in the old Wilbur Wright box kites.”
Upon return to Canada he found the Montreal school’s aircraft had crashed. In my collection of memorabilia, I have a copy of a letter he wrote to his Member of Parliament asking for assistance in getting his prepaid fees returned by the school.
Frustrated, Joe paid his own passage to England and applied to join the Royal Navy. He was accepted; and reported to the Admiralty on November 30th 1915, eleven days after his 20th birthday. He was able to deceive the naval medical branch by growing his hair long but otherwise telling their doctors the truth. He later said, “When they asked me if I had any bodily injuries, I said no. They didn’t ask me anything about head injuries and I didn’t offer anything.” During the interview Joe mentioned he had already taken some flight training and the Navy slated him for the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS).
From November 1915 To March 1916 Joe was sent for training in aerial navigation, engineering and gunnery. Flight training consumed the spring and summer of 1916 and finally, in October Sub-Lt. Joe Fall was sent to France, where, attached to a French unit, participated in their first mass bombing raid against the Mauser rifle factory at Oberndorf.
After a brief posting to Dunkirk, in February 1917 Joe was transferred to No.3 (Naval) Squadron at Marieux, France. Nine of This Squadron’s 12 pilots were Canadians, including fellow Vancouver Islander Raymond Collishaw of Nanaimo. It has been said; the Royal Navy had little faith in aerial warfare and was not prepared to risk large numbers of well trained British officers in such dangerous contraptions where life expectancies were measured in days. The ‘colonial boys’ however, were deemed more expendable and consequently the RNAS contained a very large proportion of young Canadians.
Much like our brave and courageous ground troops at Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele who were instrumental in the final victory; these young Canadian pilots distinguished themselves beyond all expectations and contributed significantly to it. At the end of March, Joe was promoted to Flight Sub-Lieutenant and his first real taste of dog fighting came on April 2nd when, over Vimy Ridge he attacked 2 enemy airplanes while on line patrol but “had much gun trouble.” He was forced to break off the engagement when his guns completely jammed.
Sub-Lt. Joe Fall with a Sopwith Pup
On April 11th, while escorting a bombing raid on Cambrai, he drove down one of several hostile machines attempting to attack the bombers. During the fighting, Joe became detached from the rest of his formation and was set upon by three enemy aircraft. He drove one down in flames and caused another to break off and limp back to its own lines. By skilful maneuvering, he then attacked the third and sent it crashing.
Skillful may be an understatement when one considers that some of this fighting took place at a height of only 50’ above the trenches! However, the twenty-one year old Canadian managed to get back across the lines and land safely. His aircraft was riddled by hostile gunfire from aircraft, infantry and cavalry.
In Joe’s own words, “When I landed, the wings dropped down to the ground like a hen over a brood of chicks.” Now, does that not sound just like a farmer’s son? The cross- bracing landing wires on his biplane had been shot apart. The wings had only been held intact by the flying wires and on touchdown they collapsed. Harry’s prophecy of his son’s indestructibility had held true again. For this triple victory, Joe Fall was sent to Buckingham Palace to receive the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC); one of the Navy’s highest decorations awarded to naval and marine officers for the performance of meritorious or distinguished service before the enemy.
By December 1917 he had brought down 36 enemy aircraft and two observation balloons. He was awarded the DSC 2 more times making him the only pilot in history to hold the DSC with 2 bars for gallantry in the air.
The unofficial title of “ACE” was given to pilots who claimed 5 confirmed victories in the air. Excluding time spent as a bomber pilot and other duties, on April 23rd 1917, Joe Fall became an ace in just 21 days. Five days later, on April 28th Raymond Collishaw of Nanaimo claimed his fifth victory and, on the very same day, a young German Lieutenant, one Herman Goring also became an ace in the Vimy area.
Joe Fall exhibited amazing flying and marksmanship skills and scored an incredible 36 victories in just 9 months of a five-year war. Can you imagine what his achievements may have been if he had served in France for the entire war?
More importantly, as documented in a book titled “Above the Trenches” by Norman Franks, he was especially regarded by his Commanding Officers and his fellow pilots for his training skills and devotion to helping the younger and less experienced pilots. By doing so, he saved many of their lives and shared 11 of 36 his victories with them.
My father never bragged about his victories and very much disliked the killing. In the twilight of his years a journalist asked him to recount his feats in WWI and dad replied, “I didn’t do much really, just murdered a few dozen young German boys who were no different than I.” Dad was even reluctant to discuss any details of the war. As teenagers, my brothers and I would, at times, discretely refill his wine glass to loosen his tongue – it practically never worked. This reluctance to discuss or boast of his achievements is probably the reason no book has ever been written about one of Canada’s most decorated yet unknown aviation heroes.
The Admiralty must have recognized this too and removed him from the front lines near the end of December. Following a Canadian leave in early 1918, Joe returned to England in time for the amalgamation of the RNAS and the RFC into the Royal Air Force and on April 24th he was transferred to the staff of the School of Aerial Gunnery and Fighting at HMS Air Station Frieston where he served for the remainder of Word War I on instructional duties and test flight. For this work, on January 1st 1919, he was awarded a new RAF decoration, the Air Force Cross.
When the War ended, Joe Fall, like Ray Collishaw, was granted a permanent commission in the RAF. In 1920, at the first Post-war air show, the Hendon Aerial Pageant, he led an aerobatics formation of five Sopwith Snipes. You could say that Joe was Canada’s first “Snowbird” lead pilot.
Joe was later posted to a squadron of the Fleet Air Arm which had only one aircraft carrier in commission, HMS Argus. It was the first carrier with a fully flush deck suitable for landing the new generation of naval aircraft, the Nieuport Nightjars. Joe Fall was among the pilots selected to fly these Nightjar aircraft out to HMS Argus and return by navy launch. Harry Fall’s prophecy held once again when Joe was inadvertently given the wrong wind speed over the ships tossing deck. He struck the stern and fell into the sea. Joe swam for his life underwater for several minutes while the plane was sucked in and demolished by the ships propellers.
The first of many overseas appointments began in September 1923 when Joe joined a Squadron at RAF Station Hinaida, Iraq, part of the RAF force policing the desert area. Further postings took Joe to Aboukir and later the Flying Training School at Abu Sueir.
Later, in 1923 Joe joined a Squadron attached to the army at Mosul; flying patrols against Turkish backed-rebels in Northern Iraq. Joe loved the Middle East and its people; he developed an especially strong fondness for the Kurds who he felt were unfairly sandwiched between Turkey and Iraq, constantly being fought over and deserved their own country and homeland. When his 3 sons were young, he told us many stories about hunting ducks in the marshes of Iraq and Ibex in the mountains of Kurdistan during his free Time. On occasions, he said the ducks were so plentiful one needed two shotguns as a single gun would get too hot from all the shooting.
It was during this tour of duty in the Middle East that Joe developed polio. In the 1920’s, that would have normally been fatal but as Harry Fall said, “Joe just won’t die.” He recovered from the polio but it left him with very weak legs and he was told he would never walk or fly again. Not so, sheer determination made it possible for him to do both.
In 1928 Joe Fall was flying again and was appointed to the staff of the Royal Aircraft Establishment Experimental Section at Farnborough where he flew autogyros, the predecessor to the helicopter and, in his own words‚ “Lots of weird contraptions.” He was also involved with “George”, the first auto pilot and test piloted some of the earliest prototypes of the feisty little airplane that helped win the Battle of Britain, the Spitfire.
In 1929 Joe was promoted to Squadron Leader and between ‘29 and ‘33 was posted to Hendon, Andover and later, Worthy Down where he met his future wife. The 38 year old, highly decorated Canadian bachelor Ace was finally shot down by a tall, aristocratic young English beauty, Gwendolen Margaret Coode, The great granddaughter of the world famous harbor engineer, Sir John Coode. Who says blind dates don’t work!
In 1936 he was promoted to Wing Commander and became the commanding officer at RAF Station Upper Heyford, home of The No. 1 Bomber Group. As The Second World War loomed, Wing Commander Fall was appointed Commanding Officer of RAF Station Hal Far in Malta where he received permission from The Commander-in-Chief for his wife and 3 children to join him. Just before war broke out Joe and his family moved to Alexandria, beyond the range of the Italian bombers.
In January 1940, Joe was promoted to Group Captain and put in charge of the repair group at Aboukir, near Alexandria. A rather close neighbor was a chap called Rommel, The ‘Desert Fox.’ Dad always said’ “It was touch and go whether to pick up and leave” but the unit remained and his luck held again. Later he was appointed to Commanding Officer of the bombing Station at Kabrit, near the Suez Canal, where he and some young American pilots delivered reciprocal medicine to the Fox.
In the meantime, his wife and children were moved from Alexandria to safety in Jerusalem and later to Durban, South Africa. At the conclusion of the Africa Campaign in 1943, Joe returned to England and at the age of 48 was told he had seen enough action in his lifetime and was asked what he would like to do. He replied, “I paid my own way over here from Canada in 1915 and I would like the Air Force to pay my way back. I’m too young to retire so is there a posting available in Canada.”
There was; so in 1943 G/C J.S.T. Fall and his family returned to Canada and he assumed his last command, the No 33 Elementary Flying Training School at Carberry, Manitoba. In 1945, at the end of the war Joe retired from the Air Force after 30 years of service, surviving active duty in 2 World Wars, test flying extremely dangerous experimental aircraft and Polio.
One would think that would be enough for one lifetime but it was not enough for Joe Fall, he had another 30-year career waiting for him to complete and one final conflict with Polio to deal with. Joe’s father Harry had passed away in 1931 and a younger sister, Phyllis, had succumbed to tuberculosis in 1920 leaving his mother Lallie with the surviving sister, Betty to cope with the farm. Of course, that was not possible and the farm was rented out and later abandoned.
Joe Fall came back to Kilaalem valley to rejuvenate his father’s farm and with weak legs and sheer determination (Mom called it stubbornness) he worked long hours and built one of the most productive, up-to-date and efficient dairy farms in Canada; the first on Vancouver Island to use a bulk tank for milk storage and the first to spread manure with an irrigation system. I have not been able to track it down but mother always told me the CBC did a documentary on Kilaalem farm while I was away at university.
Dad developed an amazing herd of Champion Jersey cows, his second love after his family & flying. In his later years when most of the farm work was being done by hired herdsmen, Dad could often be found in the middle of one of the fields with all his cows gathered around him waiting for their turn to be spoken to softly and rubbed under the chin or scratched behind the ears. Over the years a number of farm employees ended up at the receiving end of this military man’s wrath and lost their jobs for mistreating the cattle, dad simply would not tolerate any unkindness aimed at his gentle brown-eyed Jersey cows.
An edited quote from a Canadian Farmers magazine reads: “The all-time record production by a Canadian Jersey has been broken. Kilaalem Koka Chloe is the new Champion. Freshening at 7 years and 9 months of age, Chloe produced over 23,000 pounds of milk in a 305 day lactation period, 1800 pounds more than the previous record. Kilaalem Chloe was bred and raised by Group Captain J. S. T. Fall and Barry Fisher of Cobble Hill, B.C.”
In addition to the huge burden of working and running the farm, Joe was very active and held executive positions in the Dairymen’s Association and the Cowichan Farmers Co-Op.
By the mid 1970’s dad’s knees were completely worn out and because of the weakness in his legs caused by the polio, he would never walk again if knee replacement were attempted. None of his children wished to be farmers so he sold the farm and finally retired to the new house he had built on a hill overlooking the part of the valley both he and his father had farmed for almost 100 years. By 1985 the Polio returned in an at-the-time, unrecognized form now known as Post Polio Syndrome. It attacks the nervous system and exhibits symptoms similar to Parkinson’s. Mom cared for him at home for as long as she physically could but eventually he needed to go to a care facility. Even though he seldom complained, dad’s final battle with Polio was extremely drawn out and painful.
Eventually and thankfully his kidneys ceased to function and on Thursday, December 15th 1988, a few weeks after his 93rd birthday, Joseph Stewart Temple Fall died at the Extended Care Unit of the Duncan Hospital. This 93-year old Canadian finally found a mountain he could not climb and succumbed to the polio he had contracted and initially beaten in the Middle-East 60 years earlier. His flying and farming aside, living with post polio syndrome alone speaks volumes about the caliber of this most determined and amazing man.
My departed brother Stewart wept as he read the brief eulogy at dad’s funeral: (edited)
“Our dad! what a great man. As I reflect on my own life, more and more do I realize how great a man he was. He had a dedication to the well being of all who were close to him, his family, his friends, his countrymen. He fought through two world wars for the freedom we all enjoy. He worked long hours on the farm to support his family and to ensure his children had all the opportunities that life could offer. As a youngster he trekked over the Chilkoot Pass behind a dogsled and from there on his life was one big adventure. We all loved him dearly, respected him deeply and will miss him sadly.”
Jack Fleetwood of the Cowichan News Leader said it perfectly when he wrote; “We who enjoy the good life of Cowichan country owe much to men of the caliber of Joe Fall, for had it not been for such as Joe, we would probably now be a colony of a foreign power. Also, to his credit, Joe returned to the soil he was born on and made it produce as our pioneers intended it should.”
Twenty years later I still feel a deep hole in the pit of my stomach on November 11th‚ November 17th‚ December 1‚ and other occasions when I am reminded of him.
Thank you for your interest in my dad and for your patience listening to his life’s story.
Note: This presentation was delivered The Canadian Museum of Flight by the author on Saturday, October 17th 2015. I have unabashedly plagiarized (without permission) sections of a document called, “The Man Who Refused to Die” written by Bill Cumming for The Journal of the Canadian Aviation Historical Society (I’m sure Bill wouldn’t mind). Much material and many passages also came (with permission) from presentations and essays written by Capt Alan Snowie, RCAF (ret.). Alan was a pilot on the Bonaventure, and later became a senior 747 pilot for Air Canada. Alan has done mountains of research and written volumes about Canada’s Navy pilots, especially Joe Fall and Ray Collishaw. Please feel free to copy my presentation as often as you like.
If you could bear with me for a few more minutes; I have a clarification and a presentation to make. The original topic of my presentation here this evening was to be about my father’s Sopwith Pup. I know very little about dad’s aircraft other than what is included in Norman Franks book about the Pups of WW 1. Mr. Franks lists my father as the number 1 Ace flying the Pup with 11 aerial victories. Eight of those victories were with shared aircraft and the other 3 were with his own Pup, Number N6205. The airframe itself did not last long enough to achieve ‘Ace’ status so must have been shot up or crashed some time after the victories dad claimed with it.
Unfortunately, Allan Snowie could not be here tonight. As most of you probably know Allan may fly one of the Sopwith Pups you are building and when asked about a paint scheme for the Pup he suggested the colors of Joe Fall’s aircraft. A color photo of that Pup appears in Norman Franks’ book Sopwith Pup Aces of WW 1 and the name on the fuselage is “BETTY.” Knowing that was not the name of Joe’s wife the question was asked, “I wonder who Betty was?” On the other side of the fuselage the name was “Phyllis.” Oh my gosh, was Joe a two-timing man? Actually NO. Both of the girls were dad’s little sisters. Phyllis died of TB in 1920, but Betty lived to the ripe old age of 92 that included a stint in the women’s branch of the Air Force.
I have brought with me tonight my father’s original leather flying helmet and flying gloves. On behalf of the Fall family, I would like to present them to this museum and hopefully Alan can borrow them for a flight in France in 2017. Would Bruce Bakker please accept this donation?