Reflections of Ponoka: Medals of bravery for early district military personnel

For more than a century hundreds of men and women from Ponoka and districts have served in the armed forces at home and overseas.

Lt.-Cmdr. Roger Fink

For more than a century hundreds of men and women from Ponoka and districts have served in the armed forces at home and overseas. David Spink has kindly taken the time to research those who have either defended our country with their lives and lost them, or who have served in the military forces and have completed their service to their country. We are pleased to present his stories in Reflections.

By David Spink for the News

Lt.-Cmdr. Roger Fink

Roger Fink was a Ponoka boy, even though it is said that he was born in Meniak. He joined the RCAF as a young man just out of high school, and after serving in the Second World War, he served in the Korean War and then transferred to the Fleet Air Arm in helicopters.

After discharge, Fink went to Red Deer College and worked as an accountant and legal administrator for a Red Deer law firm, retiring 10 years later. In the time between his military service and going to college, he piloted mostly commercial helicopters in the north. During his military service Lt.-Cmdr. Fink was one of only 77 Canadians to receive the Commonwealth’s coveted George Medal for exceptional bravery for co-piloting a helicopter during the daring rescue of 21 crewmen off a ship called the SS Kismet II, which was wrecked below a 900-foot Cape Breton cliff.

This daring rescue, during September of 1955, required several attempts to save the lives of the crewmen of this Liberian freighter. Attempts had been made earlier by snowplow crews dropping down ropes to the stranded men but they were thwarted by the very high wind and seas that had also made it impossible for other boats to reach the wreck. Helicopters seemed to be the only option left, and the one to be used was borrowed from the RCAF and flown from the flight deck of the HMCS Ottawa. At one point during the rescue, the rotor blades of the helicopter were only two feet away from the cliff during a high bout of wind but fortunately did not smash into the cliffs. The landing on the wrecked ship was called a three-point landing because only three of the four wheels could be placed on the boat at one time, with four trips having to be made to complete the rescue.

Lt.-Cmdr. J.H. Beeman and Roger Fink were the pilots on this daring and dangerous mission, and they even managed to save a cat and a dog from the sinking boat. The George Medal, which had been struck by King George VI, and is the most prestigious medal for civilians, was awarded to Roger Fink by Queen Elizabeth II on July 1, 1959. After enjoying an active life Roger Fink died in Red Deer on Feb. 12, 2010.

Pilot Officer Andrew Mynarski

Andrew Mynarski was born on Oct. 14, 1916, and was commissioned into the Royal Canadian Air Force just a few days before the bombing in Cambria, France during the Second World War. He would die in action on June 13, 1944 at the age of 27, and because of his valor, which I will explain, Mynarski was later awarded the Victoria Cross, the most prestigious award for bravery in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth military forces.

Mynarski was born in Winnipeg, Man. and died in Cambria, France, which was the target for this mission. He was flying as an upper gunner in a Superlative Avro Lancaster Bomber when it was struck by anti-aircraft flack, causing a fire in the hydraulic fluids of the aircraft as well as the engines. The captain, Flying Officer Art deBreyne, gave the order to bail out, and as Andrew approached the rear escape door, he saw through the flames that his good friend, P/O Pat Brophy was trapped in his turret that had been jammed part way through the rotation as a result of the flack. Without hesitation Mynarski made his way through the flames to give assistance to Brophy, using the equipment available to him, and with great effort. He was unfortunately unable to pry open the tail gunner’s escape.

After burning his hands and clothes and with his parachute on fire, Mynarski returned to his jump door, where he paused, saluted, said, “Good night sir,” and then jumped. All the members of the aircraft escaped except for Pat Brophy, and they were in fairly good condition. Jack Friday, one of the five, had been knocked out while trying to bail and Roy Vigars, finding Friday unconscious, quickly clipped his parachute and tossed the limp body out of the hatch, then jumped himself while controlling Friday’s rip cord. Only Andrew Mynarski had managed to get out the rear door of the burning plane but his descent was rapid, and with his clothes, parachute and shroud lines on fire, the result was a high-impact fall. He landed alive but was severely burned and his clothes were still on fire, and after being taken to a German hospital he died a short time later.

Brophy remained trapped in the bomber and stayed with the aircraft until it hit the ground, still trapped in his turret. The force of the crash ejected the turret, causing it to roll away from the burning wreckage, leaving Brophy alive and able to survive the crash. Four crew members made their way back to England shortly after the crash but the wounded bomb aimer Jack Friday was captured by the German forces. Brophy joined the French Resistance Force, and then made his way back to England in September 1944, where he learned of Andrew Mynarski’s death.

In 1945 when the remaining crew members met again, they all related Mynarski’s heroic efforts to save his fellow crew members and having those final moments revealed, Andrew was awarded the Victoria Cross (valour of the highest order) posthumously. Although he was not from the Ponoka area, Pilot Officer Andrew Mynarski’s name has been synonymous with central Alberta, with the longstanding Penhold Airbase being named Mynarski Park in his honour. It has now been changed to Sunnybrook.

Dave’s next story will outline the heroic war and peacetime efforts of the Warren twins, Bruce and Doug, formerly of the Ponoka district.

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