Kenneth Wheatley Priske (1923-1944) was the thirteenth and last child of Sydney Montague (aka Harry) and Kate Priske (nee Wheatley). He was born on April 22, 1923 in Schreiber, Ontario. The Priske household was that of a normal large family – boisterous, loud and always busy. As the youngest child, Ken was spoiled by his older siblings.
Life changed drastically for the entire family on May 19, 1938 when Ken’s father, Sydney Montague Priske, was killed in a railway derailment. Shortly after his father’s death, Ken, who was fifteen years old and the only child living at home, and his mother moved to Port Arthur, Ontario.
He completed his junior matriculation at the Schreiber Continuation School in 1938 and then attended Port Arthur Collegiate Institute from 1938 to 1941, completing his senior matriculation.
After completing school, he worked from 1940 to 1941 as a chauffeur and then in 1941 as a grain sampler for the Saskatchewan Pool Terminal #6 in Port Arthur, Ontario.
Canada officially joined the Allies in World War II on September 10, 1939. The years leading up to the declaration of war between the Axis and Allied powers in 1939 were tumultuous times for people across the globe. The Great Depression had started a decade before, leaving many Canadians unemployed and desperate. Even those who were employed found life difficult. After the war began, there was rationing and general shortage of many everyday items.
Even though Ken had three brothers in the Canadian Navy, on February 23rd, 1942, at the age of nineteen, he went to the Royal Canadian Air Force Mobile Recruiting Unit in Port Arthur, Ontario and completed his attestation papers.
He was sent to Winnipeg, Manitoba to begin pilot training and from there he went to Brandon, Manitoba, Regina, Saskatchewan and then on to the Air Service Training Facility in Yorkton, Saskatchewan where he earned his wings on April 29, 1943. His last stop was Halifax, Nova Scotia before he was sent overseas to begin his service as an R.C.A.F. pilot.
During a leave in Fort William, Ontario on January 8th, 1943 he married Louise Marie Tait, after which they went to Digby, Nova Scotia. After he went overseas, Ken sent numerous letters home, but never saw his wife again.
Ken went on several bombing sorties during his time in service, usually in a Halifax III bomber.
Ken’s last leave was in London, where he met his oldest sister, Alice, for the first time, and also Alice’s daughter, Ivy, who was a nurse serving with the Canadian Forces at that time. Alice was twenty-two years Ken’s senior and had married and moved from Schreiber back to England before he was born.
I don’t really think he and Ivy planned on wearing matching swimsuits on an outing to the pool, but it is quite a picture!
In one of his last letters home to his sister Ivy, he mentions how he was looking forward to going home. Little did he know that that would be one of the last letters he would ever write.
“Sender’s Address: (Can) R 157101, Sgt. Priske, K.W.
R.C.A.F. Overseas, July 18, 1943
I received the letter you wrote to Louise and I on May 7th in a letter I received from Louise yesterday. It was the first letter I have received from any of the family since I have been over here, even though it did come by an indirect route and it was very welcome. I guess by this time you have heard from Louise that I had been overseas for a couple of months now. It is quite nice over here but believe me there will be no happier man than I am when I get back to Canada. I am flying now and have two or three months more to go before I get into operations. I guess Carlyle [Ivy’s husband] is getting pretty fed up on being stationed in one place for so long because I know I sure would be. I spent a week’s leave over here with Alice in London and had a marvelous time. As you know, it is the first time I have ever seen Alice and we had a great visit and talked every night for hours about family and stuff. I was sorry that we couldn’t visit Toronto on our way through to Halifax, but we couldn’t get our tickets routed that way. I still haven’t received any mail from Mother but have received twenty-five letters from Louise, twenty in the last ten days. All for now, sis. Take good care of yourself and give my regards to all the folks in Toronto. Write me a letter when you have a spare moment. I’ll be expecting to hear from you. Cheerio for now.
As ever, Your Brother, Ken”
On May 2nd, 1944, an eight-man flight crew, on a Halifax III bomber HX347 consisting of Pilot Officer George Lassey, Flight Sergeant Kenneth W. Priske, Sergeant Nelson W. Miller, Sergeant Douglas Knowles, Sergeant Thomas Hartley, Sergeant James Thomas H Burton, Sergeant Thomas K. D. Lucas (gunner) and Warrant Officer Douglas J. Setter (gunner), left their base on a bombing mission which ended in a crash
ed at Braine L’Alleud, eleven miles south of Brussels. They were heading for Mechelen, Belgium, the target for that night.
On May 4th, 1944 the dreaded telegram arrived:
Followed by letters of condolence from Mrs. Vincent-Massey and King George VI.
At that time all members of the crew were listed as missing in action. In 1949, a search was started for War dead by the Canadian Casualties Office. A letter dated January 11th, 1949 to Mrs. L. M. Walsh
, (widow of Kenneth Priske who subsequently married a second time) partially solved the mystery of the eight men listed as missing in action:
“It is with regret that I refer to the loss of your former husband, Pilot Officer Kenneth Wheatley Priske, who lost his life on air operations against the enemy May 2, 1944, but a report has been received from our Missing Research and Enquiry Service concerning members of your husband’s crew …
Investigating Officers of this service, on visiting Evere Cemetery in Brussels, Belgium, located the graves of Pilot Officer Lassey, Sergeant Lucas and Warrant Officer Setter. It was ascertained that the aircraft had crashed at Braine L’Alleud, which is eleven miles south of Brussels. This information was obtained from M. Henri Herraelsteen, a farmer near the village. He stated that all the crew had perished in the crash and that their remains had been taken away for burial by the German authorities. Although extensive investigations were carried out, no further information could be secured on the missing members of the crew. Unhappily, owing to the extreme hazards attending war in the air, there are many thousands of aircrew boys who, like your husband, did not have a ‘known’ grave and their names will be commemorated on a general memorial to be erected in England by the Imperial War Graves Commission (of which Canada is a member …”
Upon further investigation it was found that Pilot Officer George Lassey and Sergeants Lucas and Setter were buried at Evere Cemetery, Brussels. James Burton bailed out and came down near Braine l’Alleud and was hidden away for months at Waterloo, eventually returning to the war effort. He died after a Mosquito attack during a landing at Dusseldorft on September 12, 1944.
The remains of the four remaining crew members, Kenneth Priske, Nelson Miller, Douglas Knowles and Thomas Hartley, were never found. They continued to be classified as “missing in action” until death certificates were issued with the cause of death listed as “previously reported missing after air operations, now for official purposes, presumed dead.”.
The short life of Kenneth Wheatley Priske, only twenty-one years of age at the time of the crash, is memorialized at Runnymede. There is a memorial inscribed on the back of his parents’ gravestone in Schreiber, Ontario and also on the cenotaph in Schreiber, Ontario.
The efforts of the approximately 50,000 Canadians who served with the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and Royal Air Force (RAF) in Bomber Command operations over occupied Europe was one of our country’s most significant contributions during the Second World War. Kenneth Wheatley Priske is but one of many who lost their lives during World War II. The loss of life of so many of our soldiers, sailors and airmen can never be quantified or understood. So many lives were lost and so many others were impacted by the loss. And the wars continue.