When a new high school was set to open in Verdun for the 2003-04 school year and a name was needed, Beurling Academy was acclaimed as a popular choice and the ultimate tribute for a Verdun hero.
For local residents who may not know what that last name signifies, the school was named after Verdun’s native son and a bona fide Canadian war hero, George Frederick “Buzz” Beurling, who shot down 32 enemy Nazi aircraft during WW II.
Three years ago, Rick Beurling’s name came up, as being the only active sibling of Buzz Beurling remaining. I got in contact with him hoping to get him to town for Remembrance Day festivities at Beurling Academy, but that time of the year being busy for war veterans and their families, it was decided that another time would be better.
I finally received an email from him, letting me know that he would be in town, and asking if I would still like to interview him. My arm didn’t need to be twisted.
I recently met with Rick Beurling, 79, for an exclusive interview for the Verdun Messenger. I found out that, besides being an ace flyer, Buzz Beurling was a gentle man who loved kids.
A Verdun kid
The family grew up at 315 Rielle, which is no longer there. The house, built by Rick’s grandfather, was the first house built west of Church Avenue. An apartment building stands there today. According to Rick Beurling, growing up in Verdun in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s was lots of fun.
“It was a good place to live, especially for kids. The street was our playground and after supper on the street, when it got darker, we would play hide and seek in the back with the kids in the neighborhood, it was a good time to live,” says Rick.
He remembers chasing down the bread man, the milkman, the coal man, the iceman, and even remembers the ragman going up the lanes calling out for anybody wanting to get rid of their rags.
George it seemed was destined to be a flier and started taking off the old LaSalle airport not too far from where the Natatorium is today.
“He began there on LaSalle Blvd. where he took his very first lessons, and then he moved to Cartierville airport,” Rick reminisces.
Rick doesn’t really remember the day George left to go overseas but tells us how he got to fly with the RAF and not Canada’s Air Force.
“George couldn’t join the RCAF since he hadn’t finished his education. He wanted to be a pilot, but the RCAF was only hiring people with a university degree. George was still in high school, so the Air Force refused him. So George said to my father: ‘I’m going to go to England’, and that’s exactly what he did.”
Young George signed on to a supply ship to England. As a crew member he had to sign on for a return trip, but he jumped ship in England. But when he got to the recruitment office, he was told he had to have his birth certificate and parents’ permission. So back home on the boat he came!
When repairs to the boat were finally ready, George at 17 or 18 got back on the boat, went back to England and joined the RAF.
George “Buzz” Beurling
George “Buzz” Beurling would go on to become known as an ace pilot, with the kind of vision that could spot enemy aircraft in the distance when others couldn’t. He would go on to shoot down 32 Nazi aircraft in all, mostly over Malta, which was a hotbed of activity for the Nazis flying between Italy and North Africa.
I asked Rick if he remembered when George came back to Canada after his triumphs and all the hoopla surrounding his heroics by the government. It’s no secret that Prime Minister MacKenzie King wanted to use the young airman to score PR points and the government had George out there selling war bonds.
“When I look at my young boys who are now men, with families of their own, it seems almost impossible to me, what hundreds of thousands of young men who went to war for Canada were asked to do.” Rick Beurling
“When George arrived at Dorval airport in an RCAF bomber, they put him and our family on a smaller plane and they flew us to Ottawa to meet Mackenzie King,” Rick remembers. “I met Mr. King and sat in his office which was a big deal for a 10-year old kid.”
Rick recalls a parade, a cavalcade of cars, which started downtown at Dominion Square and made its way down to Verdun and to the Auditorium down Church Street for a reception event hosted by the Mayor at the time, Edward Wilson. He remembered the crowds along the street well…
When they got to the arena, there were approximately 10,000 people waiting to cheer him. He remembers girl guides presenting his brother 29 roses, one at a time, for the 29 planes he had shot down up to that point.
George Beurling was only 20 years old when he arrived back having shot down 29 planes. Being a shy young man, he found it difficult to deal with all of the attention.
“You have to remember that he was only 20 years old when he came home and the Air Force put him on bond tours, and a 20 year-old kid just doesn’t know how to handle all that,” Rick says with a touch of frustration.
“When I look at my young boys who are now men, with families of their own, it seems almost impossible to me, what hundreds of thousands of young men who went to war for Canada were asked to do.”
How did George get the nickname “Buzz”? No one seems clear on its origins. Rick heard that George would fly low, “buzzing” the airports, which got him in trouble with the Air Force. He thinks it all started with somebody in the media writing the name in some report and it just took on a life of its own. How would Rick like for Verdun residents to remember George, especially the younger generation?
“It would be nice to remember him as a young man who had a commitment to fly -and to fly well- and who wanted to defend Canada and Europe against the great evil that was taking place at the time. Young people today can be lulled into not doing something by believing that they can’t make a difference. They could look at George and others like him and realize that they can be the best that they can be,” said Rick with conviction.
Rick wanted readers to know that his brother loved children.
“One day, some kids knocked on our door on Rielle Street and asked for George. When he came to the door, the kids told him, with dirty rags in hand, that they had just polished his car. George quickly took out some change and gave them all quarters as they had done a good job.”
George Frederick “Buzz” Beurling died at the age of 26 in 1948 in a plane crash in Italy. The City of Verdun would go on to name a new street called Beurling Avenue in later years in the new developing area around today’s Beurling Park. George would be delighted to know his name lives on, but he would mostly be proud of Beurling Academy, whose back faces the park. It’s a bustling school, with a multi-cultural population and a member of Peaceful Schools International. Considering it’s named after someone who fought – and died- for peace, it’s quite appropriate.