Paul Oleynik was born in Windsor, Ont., when it was known as Ford City, on April 1, 1924, the same day that King George V created the Royal Canadian Air Force. He was the second son of Mary, a Ukrainian immigrant, and William, a boot maker from Russia. As a youngster, Paul knew he wanted to fly airplanes. At age 9, during an attempt to get airborne, he climbed a telephone pole clutching his mother’s umbrella and jumped off, spraining both ankles. His desire for adventure grew with him. At 13, Paul and his older brother, Ron, jumped a train and rode it all the way to Welland, Ont. Paul also enjoyed baseball — throwing a mean curveball as a left-handed pitcher — and he was a bright student with an encyclopedic memory for history. But at age 18, after graduating from W.D. Lowe Secondary School, he joined the RCAF. It was 1942, and he wanted to be a pilot so badly that during flight school in Ottawa after lights out, he’d study in a bathroom stall using a flashlight to read the manuals.
After two years in the RCAF, Paul got his wish and was stationed in England. He was promoted to flying officer with the 76 Squadron and attached to the RAF, making him responsible for a bomber crew of six handpicked men. As a Halifax bomber pilot who also flew Lancasters, he possessed talent and superstition in equal measure. He never left for a mission without his lucky rabbit’s foot until his future bride, Maidie Mason, gave him a pinky ring he used instead. (Once when it was lost, Paul upset his superior officer by holding up an entire mission until he found it.) Paul met Maidie at the Lonsborough Arms Hotel, a pub frequented by officers in Selby, England, near the Holme on Spalding Moor airfield. He winked at the blond, green-eyed barmaid, who thought he was handsome but arrogant. Still, he talked her into seeing a picture show. He was 20, she was 18, and they fell in love, but since his missions were top secret, “He couldn’t call her and tell her anything,” says Jeffrey, the eldest of three sons the couple later had. “So he’d take off and tip his wing so she knew it was him.”
The flowering romance was punctuated by danger. One morning, Maidie awoke to sirens and prayed while tracer bullets sprayed Allied bombers during Operation Gisela. In the surprise night raid, a number of German Luftwaffe fighters followed the bombers backto England and shot 20 down. Paul’s mid-upper gunner William Thomas Maltby, 19, from Kamloops, B.C., died during the attack. Because his landing gear was destroyed, Paul came down to earth by crashing into other aircraft with his dead crewman behind him. The way he veered his plane down and cranked it hard to the left to avoid being fatally hit, and the feeling of his adrenalin surging as bullets shot past his face, was a story Paul shared with anyone who asked. All in all, Paul survived 23 bombing raids over Germany. Still, he never forgot Maltby’s loss. “Some guys never want to talk about it. He loved talking about it,” says Gary, Paul’s youngest son. And he never stopped wooing Maidie. The couple married in Windsor three years after the war. He wore a pinstriped suit with a boutonniere; she had a long train and carried roses.
Paul considered flying for a commercial airline, but took a job as a United Airlines reservations manager in Detroit after rejecting a pitching contract with the Philadelphia Phillies. “They were going to give him a signing bonus of $5,000, but he said his arm wasn’t good anymore,” says Jeffrey. Maidie and Paul took advantage of his job perks, taking family vacations all over the world. They once flew to San Francisco for the day to celebrate their wedding anniversary. But it was during a trip to Lebanon in the early 1970s that they encountered their strangest adventure. “They sat down with a guy, I don’t know if he was a sheik, but he offered to trade a camel to my dad for my mother,” says Gary. “They thought he was joking at first, and then they started getting scared because he got up to three camels. The guy went to get the camels and they took off.”
At home, Paul walked daily to keep fit. He had a taste for pork chops, but he never gained weight, and never “spoiled” his Crown Royal with more than two ice cubes — although the family never saw him drink too much. After losing his wife to a heart attack in 2006, Paul curtailed his travelling, but he remained an active member of his Air Force Club, Wing 412, in Windsor, even as its membership dwindled. On Sunday, June 29, Paul gathered with 70 of the members to commemorate its closing. After the flag-lowering ceremony, he suffered a massive stroke in the clubhouse, and died later that evening in the hospital. He was 84.