Story of uncles war experiences inspires first book

Published on March 6, 2012
Braeshore resident Gary Chisholm shows off his first book, “The One Eyed Gunner,” written about his uncle, Larry Sutherland, a farm boy from Truro who went on to become Canada’s top gunner ace in the Second World War. Jennifer Vardy Little – The News

BRAESHORE – It might be Canada’s biggest secret: the top gunner ace in the Second World War was from Nova Scotia.

A new book written by Braeshore resident Gary Chisholm delves into the story of his uncle, Larry Sutherland, who went from a simple farm boy from Truro to becoming a star of the Royal Air Force.

Sutherland always had a keen shot, says Chisholm, author of “The One Eyed Gunner.”

“He was an extraordinary marksman – he had an old .22 and could put matches in a piece of two by four and light them on fire,” he said.

It turns out Sutherland had binocular vision in one eye – he could not move left or right or up or down – a problem he had no idea existed until he tried to enlist. Seven times he was turned down, but he just kept plugging away and was finally accepted into the Royal Canadian Air Force and was seconded to the RAF.

Sutherland proved to the military that his supposed disability was actually a benefit – it gave him phenomenal night vision and he went on to receive the Distinguished Flying Cross twice and become a gunner ace in the unwieldy Heavy Bombers.

“When you think of an ace, you think of someone like Tom Cruise in Top Gun, flying these sleek planes where they can go in and evade the enemy and fire at them and go away. But flying in these kind of planes, like my uncle did, I liken it to a guy in an 18-wheeler, driving down the road and being pursued by a guy in a Ferrari with a cannon and a machine gun. You can’t evade,” he said.

But little was known of his accomplishments in Canada because all his work was done with the British RAF.

“He was never, ever recognized in Canada,” said Chisholm. “The Brits and Americans do such a marvellous job of recognizing their heroes, but it seems kind of stodgy here in Canada. And he wasn’t part of the Canadian infrastructure, so he wasn’t really known about – but he was Canada’s top air gunner ace.”

Sutherland is now 89 and living in Florida, and a few years ago, he decided he wanted his story told – and that his nephew should be the man to do it.

It all started when Chisholm wrote an amusing story and emailed it to his uncle.

“He came back and said he wanted me to write his story – and you don’t say no to that side of the family,” he said with a chuckle.

Sutherland sent him a package containing two hand-written legal pads containing his story, reams of wartime photographs he’d taken while in the service, his log book and letters.

For several months, the envelope sat on Chisholm’s desk, unopened, like a ticking time bomb.  The spark came when Chisholm and his wife went on a motorcycle trip to Cape Breton and he had an encounter with journalist Eleanor Beaton, who encouraged him to write the book.

For four years he worked on the book, getting help along the way from a number of unlikely sources, as well as a hefty dose of aid from the Writer in Residence program at the Pictou-Antigonish Regional Library. “The One Eyed Gunner” was published in December and has been placed on the bestseller list twice.

“It was overpowering, absolutely overpowering” to see the book in print, he said. “I was told holding your first book is like the birth of your first child. Well, this was a four-year pregnancy that left me with a few stretch marks, but I plugged away at it for four years and now that it’s happened, it’s surreal.”

Chisholm now has plans to write another book and encourages other people to consider writing.

“I’m the most unlikely author you’ve ever seen,” he said with a chuckle. “I don’t know much about English grammar and I don’t spell well, but my uncle is my personal hero and my friend, so I wanted to do this for him.”

Chisholm will hold a book signing at Coles in the Highland Square Mall on March 17 from noon to 1:30 p.m. He’ll also hold a reading at the New Glasgow Library on March 27 at 7 p.m.