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Cold War Exhibit Does Canada Proud

By Chris Nelson, for the Calgary Herald

To view the original article, click here.

 World War II vet Ken Lett

World War II vet Ken Lett, 91, stands next to a Cold War era fighter jet known as the Starfighter, which he flew, during its unveiling at the Military Museum in Calgary on October 22, 2014.  PHOTO CREDIT: LEAH HENNEL LEAH HENNEL /CALGARY HERALD

There are too many harsh memories for Ken Lett to call it a dream come true, but the retired major-general is relieved the tribute is a fitting one.

The Military Museums in Calgary opened a unique exhibit on 26 September, 2015, marking the 40-year Cold War in which Canadian airmen roamed the skies of a world on the verge of annihilation.

Lett put up $1 million of his own money — the exhibit is named after him and his late wife Roma — and government and private donors contributed a matching amount to bring the dream to life.

The CF-18 Hornet, CF-5 Freedom Fighter, CF-104 Starfighter and the F-86 Sabre are the highlights of the exhibit, but this is not just about aircraft. The exhibit features artifacts and descriptions of a time when the threat of nuclear war was all too real.

Retired colonel Don Mathews, chairman of the Air Force Museum of Alberta and a veteran pilot, hopes the exhibit will illuminate a dangerous period in history — from 1949-89 — and Canada’s pivotal role in it.

“The aircraft are great. . . . but this is about the Cold War.”

Canada did rule the sky in the 1950s, developing a reputation for being the best pilots in Western Europe. “That was what the Soviets were looking at if they thought they were going to come across the border with any type of air power,” Mathews said.

The CF-104, the backbone of the Canadian force during many of those years, was capable of being equipped with nuclear weapons at a moment’s notice. It was a joint U.S.-Canada arrangement — the Americans owning the bombs and Canada the planes.

Mathews said there was no doubt those bombs would be dropped if the need had arisen.

“NATO was serious . . . and we (were) not afraid to use nuclear weapons. We were a very hard-nosed alliance and it worked,” said Mathews.

He believes the lessons learned in those fraught decades should not be forgotten.

“There are so many people who have never even heard of the Cold War. They don’t realize what a strong, active alliance NATO was and what a strong partner Canada was during that 40-year conflict,” he added.

Lett, now a sprightly 92-year-old, began flying Spitfires as a teenager in the Second World War and piloted the first in-service CF-104 in 1961.

“This was a pretty fine airplane. I was a lucky guy who had a squadron of them — 20 to 30 young pilots and 25 airplanes — and we roamed the skies of Europe unchallenged at that time.

“It could be deadly, especially for the beginners. It is difficult to introduce a group of young, newly trained pilots into a fighter operation without losing some.”

During those tense decades, 37 Canadian airmen were killed in crashes involving the CF-104 alone. Such memories are not easily forgotten for Lett. But remembering their sacrifice during a time of intense threat is important.

“The Cold War was never really in the history books. Yet it was such an important part of Canada’s history. It went on for a lot of years, a lot of years in which you were always on the alert,” he said.

To read more about the exhibit, click here.