A son’s quest to uncover his father’s wartime experiences

By Costa Maragos Posted: April 5, 2018 11:00 a.m.

Mark Cote, an Instructor in the Geography and Environmental Studies Department, is the author of That Lucky Old Son, a tribute to the wartime experiences of his late father.
Mark Cote, an Instructor in the Geography and Environmental Studies Department, is the author of That Lucky Old Son, a tribute to the wartime experiences of his late father. Photo by Rae Graham - U of R Photography

Mark Cote has been on a mission to find out the kind of man his father was.

The result for the longtime Geography and Environmental Studies Instructor, is a touching tribute told in his book That Lucky Son. The book is about Cote’s re-discovery of his father through his World War II bomber command and prisoner of war (POW) experiences. Cote was eight years old when his father, Leonard Cote, passed away.

Cote has been working on this book for about a decade to “discover the man who left him too soon, but who left behind a legacy of courage, love, and faith.” We spoke with Mark about this journey that culminated in a book.

What made you want to embark on this journey to write a book about your father?

My father's service life was a mystery to me. My family all knew that he was in the war and that he would sometimes talk of the funny or strange things that he might have experienced. Nothing he said suggested that there was anything outstanding or heroic in his service. When he died well before my ninth birthday, I knew that his death was somehow connected to his experiences. All I had were snippets of what my older siblings or mother had told me. When a history of his squadron was published in 1977, I saw his name appear several times -- one in an amazing story of his aircraft being shot down over enemy territory and he and his crew being captured. That put the hook into me and I started from there to try to discover more.

Cote Book 1
Leonard Cote joined the Royal Canadian Airforce during World War II. This photo was taken in the winter of 1941- 42. Photo submitted by Mark Cote

What do you remember of your father as a young child?

I have very detailed memories of my father. I seem to be gifted in one small way in that I have a very good memory -- even for things in the distant past. I remember verbatim episodes that seemed important. I don't remember every second of our times together, but I can see those special times as if they are playing out before me. They seemed key to what my father was -- and is and they formed the foundation from which his story is built in this book.

Why did you feel it was important to tell your father's story?

It was certainly important to me personally and as such, once my research gained critical mass, my journey might have been complete. But in my research, and in speaking with his crew mates, other veterans of his squadron and connecting with other veterans and their families, I came to clearly discern that my father's story was that of so many others of his generation -- both men and women. The devotion, sacrifice, and duty needs to be spoken and their example to others must be remembered. So many of them chose to not speak of the experiences, horrors, and fears that were so common. Many opened up and told their story only after many long years, but so many of them took all that to their grave. This is not just my father's story. I hope that others can read it and see what their fathers, grandfathers, and all members of that generation gave to us.

You have uncovered a lot of material about your dad through your research. What surprised you most about your father?

I discovered that there were things he told us that were not true. He told white lies, but never to his benefit. The devotion he felt to his friends and crew mates was total and he would never say anything that would have put them in a bad light. He often portrayed himself as a lovable screw-up. While he likely wasn't London Gazette-worthy, from all the archival evidence, he was more than competent, professional, and above all, a very good crew mate. That was not especially surprising, but what was a revelation to me was that for such a moral man, he would lie to protect the memory of others.

cote book 3
To purchase the book online, please visit www.ThatLuckyOldSon.ca.

Your father was shot down and taken as a prisoner of war. What did you find out about his POW experience?

Aside from the occasional story of hardship that my father told whenever we were being picky at the dinner table, he seldom spoke of his POW experiences. I was able to piece together much of his experiences from other sources. I had the very good fortune of being in intimate contact for the past 5 years, with the pilot with whom he was shot down. He, too, had written a book and he also reviewed my manuscript. I leaned heavily on his accounts of the conditions in the POW experiences that they shared in the same camps. Another lucky happenstance was that I found a report from the International Red Cross detailing the abysmal conditions in my father's final POW camp that was written while my father was interned there. Again, my father suffered greatly during those times, but it was no different from what the other prisoners experienced and many had it worse.

You might not have had a sense of closure growing up since you lost your father at such a young age. How do you feel now that the book is out?

In hindsight, it was likely a difficult thing for the family to lose my father so early, but he must have instilled in us a sense of resilience and resolve so that it only seemed usual to me to just carry on. I felt that I had a normal childhood and that may have been one of his greatest gifts to us -- a sense of perseverance and devotion that permitted that. Perhaps that is what I can now recognize in what our family has experienced and that became clear to me in writing this book.
Mark Cote is holding a book signing Friday April 6 at Coles Northgate at 1 to 4 pm and on Saturday, April 7 at Chapters at 1 to 4 pm. Copies are also available for purchase at the University of Regina Bookstore.

Cote holds a Bachelor of Science from Campion College and a Master of Science in Geography from the University of Regina with a specialty in atmospheric sciences. He has taught numerous courses in Geography and Environmental Science. He started teaching as a sessional instructor in 1987 and has been teaching full time since 1993.

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