ABOVE dark clouds, Ron Hickey piloted his heavy bomber home from battle.
In a split second, another warplane whizzed across the nose of his cockpit, missing by centimetres.
“Now I’m moving at about 280 miles per hour (450km/h) and he’s cutting across at the same speed, and my wingtip very nearly took his tail off,” Mr Hickey said.
“And then he just disappeared into the night. The upper gunner swore and said ‘Did you see that?’
“I just said, ‘Thank God’.”
It is one of the many close shaves that Captain Ron Hickey remembers from his 35 battle raids over enemy-occupied Europe during the Second World War.
He flew 14 of those missions in a Halifax Mark III.
“I’ve always been a committed Catholic, and my belief in my God has helped me – many times,” Mr Hickey, who celebrates his 94th birthday in October, said.
In the past few weeks, Mr Hickey has received two awards that reflect both his courage, and his faith.
At Queensland’s Amberley airbase, the French ambassador presented him with a Legion of Honour medal – the country’s highest valour award, for his contribution in “winning France back” from German occupation.
It is the French equivalent of a knighthood.
A few days later, Mr Hickey was honoured with a Quinn Medal, for his faithful support of the Catholic Church in Brisbane.
The medal, named after the first Brisbane bishop James Quinn, recognises outstanding individuals who continue to strengthen the local Church through a long commitment to its financial support and prayer.
He will officially receive the Quinn Medal from Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge later this month.
“I’ve been through some horrible things,” Mr Hickey said of his war years as a bomber pilot.
A total of 120,000 men like Mr Hickey went into heavy bombers, and more than 50,000 were killed.
He recalled setting out at the start of each mission, with a full load of bombs to drop on ground targets in Germany or occupied France.
“I prayed for all the others taking part and all the others on the ground,” he said.
He remembers the horror of hearing the sound of shrapnel hitting his aircraft, and all around him and the flash of shelling.
“It’s then that you know it’s pretty close,” Mr Hickey said.
“Many suffered the trauma of going on the next flight. I could say that didn’t happen to me. I have no doubt my faith in God helped me.”
Mr Hickey, also a carpenter and handyman, remembers building an altar in a spare air force building that was converted into a chapel.
It became a place for the bomber crews to pray and receive Communion before embarking on their dangerous flights.
Mr Hickey said he has always been a Catholic and always wanted to fly.
He was an altar boy up until the age of 16 when he left school in Kilcoy.
Mr Hickey has a wry smile recalling when his teacher asked him what he intended to do after school.
“I said I am going to fly. He was not a good teacher. He said to me: ‘You will never fly’.”
Not only did Mr Hickey learn to fly with the RAAF, he was selected to join the elite British-based Bomber Command, flying missions that helped win the war in Europe.
There was a bitter twist because his older brother, Dudley, was also a pilot and was killed in action.
Mr Hickey said when he left school he also vowed to live a life according to the Catholic principles he had been raised with.
He committed himself to the Catholic faith, to always go to church, to treat women well and never abuse them, no sex until marriage and no drinking or smoking.
“I have done all these things. My belief in my God has always helped me. I have no doubt I have been helped many times,” he said.
“And when anybody would say ‘Gee, that was lucky’, I would say: ‘And thanks, Lord’.”
Mr Hickey met his wife Eileen while he was flight training in England and they were married on New Year’s Day in 1945.
He was thankful when he completed his hazardous tour flying with Bomber Command.
For his second tour, Mr Hickey was transferred to Burma, and then, at the end of the war, he stayed in the RAAF to fly survival and rescue missions out of Port Moresby and Lae.
Mr Hickey then took on a courier run flying supplies from Sydney to Australian troops in ally-occupied Japan.
On a visit to Hiroshima, he saw first-hand the devastating effects of the nuclear bomb drop.
It had a profound impact on a young bomber pilot.
“I walked down the main street of what was Hiroshima, quite unaware of the danger of any nuclear fallout,” Mr Hickey said.
“It was the biggest rubbish heap you ever saw. And there was only one building standing and that was concrete.
“And on the side of that building was the shadow of a tram. The blast had thrown an outline of that tram onto the wall. That shadow is still there today as a memento.”
Mr Hickey recalls a sad encounter with one of Hiroshima’s survivors.
“I met a woman, living under some sheets of corrugated iron. She invited me to come into her shelter and have a cup of coffee,” he said.
“She was holding a baby in a shoebox and wanted to show me.
“I imagine they both died in the following years.”
In the decades that followed the war, Mr Hickey and wife Eileen raised a family of four, but he never lost his passion for flying.
During a remarkable 30-year career as a commercial pilot with TAA, he became a lead captain, a trainer and mentor for the next generation of Australian pilots.
In 1972 he moved from Graceville to live in the hills overlooking the Sunshine coast.
He used his handyman skills to design and build a unique hacienda-style home at Bald Knob with a commanding, bird’s-eye view across the Glass House Mountains, with Brisbane visible in the distance.
He is well known in the local community for his involvement in the Maleny and Landsborough Catholic communities.
Mr Hickey built the Landsborough community centre next to the church, and put a new roof on the church.
“There are beautiful people all around Landsborough and Maleny … I was happy to do those things,” he said.
By Mark Bowling