Jerry Thornton

Worked as a Radio Operator in the Merchant Navy during World War II

Worked as a DOT Radio Operator in Ottawa and in the Arctic

Trained as an Air Traffic Controller

Became Airport Manager of Toronto Island Airport



Passed Away in 2009 - Scroll Down for Obituary  

Décès en 2009 - Avis de décès au bas de la page  



His career was looking up

Airport manager Jerry Thornton had a passion for the International Air Show

and he never missed one in 55 years


Special to The Globe and Mail

June 8, 2009




Jerry Thornton was familiar a sight at the Toronto Island airport, working as an air traffic controller, assistant airport manager, and manager for more than three decades. His duties included overseeing performances by the Canadian International Air Show and he had diverse responsibilities with this mandate.


For instance, he had old brush and Christmas trees loaded onto a barge, lit on fire, and shoved into Lake Ontario's inner harbour. Then he had the Ministry of Natural Resources show off their expertise to impressed audiences by dousing the flames with water cannons.


Another air show task was positioning huge inner tubes onto the lake as targets for skydivers. Earlier in his career, Mr. Thornton worked in the control tower at Malton airport, west of Toronto, which has since become Pearson International.


Born in Toronto in 1922, he was a bright kid who knew more than just how to hammer a nail into a wall. He loved nature, chess, Meccano, monopoly, and rewiring the house. Once dull afternoon he built a crystal radio set just to pass the time. Growing up in Toronto between the wars, he hurried through Blythwood public school and Lawrence Park Collegiate in order to attend Radio College of Canada in 1939, and get to include the Morse code as homework.


His father, Heber Thornton, was chief chemist for Canada Dry and encouraged his son's expanding interests. After graduating in 1941, Jerry joined the Merchant Navy as a radio operator, working for the wireless company British Marconi. As were all operators at the time, he was referred to as 'Sparks.' Mr. Thornton was due to sail on his first ship leaving from Houston, but he arrived a day late. As it turned out, this ship was torpedoed and sunk a few days later.


During the war, Merchant Navy ships had no defence except an armed convoy circling them. Sometimes, due to circumstances such as surrounding ships being bombed, they were left as sitting ducks. As a radio operator, Mr. Thornton used the Morse code to receive or send messages between ships in the convoy. Ships had their own call signal to identify them as they passed information back and forth. Once, he was warned about a pack of U-boats spotted close to the Halifax port. He relayed this message to the captain and the ships immediately turned back.


Mr. Thornton crossed the Atlantic 30 times, carrying loads as diverse as soldiers, munitions, food, medical supplies, and even peanuts from Africa. In fact, peanuts might have once saved his ship from going down. According to his daughter, Nancy Thornton, Mr. Thornton was in a convoy of 50 ships destined for England. Because his ship was loaded with peanuts and floated high in the water, Mr. Thornton thought a torpedo passed beneath it and hit the ship directly on the right. "[That ship] exploded and sank immediately, but they weren't touched at all by this torpedo," Ms. Thornton said. Only 25 of these 50 ships arrived safely in England, highlighting the treacherous nature of this work.


"You'd wake up in the morning and the ship that was two miles off your port was gone," said his friend Ron Devlin, telling some of Mr. Thornton's war stories. "The destroyers and escorts were the ones that tried to look after that, and the convoy just kept moving." Meanwhile, men blown overboard from bombed vessels were abandoned in fiery, debris-ridden waters. These images haunted Mr. Thornton for the rest of life.


During the war, the Merchant Navy was considered a civilian organization. Only recently, after years of lobbying by former Merchant Navy members, was it recognized by Ottawa as having contributed to the war effort. Its members were then entitled to veteran's benefits, and Mr. Thornton was therefore able to live out his last days in a veteran's wing of a Toronto hospital.


In 1943, Mr. Thornton was given a medical discharge due to stress and spent time recovering in a London hospital. Finding himself stranded in London, he found work with the Norwegian Trade Mission and crossed the Atlantic three more times. Years later, he was given a medal from the Headquarters Defence Command in Norway for his service, thanking him for contributing to "Norway's fight for freedom."


Mr. Thornton arrived back in Canada in late 1943 and found work as a radio operator with the Department of Transport in Ottawa. He quickly became bored with this job and spent the next two years at a weather station in Inukjuak [then Port Harrison], an Inuit settlement on Hudson's Bay. Mr. Thornton remembered the generosity of his neighbours, the taste of walrus meat, and being rescued after flipping his canoe in frigid water. "He was known as 'the man with four eyes who fell into Hudson's Bay,' " his daughter said.


In 1947, Mr. Thornton moved back to Toronto and trained as an air traffic controller at the Malton airport. Not many years earlier, this airport had consisted of two hard-surfaced runways and a grass landing strip. The terminal was in a converted farmhouse.  After a short while, Mr. Thornton wanted work closer to the city, since he had married Lucy Glenys Cuff. The couple moved into her family's North Toronto home where they lived, raising their two children, for nearly 60 years.


In 1954, Mr. Thornton was hired as an air traffic controller at the Toronto Island airport. He left Transport Canada in 1961 to become assistant manager and then manager of the tiny airport's operations, under the auspices of the Toronto Harbour Commission. This role included working on the International Air Show, held at the Toronto waterfront on Labour Day weekends. He often invited Glenys, and their children for a picnic on the tarmac and a birds-eye view of the show.


As airport manager, Mr. Thornton arranged safe landings for medical aircraft. He watched ambulances cross the ferry, then speed up Bathurst Street to the Toronto Western Hospital, about 10 minutes away. His daughter recalls Sunday dinners cut short by urgent phone calls concerning such emergencies.


Mr. Thornton saw huge changes happen on the tiny strip of land edging the city's shore. "When I came here we only had two runways, hangars 3 and 4 hadn't been built, there were no lights on the runways, and no weather office," he told the Toronto Star in 1986. But according to current airport director Ken Lundy, operations were actually busier during Mr. Thornton's time than they are today, even with the popular Porter Airlines flying in and out several times a day. "There was more general aviation, probably over 100,000 movements annually, operating with a very old ferry, an open-air barge, and other challenges," he said, comparing that number to 95,000 movements today, including 14,000 by Porter Airlines.


Mr. Thornton retired in 1987, but continued as a volunteer with the air show. He returned every September to crane his neck along with hundreds of other keen spectators. His favourite moments were watching the lumbering Lancaster bomber cross the sky, and the show's finale, a beautifully choreographed stream of Snowbirds. In 2007, Mr. Thornton was inducted into the Air Show's Roll of Honour for his exceptional attention to the show's smooth operations. He never missed a show in 55 years.


Obituary  -  Avis de décès

Jerry Thornton

1922 - 2009


Published in the Toronto Star on May 15, 2009




It is with deep sorrow that we announce the death of Jerry Ure Thornton who died on May 13th, 2009 in his 87th year. Predeceased by his beloved wife, Glenys, for over 57 years. Loving Dad of Nancy Glenys and David Jerry and Lesia Irene. Doting granddad of Daria Lesia. He will be remembered by his sister Gwen and brother-in-law Don and sister-in-law Dorothy and his dear nieces and nephews, great-nieces and great- nephews, colleagues and friends. He was predeceased by his parents, Heber and Muriel and his brother, Clifford.


Jerry was proud of his service in the 1939 to 1942 war effort, serving as "Sparks", a radio operator in the Merchant Navy with British Marconi and the Norwegian Trade Mission. After the war, he continued to serve his country working for the Canadian Government as a weather man/ radio operator at Port Harrison on Hudson's Bay in northern Quebec.


He became an air traffic controller, working in the 1950's at Malton Airport, now Toronto International Airport and later the Toronto Island Airport, now City Centre Airport. In the 1960's, Jerry became the Assistant Airport Manager and finally Airport Manager at Toronto Island Airport, retiring in 1985.


During his tenure at the Island Airport, he became involved with the Canadian International Air Show, that involvement in many different capacities lasted more than 50 years. Jerry was inducted into the CIAS Roll of Honour in 2007. Jerry spent his final days at the Veteran's Residence at Sunnybrook Health Centre in Toronto.


The family would like to thank all the staff of K and L-Wings for their kind support and loving care. Everything possible was done to make Jerry comfortable and safe and well-treated. Our special thanks and recognition go to Dr. Derring and his primary nurses, Flo and Kathy. A celebration of Jerry's life will be held on Monday, May 18th, 2009 at 10 a.m. followed by a reception at Glenview Presbyterian Church, 1 Glenview Ave., (2 blocks south of Lawrence, off Yonge St). Glenview 416-488-1156. In lieu of flowers, donations made to Heart and Stroke Foundation, Sunnybrook Foundation or the charity of your choice would be appreciated by the family.

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