'This is war:' The story of a WWII reconnaissance photographer
Aubrey Martin meant many things to many people.
To Canada, he was a Second World War veteran who served as a reconnaissance photographer. To Torontonians, he was “Mr. Subway,” part of the team that opened the TTC in the 50s.
But to his family, Martin was a gentle, unselfish collector with a knack for problem-solving and an appreciation for intricate detail.
He died at the age of 94 in 2014, but now his daughters want to continue his legacy, donating part of his collection of 500 cameras to charity and make a difference in others’ lives.
Martin left behind several lovingly-maintained collections — pens, radios, clocks and hundreds of cameras, made by companies such as Bell and Howell, Bolex and Elmo.
“He loved the way things worked,” said Martin’s daughter, Cynthia Martin, speaking on CBC Radio’s Metro Morning Monday. She said her father would often take the cameras apart to explore their inner workings.
Martin started taking photographs at 16, but he didn’t start the bulk of his collection until after the war.
In 1941, he enlisted as a reconnaissance photographer with the Royal Canadian Air Force.
“He said he would never pick up a gun or never kill anyone,” Cynthia Martin said, so her dad became the eyes of the Allied Forces.
Martin and his team flew over enemy territory to take photos of rocket-launching sites and gun placement positions, quickly developing and delivering still-wet photographic prints to intelligence officers.
Cynthia Martin remembers her father telling her about one incident before D-Day, when the Germans seized several aircrafts and used them to kill British and Canadian troops.
Overnight, she said the Allies painted white stripes under their planes so they could recognize the enemy, ordering soldiers to shoot down planes without the markings.
“A lot of the Germans were taking the identity cards and uniforms of dead pilots and prisoners of war, so in one day they did, for example, three-thousand identity cards and photographs,” Cynthia Martin said.
Martin was deployed to 38 different sites, his daughter said, with the second-last being the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp after it was liberated in April of 1945. He described it as “12 horrible days,” and as one of the hardest things he did.
‘This is war’
When he came back to Toronto, Cynthia Martin said her father found it hard to talk about his experiences.
“For the photographers particularly, they would hide away little photographs in the bottom of their kit bags and bring them home just to prove to people that this was going on,” she said.
It wasn’t until she was nine or 10 that her father opened up about what he’d seen.
“I had come from school one day and mentioned the war, and he went and got this album I’d never seen before and opened it up and said, 'Don’t ever let anybody tell you war is glorious. This is war,’ and he pointed at some pictures, which are still imprinted in my mind.”
He returned to work in Toronto, growing his collections and working with the TTC to launch this country’s first subway system in 1954.
He lived modestly, never throwing anything out, living in the same home in Don Mills for 60 years, all the while maintaining his fascination with technology.
Cynthia Martin said it was only two or three years ago when he started to speak about his photographs publicly.
His last speech was in 2014 at a nursing home on the anniversary of D-Day, June 6, finally speaking freely about his experiences. It was 10 days later he died.
At his memorial service, his family placed 100 clocks and cameras around the room and asked friends and family to take one home, the best way to remember him.
Now, they’re hoping to spread his passion to others.
His daughters are selling some of the cameras in Niagara Region and Toronto to benefit the Barbra Schlifer Clinic, knowing their father would want them to promote the greater good.
Cynthia Martin said they’ve kept a sample of the cameras to save for his grandchildren.
While she has high hopes the charity will make good money for their cause, she also wants the cameras to end-up in hands as careful and caring as her father’s.
“He didn’t see cameras as valuable in the sense that other collectors would see them,” she said. “He saw them as pieces of art.”