By David Ljunggren
OTTAWA, Dec 12 (Reuters) - In early October 1942, Flight Lieutenant Donald McLarty was shot down over Libya on his 199th mission of World War Two. Although he was flying for Britain’s Royal Air Force, his uniform was emblazoned with an unexpected word: Argentina.
Many foreigners fought for the various Allied air forces, but until now historians have largely focused on pilots from Czechoslovakia, Poland, France and Norway — all of which were occupied by German forces.
Few realize that more than 800 young men from neutral Argentina, some of them schoolboys, rushed to sign up as pilots and then made the long, dangerous trip to Europe by boat.
When McLarty climbed into his Hurricane fighter-bomber for a low-level attack on a German base in Libya, he needed to complete just two more missions to earn a long break from active duty. It was not to be.
"It was a very stupid operation ... the moment we crossed the coast I could see the soldiers waiting," recalled McLarty, now 85.
"I was hit immediately by ground fire in the engine and had oil all over my windscreen. All I could do was fly in formation with the guy next to me and then my tail was blown off."
McLarty’s plane smacked into the ground, barreled straight through two parked German fighters and ended up in a pile of empty gasoline drums.
German officers produced a glass of White Horse whisky for the 20-year-old and then shipped him off to a prison camp.
McLarty and others were persuaded to speak by Argentine historian Claudio Meunier, who spent a decade unearthing hidden stories of heroism and heartbreak.
"No one had asked them, no one remembered them. The memories were painful," Meunier told Reuters.
Some pilots were native Argentines while the surnames of others reveal they were descended from British professionals who helped develop the country’s railways, mines and farms.
"Other people had fought for the freedoms we’d been living under and so I felt it incumbent on us to do the same thing, as the evil of Hitler was very, very serious indeed," said Michael Welch, another pilot.
Some 400 of the volunteers were accepted as pilots while the others served as gunners, bomb aimers and wireless operators. Around 150 were killed.
Photos of the new recruits often show wiry young men on horseback.
"The Argentines had the advantage that they were very sports-minded. They were good. They did very well in Britain because they were used to roughing it," said Ricardo (Dick) Moreno, 89.
Many fought for the Royal Air Force while others flew with the Royal Canadian Air Force. The majority did their basic flight training in Canada, which became home to a host of the air crew after the war.
Meunier has just finished a Spanish-language documentary, "Voluntarios" (Volunteers), about the wartime pilots, much of it based on an earlier book he wrote.
One recalled that during a flight to attack ground transports, he aborted a strafing run on a horse-drawn cart to avoid hurting the animal.
"Voluntarios" was shown for the first time late last month in Canada’s Aviation Museum during a ceremony to honor the 14 Argentines who died while serving in the RCAF. It has not been shown commercially.
"Without Meunier, the story would have been lost ... it is very significant to help keep the memory of courageous people living forever," Argentine ambassador Arturo Bothamley told the gathering.
So many joined the RAF that a special Argentine squadron was created. The motto of 164 Squadron was "Firmes volamos" (Determined We Fly) and its insignia was a British lion in front of a rising sun representing Argentina.
Some pilots adorned the side of their aircraft with a picture of a popular Argentine cartoon character called Paturuzu, an indigenous Indian with incredible strength.
These and other tales remained untold for a number of reasons, but partly because the pilots scattered, some staying in Europe, some going home and others emigrating.
"There hasn’t been an occasion to make anything out of it," said McLarty, who moved to Canada after the war to marry the woman he had met during training. He was later joined by some of those who had initially gone back to Argentina.
Meunier says some veterans who returned kept quiet because of the political atmosphere under then ruler Juan Peron. Although Argentina declared war on the Nazis in March 1945, it was no secret that some in the government were pro-German.
After the war many senior Nazis escaped to Argentina, where they were openly welcomed, and the atmosphere made it hard for ex-RAF pilots to talk openly about fighting for the Allies.
"The pilots didn’t feel comfortable," said Meunier.
The silence did not erase the memories.
"During the first two or three flights you had no idea what was happening ... It was frightening. My feet were shaking on the rudder pedals," said McLarty, who spent a year in an Italian prison camp before escaping.
The end of the war did not mark the end of everyone’s fighting career. When Britain and Argentina went to war in 1982 over the Falkland Islands (known as the Malvinas in Argentina) some veterans volunteered to fight again.
Meunier says a few flew diversion flights near the British fleet while others commanded cargo planes carrying troops to the islands.
"People in World War Two wanted to keep the world free. They didn’t want Hitler to take over Argentina. They were fighting for others," he said. "In the Malvinas, they were fighting for Argentina." (Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Eddie Evans)