JAMES GORDON LAKE survived friendly fire in the final weeks of World War II, dodged a falling bag of hops at Sydney's Carlton and United Brewery in 1965 and made it through a hip replacement on his 98th birthday.
But it was the veteran's greatest escape that secured his place in the exclusive ''Caterpillar Club'', reserved for those who have successfully bailed out of a disabled aircraft.
In 1942, the then 29-year-old tail gunner was the only surviving crew member of his Royal Australian Air Force 460 Squadron Wellington bomber, shot down over Germany after a raid on Stuttgart. He spent the next three years as a prisoner of war.
Seven decades since then, another former POW and writer, Cal Younger, has told Mr Lake's family that he believes him to be Bomber Command's first former POW to reach a century.
''I'd thought if I reach 80, I'll be doing fairly well,'' Mr Lake said.
Mr Lake, known to his family as Gordon, will mark his 100th birthday tomorrow with a celebration in his family's North Curl Curl backyard. At hand will be a letter of congratulations from the Queen, who dedicated a memorial honouring the 125,000 airmen of Bomber Command in London on Thursday.
The family still has the May 1942 telegram informing Mr Lake's parents that he was missing in action after he was shot down on his fifth operation, or first over Germany.
''The port engine was set on fire, and then the fire spread to the fuselage,'' he said. ''A lot of the fabric was burnt off when I bailed out; I think it's only a matter of seconds when I left [that] it had blown up.''
Alone in enemy territory, he was discovered after daybreak near Mannheim and eventually moved to a prisoner of war camp south-east of Berlin called Stalag Luft III.
''We were building tunnels all the time, but they didn't go down deep enough,'' he said. In 1943, half his bed slats were taken as supports for the camp's most ambitious tunnel. But Mr Lake was moved to an East Prussian camp before he heard the outcome of that attempt, which famously became known as the ''Great Escape''.
''They took us out on parade and told us anybody that was trying escape would be shot. And then they told us these 50 officers had been shot,'' he said. ''The camp commandant wanted to know: 'how many's been wounded?' They said 'there's none wounded, they've all been shot'.''
Mr Lake spent the last month of the war being marched with his fellow POWs around Germany, at one stage being strafed by American fighters that had mistaken the column for enemy soldiers. ''Luckily I survived it and got back to Australia after nearly five years,'' he said.
Not that Mr Lake, who became a carpenter by trade, was averse to the odd risk in civilian life: he met his wife Irene on a blind date at a ball in Five Dock. ''We just managed to have a 60-year anniversary a couple of years before she died.''
Read more: http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/nati...#ixzz1zMYXMnff