The Duke Abelson Display: Remembering a Local Hero

This post is brought to you by Leslie Rodriguez, a grade 11 Co-op student placed at the Ottawa Jewish Archives

Since I began my Cooperative Education Placement at the Ottawa Jewish Archives, I’ve had the opportunity to see a letter from Einstein, touch a Hebrew Remington typewriter, look at various textile items, and work with hundreds of photographs. Out of all the projects I’ve had so far, however, my favourite has been, without a doubt, the Duke Abelson display. Zoe Thrumston, my supervisor and the archivist here at the OJA, approached me when I was doing the Akiva High School project. I had spent hours doing research on Akiva and, quite frankly, the trail had gone cold. I could not figure out when Akiva had closed down- or why- and it was very frustrating. Thankfully, Zoe offered me a short reprieve to make a display of my choice. She initially suggested that I could do a display on the small collection of very lovely greeting cards the archives had, but I wanted to keep looking. I was allowed to explore the vault freely and choose items from the oversize (OS) section that I felt would make a good display. I jumped at the opportunity- who wouldn’t want to explore the vault, after all?

Exploring the Vault

            And with that, I began looking through the vault. I found textiles, certificates, oversized posters, and even some baby clothes. But what really caught my eye was the Abelson boxes. I had run across the name before- several times in fact- when I was sorting through photographs. The Abelsons, in my opinion, took some of the best photos. They seemed so full of laughter and life. So, I was naturally drawn to their collection. And I’m glad I was. In the oversized boxes, I found items belonging primarily to Duke Abelson. The items included a flight log book, a clippings book (though the owner of that one was unknown), a small prayer book donated by the Abelsons, and several photographs. I also found, morbidly enough, a note hastily shoved in Duke’s flight book, containing a list of the dead, the missing, and different ranks of fellow Ottawa soldiers in the RCAF. Though these items were certainly interesting, I was curious what else the collection contained. So, I used DB Inmagic Textworks (our information management system), to search up the Abelson family. This is where my true search began. I realized that, somewhere, we had not only Duke’s Officer’s hat, but also 4 medals he had been awarded for his service in the war. I knew these items would be perfect for the display, so I searched desperately in textile boxes and the oversize section, to no avail. It was then that I realized that there was one place I had failed to look: the regular sized boxes in the vault. There were two Abelson family boxes in the vault- one contained mostly textual records and some photographs, however, the other contained exactly what I was looking for. I found the medals, wrapped carefully in small boxes, and Duke’s hat, preserved in the front of one of the boxes.

At the time, I had planned on doing a display on the Abelson family as a whole. The family, including Jess Abelson, Abe Abelson, and many other family members mentioned once or twice in documents, had an extensive and interesting history. Abe Abelson, for example, went on to become a lawyer. Jess Abelson, Duke’s father, was renowned for his prowess in the insurance field. I was unsure which items to use to convey the story of the family and how to make the display understandable. I considered using school records- I had school report cards from both Lisgar Collegiate and from two of the brothers’ post-secondary education. Another possibility involved using photographs. However, I really wanted to use the objects. I was stumped on how I could fill up the space with not only the objects, but material from the family, that my audience would be interested in.

Despite my exciting finds from the vault, I knew I needed more for the display. Though I had initially planned to focus on the entire Abelson family, I realized that trying to include items from the entire family led to my display lacking focus. And so, as I read through newspaper clippings and correspondence, looked at photographs, and did research, I realized that the story I wanted to tell through my display was that of Duke Abelson.

Who was Duke Abelson?

Lawrence Balfour Abelson, affectionately called “Duke” by friends and family, due to his family’s residence on Marlborough Street, was a Royal Canadian Air Force officer and pilot during the Second World War.  He was born on June 29, 1922, to Jess and Mollie Abelson. He was a graduate of Lisgar Collegiate Institute (LCI) in Ottawa, Ontario. On November 6, 1940, at the age of 18 years, Duke enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). He completed training in Victoriaville, Quebec, and Regina, Saskatchewan, eventually graduating as Observer at Mossbank, Saskatchewan. As the top graduate in his class, he was awarded the gold RCAF disk. When he was stationed at Rivers, Manitoba, he received his commission, becoming a commissioned officer. Duke served as a flight instructor in Chatham, New Brunswick, and Mountain View, Ontario, until he was sent overseas in 1942. After taking a wireless course in England, he became a member of the No.418 RCAF Mosquito Squadron. The No.418 Mosquito Squadron was Canada’s most successful RCAF squadron (in terms of air-to-air and air-to-ground kills). Astoundingly, the Squadron’s aircrafts did not possess radar sets, therefore all targets had to be identified, lined up, and attacked using only the crew’s naked eye and skill. This is perhaps a testament to the astonishing talent of those in the squadron. The No.418 Mosquito Squadron also performed reconnaissance.

During Duke’s service to the RCAF, he was awarded the Defense Medal, the Canadian Voluntary Service Medal (CVSM) and clasp, the War Medal (1939-1945), and the Aircrew Europe Star.

Tragically, Lawrence Balfour “Duke” Abelson was killed during a test flight accident on November 15, 1943, at the age of 21. His funeral was held on November 19, 1943, at Cheshire (Blacon) Cemetery, and was officiated by a Jewish Chaplin.

Selecting Items for the Display

When I realized I wanted to focus on Duke, I removed items such as Jess Abelson’s military discharge papers (circa 1918) from the list of display items and focused more on Duke’s life and tragically early passing. Letters of condolence from the National Minister of Air Defence, Charles Power, and from Buckingham Palace, quickly became items of interest for the display. However, even when I had all my items chosen, I knew that I still had much to do. For starters, I had not yet researched Duke and written the history and bio. I knew quite a bit from the archives database, as well as from all the textual records I had read, but I wanted to enrich the description beyond his date of birth and the year he died. To do this, I simply googled him. A cursory google search led me to the national archives- which had digitized PDF files of birth and death records, including the accident report from the day he died. The report explained the circumstances of his death, and gave a date and time. I also found birth records and his evaluations from his military training. Another google search led me to the Veterans Canada website. This is where I found a good portion of the useful information for my display. The veterans Canada database didn’t have an overly vast amount of detail- but what it did have was his squadron number, as well as where he trained, and the proper names for the medals he earned. By looking into his squadron, I found out quite a bit about the challenges those in the Mosquito squadron faced, as well as where they were deployed. Duke spent a great deal of time in Canada and the United Kingdom, where he eventually died and was buried. With this research done, I was able to complete the history and bio and create a list of items that I needed for the display. To do this, I knew that I had to keep the location of the items in mind. Had I not noted down where each item was found (box #), then it would have been too easy to mix up the items or misplace them, potentially resulting in them being lost.

The Artistic Component

The next step was to measure the display case. Measuring the display case allowed me to set up an approximation of what I wanted the actual display to look like on the back table. Zoe advised me to do this so I could make any final revisions, then add or take away any items, and then photograph the items in the order I wanted them in the case. This was also important because the items could not be left unattended in the hall, simply because they could get lost or damaged. After measuring the case, I began to arrange the items.

Finally, I was ready to set up the display. First, Zoe and I carefully removed the glass covering and brought the items from the previous display into the back room, where they would be returned to their original places in the vault. Next, using the photographs I had taken as a guide, I began to arrange the items outside in the display case. After all the items had been arranged, and a few last minute edits were made to the display list and history, I began to add the labels to each item. Each number on a label corresponded with the number on the display list. This served to provide more information to viewers about what they were actually seeing. Once I was done that, we added a title, and the display was, after over a week of work, complete.

The Final Result

To me, the purpose of the Duke Abelson display, was to convey the story of Duke’s life in the RCAF. And, in addition to being my favourite project to date, it is also the project I am most proud of. I was overjoyed to hear from Zoe that a family member of Duke Abelson had come into the archives the other day. He was thrilled about the display, having donated many of the items himself, and was glad to see the memory of his brother preserved. I can only hope that other people will, upon seeing display, stop for even just a moment to ask themselves who Duke was, or to remember him and his dedication to his family and to serving his country.

2 thoughts on “The Duke Abelson Display: Remembering a Local Hero

  1. Dear Leslie:

    I wanted to let you know how impressed I was with your article focusing on the research you undertook to assemble the display about Duke Abelson. My name is Don Abelson, and I am Alan Abelson’s son. Duke was my uncle. Although I never had a chance to meet Duke, I grew up learning about virtually every aspect of his life. He was a constant presence in our home. Your wonderful work will serve as a reminder of how important our history is, and how it continues to shape us. i wanted to congratulate you on what you have accomplished, and hope this experience will inspire you in your future endeavors. I wish you all the very best.

    Don Abelson, PhD
    Director, Brian Mulroney Institute of Government
    St. Francis Xavier University


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