Fifty Mission Cap references


"...Bill Barilko disappeared that summer,
he was on a fishing trip.
The last goal he ever scored
won the Leafs the cup.
They didn't win another until 1962,
the year he was discovered.
I stole this from a hockey card,
I keep tucked up under my fifty mission cap..."

Gord Downie kept a series of notebooks. He would jot down lyric ideas or things he found poetic, interesting or sonically possible. When it came time to write songs, he would consult his notes and draw upon a series of various influences and inspirations. Fifty Mission Cap really does tell a story that Gord Downie picked up from a hockey card, but it also details Second World War bomber pilots. The two ideas, seemingly unrelated, were brought together to create the song.

This original 1952 hockey card by Parkhurst inspired the card that Gord would later reference:

This 1991/1992 commemorative card produced by Pro Set is what led to Fifty Mission Cap. Gord read it and also researched the Barilko story at the City of Toronto archives:

The two particular pieces of nostalgia above recount the winning goal, tragic end and resulting curse that revolved around Bill Barilko and the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1951.

During the summer following Barilko's April 21, 1951 Stanley Cup winning goal against les Canadiens, the 24-year-old's plane crashed near Cochrane, Ontario. His body could not be immediately located in the dense Northern Ontario brush. After his disappearance in death, the World Champion Leafs experienced an 11 year losing streak in a six team league. Some suspected that the mighty Leafs were cursed against the Cup until Bill's body could be found. However, if any curse existed, it was actually the reverse of that popular interpretation: Bill was cursed to remain undiscovered until his Leafs could win again. On April 22nd 1962, the Leafs finally did win another Stanley Cup. Roughly seven weeks later, Barilko's remains were discovered by a pilot flying over an area about 100km north of Cochrane.

Incidentally, the Toronto Maple Leafs were the last team to hoist the original cup. It was retired to the Hockey Hall of Fame and replaced by an updated version during the off-season.

The Tragically Hip participated in a centre-ice ceremony held by the Leafs to honour Barilko. The club has also made Barilko's #5 one of only two permanently retired numbers.  

" fifty mission cap, I worked it in
to look like that."

Fifty mission caps were given to elite bomber pilots of the allied airforces who safely completed 50 bombing missions during the Second World War. Of course, the caps served more as morale-boosting status symbols than reward. Pilots with fifty mission caps were revered. The caps they wore while bombing would of course have become worn down, sweat through and pressed repeatedly by communications earphones into inelegant shapes. When these pilots received their fifty mission caps, they were allowed to shun military protocol and work-them-in or dirty the caps up in order to add to their mystique.

Gord Downie explained to Steve Newton in 1992 that he liked a different angle on that story: "In World War Two, when you were a new pilot, you'd be given a new hat. Of course, you'd work it in to look like a fifty mission cap so as to appear that you had more experience than you really did." Perhaps it was this idea, of an inexperienced and perhaps doomed pilot, which linked the wartime bombers to Barilko's ill fated flight in Gord's imagination.

Canadian Lancaster bomber pilot Leo Richer

Fifty Mission Caps were unfortunately rare among allied pilots. Ted Barris detailed the danger in the sky as part of his book "Dam Busters:"

"Fewer than half of the Bomber Command aircrews flying nightly sorties over Europe survived their first thirty-op tours; only one in five got through a second tour of twenty combat operations." He also added that Canadian and British flyers would have been far more likely to receive a cap than their American allies. "American airmen were arriving home having completed their US Army Air Force tours, meaning they'd flown approximately twenty-five combat missions. The contrast in tours of duty among Allied air forces was never so stark as when, during a Q-and-A session at the offices of the British Information Service in New York, Lancaster pilot Guy Gibson fielded questions from American media. 'Wing Commander Gibson,' one reporter piped up. 'How many operations have you been on over Germany?' 'One hundred and seventy-four" Gibson said, and the room went silent."

"Canadians comprised 25 percent of all aircrew in Britain," Barris wrote. During the Second World War, "per capita, Canada had more aircrew in operational squadrons than England. Canadian casualties in the Second World War proved highest among aircrew - of more than 58,000 airmen lost in bomber command, more than 10,000 were Canadians."

Cory Graff, who works at the Seattle Museum of Flight has this to add:

"The WWII U.S. Army Air Corps hats were issued to the officers. Each officer had it as part of his uniform. Fighter pilots (the guys who became aces) were officers, but usually preferred leather helmets, stowing their cap during flight. As a result, it stayed relatively pristine, stiff, and high.

For the officers in the bombers, it was different. Commonly when you see a photo of a Boeing B-17 crew or a Consolidated B-24 crew, you'll see a bunch of crewmen gunners (sergeants and airmen and stuff like that) in some serious puffy leather and cold weather gear. Four guys with those hats are the officers. They were Lieutenants, mostly. They were the pilot, co-pilot, bombardier, and navigator. They commonly were in the nose of the plane where it was relatively warm (relatively) and wore the hats while flying. When the flyer was first issued the hat, it was stiff and high but over time, the earphones the bomber crewmen would wear (and sometimes flak helmets) would crush the hat down. Some guys took out the lining inside to make wearing the earphones more comfortable and, as a side bonus, it accelerated the breakdown process.

Of course, having the '50 mission crush' look to your hat was the sign of a veteran flyer. Fifty missions was a heck of a lot, your chances of living through even 25 bomber missions over Europe were pretty low. Anyway, soon, everyone was doing it, not just the bomber guys, but new guys, fighter pilots, and stateside nobodies. It was a real fashion thing.

But here's the little detail that might be important to part of the song. It was cool to have the sides of your hat all smashed. But it was very uncool to have the front droop down or collapse. As a result, many of these guys put in a piece of cardboard or a playing card on the inside in the front to keep it all going upward. So this hockey card (doing a bit of time travel I guess) is worked into the front of the 50 mission cap as a stiffener."

Extra Credit: Although not mentioned in the song, a well known live version of 50MC contains Gord Downie ranting about the Filles Du Roi. Since I've been asked about this, here goes: The Filles Du Roi or "Daughters of the King" were the young women, mostly orphans in the custody of the Catholic church, sent to Quebec by Louis XIV to populate the nation. This policy worked like gangbusters. Over 98% of les filles married upon arrival, and New France demonstrated the highest rate of growth in the western world. From the time the policy began in 1663 until the time of British conquest in 1760, the population of New France increased 23 times over. If France itself had grown at the same rate that Canada did, it would have had a population of 400 million in 1760, and over 2 billion in 1960. And you wondered what people did before television...

And speaking of hockey:

Bill Barilko's banner, lit during Fifty Mission Cap in Toronto, 08/10/16.

The banners, scheduled to be replaced by newer versions, were on tour at the time.
The Leafs organization had the Barilko banner returned to the rink for The Hip's last shows there.
"We thought he should be with you," they said in a statement.

Barilko banner in ACC lowered to half mast in honour of Gord on the day he passed, 10/18/17.