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Centralia Sam – A legacy of love of family, life and service to country

Published in “ON WINDSWEPT HEIGHTS II: Historical Highlights of the Royal Canadian Air Force” – 2015 Edition
Published in the Air Force Magazine

Spring 2011

Published on the Royal Canadian Air Force web site

8 November 2011

Near the town of Centralia, Ontario, north of London, one will find the Centralia Airport, a small general aviation airport.  However, many long-time residents will remember that the airport once played an important role in the history of Canadian aviation and the defence of North America.

From 1942 until 1966, thousands of Flight Cadets (pilot trainees) undertook their training at Royal Canadian Air Force Station Centralia, originally under the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan during World War II, then under the NATO Air Training Plan during the Cold War.  For those men, there are a multitude of memories, good and bad, that spring up.  The bad included marching, drill sergeants, conduct cards, inspections and polishing aircraft and boots.  Some of the good memories include going to the beach at Grand Bend and drinking a “Sam Special” in the Flight Cadets’ Mess, served by a man affectionately known as “Centralia Sam”.

A “Sam Special” was a concoction of pop and fruit, created and served by the Chief Bartender at the Flight Cadets’ Mess, Sam Aquilina, to help “his boys” have an alternative to the harder cousins during exam time.  So just who was “Centralia Sam” Aquilina?

Salvator Victor Aquilina was born in November 1904 in the tiny village of Siggiewi on the Island of Malta, in the heart of the Mediterranean.  As a young man, Aquilina trained as a Malta Police Officer, graduating at the top of his class, but the sea and the sparkling white naval uniform gradually overtook his policing desires and in March 1925, he joined the Royal Navy as a “boy sailor”.

Aquilina served as a Steward in the Officers’ Mess aboard various ships, including HMS Revenge, Egmont, Benbow, Pelican, Shropshire, Revenge, Endeavour and others, and as he advanced, as the Captain’s Steward.   He was well known and well respected by the officers he served, including Captains and Admirals such as Admiral Sir William Edmund Goodenough and Admiral of the Fleet Louis Mountbatten, 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma.  Author Noel Coward even gave Aquilina a signed copy of his book when Coward visited his ship.

When WWII broke out, Aquilina was forced to leave his wife Carmen and four small boys and a baby daughter behind in Malta, except for rare short visits when his ship visited the Island.  Malta was under siege during much of the war, forcing its residents to endure harsh conditions and near starvation.  Carmen and Sam had another daughter and two sons after the war.  They lost their youngest at birth.

Aquilina retired from the Royal Navy in 1947 as a Chief Petty Officer.  During his service, he receiving the Long Service and Good Conduct Medal, along with other good conduct medals with four battle stars, the Malta George Cross Commemorative Medal, and a special medal presented by the Prince of Monaco for planning a Royal banquet in Monte Carlo for Louis II.

He immigrated to Canada not long afterwards, bringing with him his son Tony, and settled in Exeter, Ontario.  From here, Aquilina began his “second career” serving military personnel when he was hired to run the Flight Cadets’ Mess at the nearby Royal Canadian Air Force Station Centralia.  Thousands of pilot and navigator trainees from Canada, America and other NATO nations came to Centralia for their training, and Sam was there to greet them with a friendly smile, a drink and good conversation.  He looked after and guided “his boys”, even telling them when they should stop drinking and go back to their barracks to study.

Aquilina was so well liked by all who knew him that the Officers’ Mess tried to capture him as their bartender, but Aquilina wanted to stay with “HIS” cadets.  All were impressed by the Flight Cadets’ Mess and lounge, featuring good food and a bar, where they were met and taken good care of by Sam.  Games of pool, Ping-Pong and TV (James Garner as Maverick as a favourite), were often accompanied by one of Aquilina’s “Gin-Collins” plus a bag of cashew nuts.  His son Tony worked along-side his father for a few years until he joined the RCAF.  Occasionally, Aquilina’s youngest son Alfred also assisted his father by washing glasses, filling the beer fridge, and other chores.

One of Aquilina’s prized possessions is a large framed picture of the Canada’s own “The Snowbirds”, autographed by the pilots, all of whom had served time in “Sam’s Mess”.

In 1967, the RCAF closed down Station Centralia and Aquilina was asked to transfer to CFB Esquimalt, in Victoria B.C., which he did, but his stay there was short-lived, and he returned to Exeter soon afterwards where he retired for the second and final time.  Here he spent the rest of his days taking his daily walks to his favourite restaurants and tipping his hat to his many friends.   By this time, Aquilina’s family had grown to include almost 30 grandchildren.

Sam’s beloved Carmen died in 1987 after 57 years of marriage.  Aquilina continued to live in the family home until his health made it impossible.  He spent his last years residing in a nursing home.

“Centralia Sam” Aquilina died peacefully at the South Huron Hospital on 16 August 1999 with his daughter Pauline by his side.

In a fitting epitaph, Alfred Aquilina describes his father’s legacy:  “‘Centralia Sam’ left behind a legacy of love of family, life and service to country that spanned nearly the entire 20th century.”

The air force are long gone from the former RCAF Station Centralia, now known as Huron Industrial Park.  However, the memory of “Centralia Sam” and a “Sam Special” will live on in the memories of RCAF personnel lucky enough to have served at Centralia.

Special thanks to Alfred Aquilina for his assistance with this article and the photos that he provided.

I would also like to thank my father, Colonel James Forsyth, CStJ, CD, for his assistance with the article.  My Dad saved pretty much every edition of the old “Sentinel Magazine” (much to my Mom’s chagrin, I’m sure), and it was in one edition that I found an article profiling the retirement of “Centralia Sam” from RCAF Station Centralia.  It was after I posted an excerpt of this article (fully credited to Sentinel Magazine) on my web site, that Alfred Aquilina contacted me to thank me for honouring his father.  From there, I corresponded with Alfred and with information that he provided, composed the article that you now have before you.

Below is the original letter to the editor that got it all started.  It was originally published in “Sentinel” Magazine in June 1974. I have been trying to find out who holds the rights to Sentinel articles so that I may seek permission to re-print this article on a man who was a true friend of the Royal Canadian Navy. I have been unable to do this, but if anyone knows, please contact me. In the meanwhile, I would like to share this with everyone.

See the article in the book ON WINDSWEPT HEIGHTS II: Historical Highlights of the Royal Canadian Air Force – 2015 Edition here:



Recalling basic training at RCAF Station Centralia, a kaleidoscope of memories spring to mind: drill sergeants, conduct cards, polishing aircraft, Grand Bend, and drinking a “Sam Special”. Sam Aquilina, chief bartender at the Flight Cadets’ Mess, Sam is known to literally thousands of cadets who passed through Centralia between 1951 and 1966, as the jovial, attentive and courteous friend behind the bar.

Sam remained in the area when Centralia closed in 1966 and celebrates his 70 th birthday this year on November 6. Anyone wishing to drop him a line or a card can write him at: 357 Andrew Street, Exeter, Ont.

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

Permanent link to this article: https://militarybruce.com/centralia-sam-a-legacy-of-love-of-family-life-and-service-to-country/

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