Briggs: Remembering a North Dakota ‘gun-jumper’ who fought early in World War II

As the U.S. nears the 80th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack that launched the nation into World War II, Tracy explains how some impatient North Dakotans had already been fighting for months.

Despite having a North Dakota address, James Boyd Courtney became a member of the Royal Canadian Air Force before the U.S. had entered World War II. Special to The Forum

FARGO — Ric McClary said it all started with his mother Bernice’s “infamous green suitcase” that he and his wife Darilynn went through following her death in February.

“We found decades and decades worth of things that she had saved,” he said. “Some newspaper clippings that were 70, 80 years old.”

One of the yellowed newspaper clippings told of the death of a young man from Lawton, N.D., named James Boyd Courtney. There were also postcards from him written to Ric's mother, in nearby Lakota, using her nickname, "Bunny."

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Bernice McClary clipped stories out fo the local paper when her friend James was killed in World War II. Photo courtesy: McClary family


Ric knew the name. He remembered his mother telling him about “the lovely young man” from the “nice Scottish family back home,” who had died in the war.

Bernice, who was only 14 or 15 at the time, met James at town dances where they became friends.

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Bernice "Bonnie" Skjerseth McClary was just a young teenager when she started writing to a gun-jumper who moved from North Dakota to Canada to fight in World War II. Photo courtesy of the McClary family / Special to The Forum

“He danced with her, I think, almost like an older brother,” Darilynn said. “He called her ‘honey’ in his letters but from what she said and what you read, it didn't seem like there was a great love affair. I think it was pretty common for girls to write to local boys off at war.”

But what’s interesting is the date stamp on one of the postcards — Aug. 12, 1941, nearly four months before the U.S. entered the war.

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James Courtney sent letters and postcards back home to North Dakota after he joined the Canadian military. Notice the postmark was four months prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor. Photo courtesy of the McClary family / Special to The Forum


Courtney was a “gun-jumper,” one of about 9,000 Americans who enlisted in the Canadian military prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor that marked the start of the war for the Yanks.

“He really, really wanted to be in the war fighting against Nazis,” Ric said, “and of course we weren't in the war yet. As my mom put it, ‘He got impatient waiting for the U.S. to enter the war,’ and he said, ‘Hey, I'm going to go to Canada.’"

According to WarHistoryOnline , the main reason why the story of gun-jumpers is not widely known in the U.S. today is because the American government perceived people leaving their country to fight as nothing more than mere adventurism.

“The U.S. did not approve of the cross-border surges and they went as far as to warn the gun-jumpers that their citizenship might be at stake,” according to the site.

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"Bunny" McClary described James Boyd Courtney as "a lovely young man" from a "nice Scottish family." Photo courtesy of the McClary family / Special to The Forum

But that didn’t dissuade men, many of whom lived near the Canadian border like Courtney, from taking their chances just so they could get into the fight.

“Part of it was that feeling that they just wanted to go be a man. They wanted to be involved. They wanted adventure, excitement and, you know, they'd be all wound up, like ‘We're gonna go whip their tail,’ and not realizing what war was until they got there,” Darilynn said.


From what James wrote to "Bunny," he appeared to be enjoying his adventure.

“It’s what he wanted to do,” Ric said. “And so, in one of those letters I think he says that he couldn't wait again to get back to training and get back in an airplane.”

"Gotta fly in a half-hour. It’s more fun than I ever imagined."

-James Boyd Courtney about his time in the Royal Canadian Air Force to a friend in North Dakota, Aug 12, 1941.

The letters to 'Bunny' stopped when James was stationed in England. There, he met and married an English woman named Edna May Eastment.

But the marriage was short-lived. Less than six months after they became husband and wife, on March 5, 1943, James was killed when his plane was shot down over Germany.

According to records in Ottawa, James Boyd Courtney, of Lawton, N.D., was one of at least 38 Americans, gun-jumpers, killed while serving in the Canadian military during World War II.

"Back Then with Tracy Briggs"
Tracy Briggs

Tracy Briggs is an Emmy-nominated News, Lifestyle and History reporter with Forum Communications with more than 35 years of experience, in broadcast, print and digital journalism.
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