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Foresters lay WWII air tragedy to rest
In December, the public first learned three Lake Cowichan-area forestry engineers had found the 71-year-old wreckage site of an Avro Anson airplane, and the resting place of its four Second World War airmen.
Since then, forensic experts, coroners and military personnel have excavated the remote site, and identified the remains of (British) RAF volunteer-reserve pilots Anthony William Lawrence, 21, and Charles George Fox, 31; RAF volunteer-reserve Sgt. Robert Ernest Luckock; and (Canadian) RCAF Sgt. William Baird.
It’s believed foul weather caused the aircrew’s canvas-and-wood plane to crash on Oct. 30, 1942, strewing wreckage across 100 metres of heavy bush near Mesachie Lake, southwest of Lake Cowichan.
That grim but undisturbed site was accidentally discovered on Oct. 24, 2013 by Teal Jones Forest Ltd. employees Dennis Cronin, Walter Van Hell, and Tom Weston
More than six months after their discovery, the trio sat down to share their story with the News Leader Pictorial.
Dennis Cronin’s comfortable kitchen in Lake Cowichan sits about 1½ hours of bad roads and bushwacking away from where he and his workmates stumbled on the partially buried debris of a wartime Avro Anson airplane.
The three forest engineers knew of their wartime history. They were aware of how foul weather and risky planes had combined to dot the coast with remote crash sites.
The trio soon realized they’d found one on Oct. 24.
“Tom and I were traversing (surveying) fall lines, and Dennis was hanging the ribbons,” said Van Hell.
“I came to a rock bluff in old-growth timber and hung line across the top of the bluff, then I came to the end of the bluff, stopped hanging ribbon and went to investigate down below on flatter ground,” said Cronin. “I’m always looking around for stuff, and saw a big chunk of aircraft aluminum all busted up.
“I picked it up, and yelled up ‘There’s an airplane here!’”
Twenty feet farther along, he found a round window, and eventually traced a 100-metre debris field.
“We followed the trail and found more and more stuff,” said Weston. “It starts with just little pieces.”
Suspicions the wreckage was a military plane seemed confirmed when they found a switch labelled ‘Bomb release.’ The perished plane’s first-aid kit, and other stuff could also be seen.
“It was all on the surface. We didn’t disturb anything,” said Weston.
Then they found cockpit wreckage, and a steering wheel.
“You could look at the debris, and make out the flight path through broken tree tops,” Weston said, noting they believed the plane had been canvas on aluminum.
“A lot of the fuselage was canvas,” said Van Hell. “We also knew it was there a long time.”
But not long enough for shreds of clothing, to become forest compost —most notably, a leather boot. The men approached it with apprehension.
“Our hair was standing on end,” noted Weston.
“We carefully opened one shoe to see if there were any bones in there,” said Van Hell.
There was not.
The trio surmised the plane flipped on impact as it was shredded by the thick forest.
“One propellor was wrapped around a motor, the other one was never found,” Weston said.
“One expert later said that propellor wasn’t turning on impact,” said Van Hell.
The accidental detectives became leery of the tragic site as they noticed other artifacts — including a bomb.
“There was this round thing sticking out out of the ground,” said Weston. “I watched where I stepped after that.”
A radio aerial gave them a clue about what might have happened.
“We figured they forgot to lower the radio aerial, then lost contact in bad weather,” Van Hell said.
It was at about that point when it really started to sink in where they were.
“I thought, ‘Jeez, there could be some guys (bodies) here.’ We didn’t want to disturb anything,” Van Hell said.
“You could see by the wreckage no one was coming out of there.”
Leaving the bush, the threesome called the RCMP to report their discovery. They also went online to see what kind of airplane they had found, while officials used the engine’s serial number and war records to confirm the Avro’s identity and crew.
The guys also talked to wartime Mosquito plane pilot Tom Burdge, (Van Hell’s stepfather-in-law), who also flew an Avro; plus chopper pilot and airplane builder Mel Johnstone.
Johnstone knew how to find the crashed Avro’s engine serial number; Burdge reported it to Ottawa.
“That really started it all,” Van Hell said of Burdge’s call to Ottawa. “Tom did a helluva lot.”
A week later, the engineers led cops and Canadian Forces’ folks to the site fully aware of an eery coincidence.
“It was 71 years to the exact day from when they (plane) left Pat Bay to when we led the RCMP and military ordinance guys to the site,” noted Weston.
Investigators’ advised them against going public with their find, so artifact hunters couldn’t disturb the fragile evidence and suspected remains.
“We wanted something done by DND by Remembrance Day,” Van Hell said of saluting the perished airmen.
But bad weather and bureaucracy caused delays, so Teal Jones foreman Brian Henderson placed a wreath on the site to mark Nov. 11.
The lake’s three engineers are proud of locating the plane, and helping setting records straight about the fliers’ fate. They hope a cairn and ceremony eventually salute the airmen’s grave on the gentle forest floor.
“It’s like they made their own coffin down there,” said Weston.
They sympathized with the crew’s untimely death.
“I found (the site) really peaceful, and had lots of respect for it,” Cronin said.
“You knew you were on hallowed ground,” added Weston.
Part Two: Forensics investigators comb the site to reconstruct what happened and close the book on a decades-long mystery.