25 June 2011

Living history: a wartime training air crash draws visitor

We often talk about people coming to Moncton to go shopping, take in a hockey game or a concert, but how often do people come here from the other side of the world to solve a historical mystery and perhaps find some closure to a family tragedy nearly 70 years after the fact?

Next month, an elderly gentleman from England is coming to Moncton to visit the grave of his long-lost brother, who was killed in a plane crash in 1943.

It's the kind of story you'd expect to see on one of those History Channel documentaries, where people from Canada make a pilgrimage to England or France or Germany to find the graves of their relatives lost in wartime, so it seems a bit strange that someone would come to Moncton.

But some war casualties occurred far away from the actual battlefields and sometimes interesting historical mysteries are right under our noses.

I first stumbled across the story of Pilot Sgt. Hubert John Burnham; Navigator Sgt. Philip Llewellyn Edmond, 27, of Adamstown, New South Wales, Australia; and Wireless Air Gunner, Sgt. John Edward Hogan, 22, of Ruatoria, East Coast Region, New Zealand a few years ago.

As it happened, I was getting my car serviced at Can-Am Chrysler on Morton Avenue and had couple of hours to kill, so I found myself wandering around the nearby Elmwood Cemetery.

Why wander through a cemetery? Well, I've always found it a bit fascinating to look at the names and the dates. Historians and genealogists will tell you these sombre places are gold mines of information.

In the midst of the cemetery, under a maple leaf flag fluttering in the breeze, were a couple of graves with the R.A.A.F. (Royal Australian Air Force) insignia. I figured they must have been casualties of the British Commonwealth Air Training Program, during which thousands of pilots and other air crew recruits from around the world came to Moncton for training during the early years of the Second World War.

It struck me as terribly sad that these young men from Australia would come all the way around the world to a little place like New Brunswick, only to be killed in a training crash far away from any of the actual theatres of operation. They weren't the only ones. As pilots and aircrew trained in New Brunswick and other bases across Canada, there were many accidents and crashes. Researchers tell me there could still be a few wrecked planes in the woods and waters around New Brunswick.

With only the names and the date of Feb. 8, 1943, I started doing a bit of research on these young fellows. As it turned out, they were actually attached to No.34 Operational Training Unit in Pennfield Ridge near Saint John when they crashed a Lockheed Ventura bomber aircraft that cold morning in 1943. Sgt. Hubert John Burnham was only 19, far away from home, at the controls of a big bomber aircraft flying through the freezing cold and snow of a New Brunswick winter morning.

Mr. Burnham, the pilot, was born in Worthing, England, on Sept. 5, 1923. He enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force in Sydney on Oct. 11, 1941, a month after his 18th birthday. With him in the Ventura were Navigator Sgt. Philip Llewellyn Edmond, 27, of Adamstown, New South Wales, Australia; and Wireless Air Gunner, Sgt. John E. Hogan, 22, of Ruatoria, East Coast Region, New Zealand.

They were flying a cross-country training run with other bombers out of No.34 Operational Training Unit Detachment at Yarmouth, NS that morning. At approximately 7:15 a.m., men fishing smelt along the Richibucto River looked on in horror as the Ventura bomber came out of the sky at a high rate of speed and then crashed into a boggy area approximately four miles northeast of Richibucto, just a quarter mile from the shoreline.

The plane exploded into a huge ball of flame, lighting up the pre-dawn sky. An RCMP search party found the plane within half an hour. It was destroyed. The crew had been thrown clear and killed instantly.

A crash investigation was launched from Moncton and the three young men were laid to rest far away from home - Mr. Burnham and Mr. Edmond were buried in the Elmwood Cemetery in Moncton, Mr. Hogan was buried in St. Bernard's Roman Catholic Cemetery on Pleasant Street - killed in a training crash before they graduated and could be posted to a squadron overseas.

Subsequent investigations indicated that some better weather-proofing of the Ventura bombers was needed when they were used in extreme cold and snowy conditions.

I first wrote about the crash in November of 2007 as a Remembrance Day feature. Since then, I've been in contact with G. Christian Larsen, president of the Pennfield Parish Military Historical Society, who has shared more information about the crash and others associated with the Pennfield Ridge training base during the war.

I've also been in contact with another historical researcher who has tried to find the exact site of the 1943 crash, but apparently the ground is so boggy that it is nearly impossible to walk through. Some photos exist of the site at the time, and there are also some stories of local people from Richibucto going there to carry away parts of the plane before the air force recovery team arrived.

Mr. Larsen now informs me that his group will host a memorial service on Sunday, July 24 at the Pennfield Ridge War Memorial. The day will mark the 70th anniversary of the Pennfield Ridge Air Station. Their guest of honour will be Mr. Burnham, who has decided to travel to Canada to visit the grave of his big brother, who never came home from the war.

Mr. Burnham is scheduled to arrive at the Greater Moncton International Airport on July 22, visit the cemetery and then proceed to Pennfield Ridge.

This is just one example of Moncton's multi-layered history and how researchers are always looking for information to solve the puzzles that are right under our noses - and that after all these years, families will go to great lengths to touch the past.

SOURCE: Times & Transcript (Moncton, NB) - June 21, 2011.

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