10 October 2011

Reflections, Pennfield Ridge Air Station

A lot of changes have occurred at the former Pennfield Ridge Air Station since it closed towards the end of 1945. So much unwritten history is located on this hallow piece of ground and yet many of those unrecorded voices have been silenced by the cold hand of death. Priceless memories continually slip through the hourglass of time to be forever lost in the continuum of life. It's now a race against father time and he, as always, has the advantage on his side. Also, so many unfilled dreams of a brighter tomorrow ended before they really had a chance to begin. The youthful exuberance of the innocent and an uncertainty of a tomorrow often exacted a high toll on those who answered the call of duty.

Since January 2007 Pennfield Parish Military Historical Society (PPMHS) has been working hard to record the history of the Pennfield Ridge Air Station and A-30 Canadian Infantry Training Centre, CA (Camp Utopia). Our primary focus is honouring and remembering the 78 service personnel, along with the 7 civilians, killed at the Air Station and Camp Utopia.

Our column is intended to focus on Pennfield Ridge Air Station. The former base holds a special place in the hearts and minds of those who served there. For many airmen it would be the last place in Canada they would spend their time before being posted overseas. It was here friendships would be forged that would be life long, especially those who "crewed" up and later served together in battle squadrons overseas. We have discovered that once a Veteran begins to talk about Pennfield Ridge it is hard for him to share any other memories. Family members, the next generation, have often heard the stories about Pennfield Ridge or have come across the name when they begin their own research. This is why we have heard from 23 Veterans and over 120 family members since 2007, many of whom we still maintain fairly regular contact.

There were fourteen fatal crashes in various parts of New Brunswick (9), Nova Scotia (4) and Rhode Island (1) that account for the loss of 40 airmen. Another seven aircraft crashed into various bodies of water accounting for 21/22 airmen and 1 seaman (passenger) being listed as “missing”. Families struggling with the sudden loss of loved ones were further compounded with the waiting for additional word. Long after all the searches were abandoned and all hopes for a positive outcome were exhausted; “presumption” of death was finally issued. The remaining seven airmen died from natural causes.

One of the more tragic tales is the crash of Ventura FN973 10 August 1943. On that day, the crew of Ventura FN973 was detailed to fly a cross-country mission lasting approx. 3 hrs. At 1855 they completed their task and upon return, radioed the control tower asking for permission to bomb the Utopia Range. The aircraft never made it to the range and at 1900 hours it was spotted heading out to sea. The following day Ozra Newman and his son Lawrence, of Wilson’s Beach, and another fishing vessel from Grand Manan came upon wreckage from Ventura FN973 about two hundreds yards north of White Horse Island. One of the objects recovered was a life raft partially filled with water. Tangled within the ropes was the body of the Navigator, P/O R.A. Ledingham (RCAF) who survived the initial crash and later succumbed to his injuries and exposure. The other three-crew members were never found and the cause of the crash remains “obscure”.

A total of 27 members of the Royal Canadian Air Force, save one, were all returned to their native provinces for burial. The other airmen from Commonwealth Countries (9 Royal Air Force, 6 Royal Australian Air Force and 6 Royal New Zealand Air Force), were buried with full military honours near where they were killed or died. Family members were sometimes sent photographs from the military funerals and were always left with more questions than answers. Many of these questions have gone unanswered for 60 plus years now. We have discovered it is now the second generation who have picked up the torch and have begun the search for answers.

Sgt. R.F. (Ron) Brier’s younger sister June (along with her husband) and a niece (daughter of another sister) made the trip from New Zealand to Canada in June 2000. The niece later remarked, “It was a cold, miserable, foggy day and it was a very bleak isolated place but it was wonderful to BE THERE. and to walk were Ron had walked. We only stayed about 1/4 hour and felt that we could understand what the flying conditions would have been like.”

Helping to answer those long held unanswered questions is why we have spent countless hours pouring through microfilms, acquiring aircraft accident reports, scouring old newspapers looking for news accounts, etc. To date we have documented over 170 accidents and/or mishaps that occurred at the former Air Station.

The majority of these accidents and/or mishaps naturally relate to aircraft accidents. In addition to the 70 service personnel killed, another two airmen were “seriously” injured; fifteen airmen were “slightly” injured and another seven airmen bailed out of their respective aircrafts. A couple of the reports pertain to fires at the Quonset huts at the bombing range in Musquash and five relate to various car accidents involving, in total, 16 airmen (1 fatality) and 3 civilian fire fighters stationed at the base.

One these vehicle reports relates to Military Transport Vehicle enroute to Saint John to take volunteer blood donors to the hospital 19 February 1942. An icy road caused the wagon to skid into S.M.T. bus injuring 5 airmen. The regular Blood Donor Clinic in St. George, which some local residents may recall, did not begin until 7 February 1943. Dr. R.D. Smith and Dr. F.V. Maxwell ran the clinic with many local nurses, residents and Boy Scouts assisting in vacuous capacities.

Still many minor mishaps and/or “close” calls went unrecorded and only until Veterans and/or family members steps forward to share their stories, the total number shall remain unknown.

An RAAF airman, F/L Nevin (“The Fox”) Filby (Ret.), provides an example of an unrecorded mishap: “...what now I see as stupid bravado, I flew at a cliff, low level and delayed the pull-up. Dickie, my new WAG, was standing behind me and quite rightly dropped to the floor. The propellers kicked up stones from the cliff top and pitter-pattered against the fuselage. The propellers were nicked and were repaired, quietly, by our very co-operative ground staff and I missed out on being charged. The silliness of youth! The Venturas were slow to react, as I found out quite nervously.”

Filby’s Course No.12 at Pennfield Ridge would experience the loss of three aircraft (8 classmates killed and one seriously injured). For Filby himself it would be the personal loss of Sgt. A.E,E. (“Buck”) Rogers (RAAF). Both Filby and Rogers had trained together at No.15 SFTS, Claresholm, AB before coming to “the Ridge”. Also it would mean the loss of his first WAG, Sgt. L.A. (“Skinny”) Ellis (RAAF) who was seriously injured when the pilot of Ventura AE678 attempted a forced landing in a field near Didgeguash. Filby and his all-Australian crew would eventually fly over 50 Ops. with 98 Squadron.

An RCAF airman, P/O H.W. (“Scoot”) Muir (Ret.), offers personal insight into one of his two close calls at the base: "We were fortunate in being able to practice low-flying legally. I liked flying with F/L Owens as leader. He wasn't satisfied unless his prop-tips were picking up water or disturbing the tops of pine-trees. One afternoon we were over the bay, zero alt. when a flock of gulls decided to take off. I ended up returning to base with a gull in the oil rad. of the port engine, one in the radial engine itself and one hit the air-screen in front of me which got my attention. The engine started to run hot which made it necessary to return to base. All turned out well.”

The purpose of this column is to awaken the general public interest and in addition, to bring forth more of the unrecorded history of this “Forgotten Base”. The base had a major economic impact on the communities surrounding it from St. Stephen to Saint John and all points in between. However 70 years later, there is nothing to suggest the significant role those blueberry fields played in the allies winning the war. Recording this history (still on-going) makes us realize that one should not be able to drive by this base without knowing its existence. Provincial Historic Designation is currently being sought so this location can be properly marked and perhaps a place created where people can read some of the stories and see photographs of what took place here. We need to remember all those who served and make sure the forgotten heroes, those who died in the preparation of war before their finest hour, are honoured.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was submitted to our local newspaper for a possible column. However the editor rejected it saying: "I felt the column was a bit long – but we didn’t suggest targets. Otherwise, there was some interesting data there.

What I think I’d like to see is something along the lines of three or four entries in advance of Nov. 11, which I think would be a timely lead-in to Remembrance Day. The article you submitted earlier could become two columns if the idea of one column to highlight one past veteran were considered."

Personally speaking I think you lose many of the personnel anecdotes that breath life into the piece by focusing on just one Veteran. While it is true that each accident ultimately produced the same result, the tragic and sudden lost of a family member, they also have their own unique testimony and most, if not all, have stories wrapped up within stories. Also I feel that you, in the final edit, cut out the humanity by limiting the scope and focus to just one Veteran and ultimately highlighting that particular crash verses the others.