Forever in the Clouds: honouring 21 WWII veterans killed in Estevan plane crash

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It’s a significant piece of Saskatchewan history that’s faded from the minds of many: 21 WWII veterans had returned home from war, only to fly straight into tragedy. Focus Saskatchewan host Marney Blunt looks back at a tragedy that’s been lost in history, and learns how one group is working to honour the victims – Oct 9, 2018

You won’t find their faces on the pages of history books, but 21 men lost their lives in a horrific plane crash near Estevan in September 1946.

The victims, 20 pilots and one grounds crewman, survived the Second World War and returned home only to fly directly into tragedy.

About one year after the war ended, the crew was ferrying warplanes between Estevan and Minot, North Dakota. The United States had loaned planes to Britain during the war. The pilots would fly the planes down to the States and then fly back together in their mothership, Dakota 962.

“After the war had ended, it was a condition of the supply of those aircraft that they either had to be destroyed or returned to the United States,” Canadian Aviation Historical Society member Will Chabun said.

“That’s what a group of pilots from the Royal Canadian Air Force were doing that weekend in 1946. The aircraft would be assembled at various bases and then flown to Estevan, where there had been a wartime flying training station.”

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On Sunday, Sept. 15, 1946, the pilots boarded a flight bound for tragedy. The Dakota 962 left the Minot airport en route back to Estevan, but one of the control locks was not removed from the plane.

“Control locks are little, in those days, pieces of wood that fastened moveable control surfaces like ailerons, elevators, or rudders, to fixed surfaces near them so that the moveable ones would not be damaged when the aircraft was parked in high winds,” Chabun explained. “They missed that.”

Chabun says it was a mistake that likely wasn’t noticed until they were in the air.

On that ill-fated Sunday, the plane was nearly back home in Estevan when disaster struck. The Dakota 962 stood on its tail, stalled, and plummeted to the ground.

“It’s widely speculated that whoever was flying, and we don’t know exactly who was at the controls, asked the other 19 personnel to get to the back of the aircraft and the two pilots tried to set it down. It didn’t work,” Chabun said.

“The Leader-Post found an eye witness a couple of days later – who said that the aircraft flew over the airport and did an overshoot, and then reared up on its tail and it lost its momentum and lift, and then crashed. Everyone aboard was killed.”

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A mass funeral was held in Estevan for the 21 young men who lost their lives. Many of them had families of their own.

“The irony of the whole thing is really something. These were people who had seen it all, they had served during the Second World War” Chabun said.

“Many of them has received declarations for their bravery and their skills, many of them had families left behind; it was just such a horrible tragedy.”

More than 72 years later, it appears those young lives have been lost in history.

“Among the general population, even among serving military personnel, it is virtually unknown,” Chabun added. “And that’s a real tragedy because these people served their country honourably and deserve to be remembered and to be recognized.”

But it’s a memory that’s always in the minds of their loved ones.

“It’s not forgotten in my family,” Eloise Caverson said. Her father, Leonard Edgar Turtle, was one of the men killed in the crash. He enlisted in 1939 and was killed six years later. He was just 26-years-old at the time; Eloise was just three.

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“They had returned to their families, their families had breathed a huge sigh of relief, and they’re killed,” Caverson said, who now lives near Ottawa. “So that is certainly something for my mother that lasted all her life, that feeling of, not injustice, but fate intervening in a nasty way.”

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More than half a century later, there is a move to remember the victim’s as Estevan’s heroes in a monument called ‘Forever in the Clouds’. A small group of people in Estevan felt the need to commemorate the lives lost and prevent their memory from fading from history.

“The accident happened just outside of Estevan, and nobody remembers it,” Forever in the Clouds co-organizer Marie Donais Calder said. “To be honest with you, people in Estevan don’t know anything about it.”

Co-organizer Lester Hinzman also says these men have long been forgotten, and it’s time to honour their memory. He added the project hits close to his heart.

“I grew up with a veteran, a returned soldier. (And) I found out about these 21 airmen that died, and these men were never mentioned in school, we didn’t know anything about it,” Hinzman said.

The monument was carved by sculptor Darren Jones, who also did the Soldiers Tree monument that stands outside the Estevan Court House, to honour veterans.

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“It makes me feel very satisfied that I have actually been able to give something back to other people, especially the families of these airmen… It’s been lost to history,” Jones said.

“I have empathy for loss and the emptiness that’s left whenever a family member passes on. Sometimes you just need to give people a place where they can sit and enjoy their thoughts.”

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The photos of 17 men were provided to the group by the military, but four faces were still missing, which sparked a cross-Canada search to find photos of the missing men – A task that took months.

Now that all 21 faces are carved into the monument, the next task will be finding a permanent site for the monument, and the 21 young men will truly be ‘Forever in the Clouds’.

“I remember an army reserve general once telling me that in the forces, someone who falls in peacetime is every bit as dead as someone who falls in combat,” Chabun said. “And therefore they deserve to be remembered. They are owed that remembrance, no matter where they made the supreme sacrifice.”

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