Tragic Chilliwack war story lives on with memorial

Air Cadets, legion members come together to create memorial for 11 airmen who died in training exercise in Cheam mountain range

An artist's rendering of what the Airplane Creek Memorial in Thompson Regional Park will look like. The memorial will pay tribute to the loss of 11 men who died in a Second World War training exercise in the Cheam mountain range.

A 70-year-old war story is being retold this week, in an effort to memorialize 11 men who died in the Cheam mountain range.

For those who know local aviation history, the tale is a familiar one.

A crew of 11 Royal Air Force volunteer airmen stationed in Abbotsford awoke early on June 1, 1945 to hear their dispatch for the day.

They were to take a navigation training flight from the Abbotsford base, fly to Penticton, turn and head to Revelstoke, and return to Abbotsford — a 509-mile exercise.

The war in Europe had just ended, and at least one of the men had written home about his desire to return to England.

“I’m only living for the day I can get out of this and do as I please for a change,” RAF volunteer James Gordon Hammond, 20, wrote to his parents. “In about a month from now I shall know whether I am coming home first. It would be just my luck not to.”

The crew left the Abbotsford base just after 9 a.m., heading into a partly cloudy sky. The flight was under the command of Flying Officer William D.A. Hill. The Second Pilot was Pilot Officer Gilbert, and the Navigator was Sergeant Graham Murray.

About 30 minutes into the flight, the crew’s B-24 Liberator bomber KK241 lost radio contact.

When they crashed into a mountaintop, it marked the largest single loss of life in British Columbia during the war.

The ensuing search for the plane was long and arduous, hampered by consistent cloud cover and rainy weather.

It took 17 days to locate the crash site, which was 36 miles off course, near the top of the tallest peak in the Cheam range, Mt. Welch. It took another two weeks to reach the site. Mt. Welch had been summitted for the first time in recorded history only about 20 years prior.

According to Chilliwack Progress archives, the search crew included the Pacific Coast Militia Rangers, the Royal Canadian Air Force personnel, “and some of the district’s best known mountaineers and woodsmen,” including Game Warden Art Butler, Bridge Bailey, and George Stevens.

A mountaintop burial eventually took place in a saddle near the top of the mountain. Photos were taken of the burial site and its beautiful surroundings, and mailed off to family members in the United Kingdom. In one of the photographs, a man in uniform salutes the gravesite.

A man in uniform salutes the grave of 11 men killed in an aviation crash in 1945, the largest single loss of life in British Columbia during the Second World War.

But over the decades, landslides have covered the crash site and the graves. There have been attempts to memorialize the men in the past. In 1983, the cadets of 861 Silverfox Squadron erected a memorial cairn to the victims on the shore of Airplane Creek which was named in honour of the crash. The cadets have been surveying the monument over the years, and in 2013, the monument was found to have fallen into the middle of Airplane Creek.

And this week, the efforts to keep the memory of their sacrifice alive are still going strong. The Canadian Forces helped a group of volunteers with the recovery of one of the Liberator’s engines on Tuesday. It took a crew of 10 CF members about two hours to hike to the engine, to await a helicopter’s arrival. The engine was then to be carried out to a waiting truck — and a crowd of people eager to see this relic from the past.

While an attempt on Monday was unsuccessful due to weather, it was expected to be brought out on Tuesday afternoon (after press deadlines).

Leading the charge is Lt. Ron Shore, who is working with both the Legion (Br. 280) and Chilliwack’s 147 Air Cadet Squadron to create a memorial in Thompson Regional Park.

The memorial, although far from the crash site, gives a vista of the mountain range that sealed the men’s fate in 1945. The engine will be mounted and included in the memorial. Two ‘wings’ will flank the memorial’s centrepiece, listing the men’s names and noting the 55,000 other bomber flight crews that were killed in the Second World War.

The plan for the memorial is six years in the making, and this week Shore was thrilled to see this monumental step forward take place.

But the project is far from over. They hope to fly members of the men’s families here from the United Kingdom, for a dedication ceremony planned for Sept. 26 this year. They are still searching for family members and fundraising to cover their travel costs, and other costs associated with the memorial.

Some of the costs will include long term maintenance, commemorative pins, benches to surround the memorial, purchase and installation of a flag pole, and the cost of the dedication ceremony.

So far, they have raised $63,000 toward their $105,000 budget, with the Dept. of Veteran Affairs donating $25,000 to the project.

Shore noted that during the research of this aircraft, the Veterans Memorial Restoration Society found an additional 27 sites like this, and any extra funds donated will be forwarded to fund other memorials that need rebuilding.

A Go Fund Me page has been set up to receive donations.

 

B-24 Liberator bomber KK241 Flight Crew:

Stanley ALDRIDGE , Sergeant, 20

Albert Eric BROADBENT, Sergeant, 19

John Randall DALE, Sergeant, 32

William Peter Watt DRUMMOND, Sergeant, 23 or 24

Isaac GIBBONS, Sergeant, 19

James Leonard Gordon HAMMOND, Sergeant, 20

Arthur William David HILL, Flying Officer, 21

David Robertson LANGLANDS, Sergeant

Gilbert Ewart Ellis LONG,  Pilot Officer , 21

Graham MURRAY, Sergeant, 20

William Thomas SWATTON, Sergeant, 34