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Look back at 1946 plane crash draws people world-wide to Estevan

Events brought people together to remember the 21 airmen who died in a tragic plane crash in 1946.
Plane Crash of 46 Ceremony pic 1
The grandchildren of the victims of the plane crash of 1946 south of Estevan unveilled the plaque on the cairn.

ESTEVAN - More than 75 years after a plane crash south of Estevan claimed the lives of 21 members of the Royal Canadian Air Force, a series of events were held in and around the community on Friday and Saturday to pay tribute to the fallen. 

And people from around the world were in Estevan for the occasion, as family members of the deceased came to the city to learn more about the crash, pay tribute to their family and meet others affected by the crash.

The plane crash occurred on Sept. 15, 1946, at the site of the old Estevan Airport. Twenty RCAF pilots and a crew member died. 

Marie Donais Calder – who was part of the event’s organizing committee alongside Allison Holzer, Lois Wilson and Wayne Younghusband – said the families of the crash victims were brought together and have expressed gratitude and willingness to continue friendships that were developed while they were here.

“It turned out to be more far reaching than we ever thought it would,” said Donais Calder, who wrote a book, Together Forever in the Clouds, that profiles each man who died in the crash.

Fourteen of the airmen had at least one family member in Estevan for the event, and a total of 68 family members were present. 

Activities started Thursday in Regina, when family members met with Saskatchewan Lt.-Gov. Russ Mirasty.

The focus shifted to Estevan Friday. People could take a tour of Lester Hinzman’s property south of Estevan, where wood carvings and old planes that pay tribute to Canada’s military history are located. They could also listen to a presentation by Craig Bird, a local military historian and the founder of the Southeast Military Museums. 

Bird explained the role of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, the contribution made by Estevan and some of the air tragedies that occurred in the Estevan area during the war. He also reflected on the plane crash.  

The Commonwealth Air Training Plan Museum in Brandon, Man., brought two planes, a Cornell and a Harvard, to the Estevan Regional Airport. People could pay to take a ride in one of the planes on Friday or Saturday, or they could view the aviation history.

A supper was served as the legion on Friday night for the family members, giving them a chance to visit and to reflect on the airmen.

Saturday’s big attraction was the unveiling of a memorial cairn close to the crash site. The cairn is adjacent to the access road for Woodlawn Regional Park’s Boundary Dam campground.  

Grandchildren of the plane crash victims who attended the ceremony unveiled the cairn, which has a tribute plaque and the photos and names of the airmen. The children of the fallen who attended the ceremony laid a wreath at the cairn. 

The cairn notes that after the Second World War, RCAF 124 Ferry Squadron, based in Rockcliffe, Ont., was assigned the task of returning aircraft which had been borrowed under the land-lease program between Great Britain and the U.S. Estevan’s wartime airfield, No. 38 Service Flying Training School, which was located just east of the cairn, was repurposed as the headquarters for No. 4 Equipment Holding Unit. 

Members of the ferry squadron were sent to repatriate Cornell trainer planes from Estevan to Fargo or Minot, N.D.

The 21 airmen boarded a Dakota transport plane and flew from Minot to Estevan on Sept. 15, 1946. An elevator lock had inadvertently been left in place before takeoff and as a result, the lane crashed while attempting to land.

“Women lost their husbands, 17 children their fathers, parents their sons and siblings their brothers. These young men served Canada on active duty during and after the war. They will not be forgotten.” 

The airmen ranged in age from 20-34. Some of them received the Distinguish Flying Cross and/or the Distinguished Flying Medal. 

Donais Calder described the cairn as “magnificent.”

“I know that when it was unveiled, there were a few gasps,” she said. “And it is spectacular. It’s something that I think our 21 airmen would be very proud of. And I know their families most definitely are.” 

Donais Calder discussed the history of the cairn. Her daughter Nicole Calder read the names of the 21 airmen who died. 

SaskPower donated two acres of land for the cairn, while the City of Estevan and RM of Estevan also provided support for the memorial.

“Everything is taken care of, the cairn is here and it’s here for the purpose of remembering not just our 21 RCAF airmen, but by extension, hopefully we can remember anyone and everyone who has served,” said Donais Calder.

Elder James McArthur of the Pheasant Rump First Nations, who served Canada in the Korean War and the U.S. in the Vietnam War, provided a blessing for the site. He was joined by his son Patrick. 

Younghusband, the nephew of Harry Cowan, one of the victims of the crash, said that moment stood out in particular.

“I found that very meaningful and very appropriate,” said Younghusband. “And in speaking to them afterwards, I know they were very gratified that they could participate and they had been asked to participate.” 

Younghusband spoke at the dedication, as did RCAF Lt.-Col. Mario Charron, the deputy wing commander from 15 Wing in Moose Jaw; Troy LeBlanc with the Estevan branch of the Royal Canadian Legion, and representatives from SaskPower, the City of Estevan and the RM of Estevan.

“These airmen had seen the war,” said Charron. “They survived the war. Returned home as heroes.”

Kendra Perry, the granddaughter of pilot William Perry, said the story of the crash was something she grew up with. Her family has pieces of the plane.

Her father was only two years old at the time of the crash, and grew up not knowing his father. 

“It’s always been a big part of our family’s story,” said Kendra Perry. “I’ve always been really interested in the crash, but there wasn’t a lot that I actually knew about it. I learned a lot this weekend.”

She spent time in Saskatchewan, including Estevan, when she was young. At that time, there was nothing to pay tribute to the crash victims, and she doesn’t recall visiting the crash site.

Tom Poulton, who is the son of Robert (Scotty) McRoberts, travelled from North Carolina, and was joined by his son Dan from San Diego. Tom Poulton was nine months old when his father died, and has no recollection of him.

“I only leaned more and more about him as I got older in life,” said Poulton, who has only heard good things about his father. 

The Poultons decided to come to Estevan after Tom Poulton found out that cousins would be attending the events. It was only recently, through learning about the plane crash event, that Tom Poulton only found out that he had those cousins.

He marvelled at the event and the outpouring of support for the airmen.

“They did what they were supposed to do, what they had signed up to do, and unfortunately they lost their lives, but here again, as it was said, it is our job not to ever forget them,” said Tom Poulton.

Rob Poulton, meanwhile, was excited to come to Saskatchewan, meet some of his family members and meet the descendants of the other plane crash victims. 

There were also to flypasts during the ceremony: one with the Harvard and Cornell, and the other being two RCAF CT-156 Harvard IIs from 2 Canadian Forces Flying Training School at 15 Wing Moose Jaw. 

People came from even further distances. Jackie Hand and Louise Murphy, twin sisters who were the daughters of pilot Lew Murphy, flew in from the U.K.

“Because of our persistence in trying to find the families, we found the twin girls. And they came. It’s only two months ago we found them, and they made arrangements to be here,” said Donais Calder. 

They also had people from Spain and Greece for the ceremony. A 93-year-old sibling of one of the pilots, James Paul Jesse, came from Virginia.

“They expressed the fact that they now have a sense of closure, and this is something they’d never had,” said Donais Calder.