Thursday, November 7, 2013

Remembering History through Adventure

November 7, 2013 - As a Canadian, I grew up learning about Remembrance Day like so many other Canadian children; at school. My grandparents and their siblings served in WWII, some went overseas.  My Grandfather was stationed in Canada and I recall him telling stories about his time as an aircraft mechanic. I never understood the stories as a child.  War was foreign to me for obvious reasons; I did not personally live through them.  War was  something I saw on TV or heard about via family stories. 

I am fortunate to live in a country free of war.  I appreciate and respect the sacrifices that many Canadians and their families have made for this country, my children, and me.  Lest we forget.  Today I am no longer a child.  Today I have children and sadly, my Grandfather is gone, and so too are his stories.  It's these stories we need to share with our children as they are an important part of our history; their history.

When I stumbled upon a hike in Tofino, BC that lead to the site of a plane crash from WWII, I jumped at the chance to "tell the story" to my children.  Through adventure (and a whole lot of mud) we relived a small moment of WWII history, our history together.  Even though my Grandpa was not part of this event, someone's Grandpa was.  Perhaps they were together, looking down on us, as we tromped through the mud.
This blog was first posted on May 1, 2013 and was published in the May 2013 issue of Take 5 Magazine. 

In the wee hours of February 12, 1945, a Royal Canadian Air Force Canso 11007 set off on a routine flight from the Tofino Airport (Vancouver Island, BC) until something unexpected happened.  Shortly after take-off, one of the engines died and the pilot made an attempt to turn back causing the Canso to lose altitude and crash.  

“Did anybody die in the crash?” asks Ben very concerned. 

“Remarkably, no one died.” I respond, easing my sons worries. “The 12 men and one woman on board all survived.” 

The story was a page from WWII history and I was feeding tidbits of the crash to Ben and Liv as we hiked through the dense coastal forest of Pacific Rim National Park, en-route to the site of the crash.  

“What did the planes do during WWII?” questioned Liv. 

I replied, “During WWII Canada feared the Japanese were planning an invasion so the Canadian military positioned themselves all along the Pacific Coast.  Radar stations and bombers were used to detect possible enemy submarines or paper balloon bombs that would have been sent from Japan.” This tidbit of info was followed with silence.  I suspect imagining submarines beneath the waters we surf and paper balloon bombs floating around Tofino, BC was enough to fill Ben and Liv’s young and curious minds.  

The silence did not last long.  Hiking through the coastal rainforest quickly turned to trudging through wet sloppy mud.  Now the conversation was all about whose boot went deeper into the mud and which way does the trail go? 

“How did the people on the plane find their way back home through all this in the dark?” exclaimed Ben with boot now fully submerged in mud.

“Well, some of the people on board were injured; a broken nose, sprained ankle, cuts and bruises.  Things like that so they did not simply walk out.  They spent the night here using the emergency supplies on board and waited for search and rescue, who reached them the next morning.  Then, with help, they would have walked out through all this!” I answered with mud oozing out from under me. 

Even after almost losing a few boots we managed keep the mud below the knee and soon found ourselves standing in an open bog.  As I looked around I realized we were nearing the crash site.  

“Hey! Ben and Liv. The plane would have flown right over here before impact.” I noted, swinging my arm back and forth into the air. 

“I bet some of these scrubby trees were topped by the wings!” I said, looking out across the bog. 

“How do you know?” inquires Liv, who stops and takes a good look around.  

“I read the pilots first-hand account of what happened.  I guess he went to make a 180 degree turn but lost altitude. Somehow, the pilot managed to slow the plane by pulling it into a full stall landing at impact right at the edge of a plateau that led into a hill.  Tell me, does this look like a plateau?” I said waving both arms around. I crouched down towards Liv and pointed ahead of us, “And is that a hill?”

Excitement grew just as it had over 68 years ago but today it was because of discovery, not fear. During our entire hike I prepared Ben and Liv for what they were about to witness.  It is not every day one comes upon a plane wreckage in the middle of the forest.  It was important that I share with them the story of why it happened, how it got here, and tales of survival.   

The moment the aircraft came into view can only be described as shock and awe.  Embedded 50 feet up the hill with logs and trees every which way was the RCAF Canso 11007.  The tail of the aircraft loomed above us, completely in tack.

“Dad, is it safe to walk under the plane?  You always say not to walk under things that are not sturdy.” says Liv, cautiously approaching the hill.  

“It’s OK.  Thanks for asking and your right.  Normally we do not walk under things that look unstable but this plane has been resting here for over 68 years exactly how it did the day it crashed so I would say it is OK.”  Dad reassures her.   

Slowly making our way up the hill beside the aircraft, I could clearly see the fuselage and the front wings spread out across the aircraft.  Considering its age and crash, the plane was in remarkable shape and much larger than I had imagined it to be.  

I mentioned this to Ben and he said “It is, other than the large holes on the side and smashed nose.”  

“The holes were not entirely due to the crash.” I state. “The smashed nose, yes but apparently a few Air Force personnel came back to the crash site to remove the bombs, radios, and machine guns.  Then they blew two holes in the fuselage to destroy the aircraft’s secret radar gear.”  That had Ben thinking for a while but soon he was asking more questions.  

“What are those round metal things on the ground beside the plane?” he asked.  

“Those are the engines.  Maybe if you look closer you can figure out which one had the faulty magneto that caused the engine to fail which resulted in this mess?” I replied with a smirk.  With that, Ben set off to explore the engines and get a closer look at the hull of the aircraft.  

The four of us each took time examining the plane, noting damage from the crash, speculating where everyone sat that frightful night and admired the graffiti decorating the plane.  This adventure gave us a better sense of what WWII looked like on the Pacific Coast and were able to relive a brief moment of it.  As we were leaving the crash site I pointed out a perfectly round pond that was a couple hundred feet away from the wreckage. 

The bomb pond.
“Cool, are there any frogs in there?” asks Liv. 

“Maybe?” I replied.  “Want to know what made this pond?” Ben and Liv both nod with excitement.

“This is where the four bombs that were on the plane, or depth charges as they called them, were detonated after the crash.”
Again silence until Liv sighs, “Poor frogs.”

See more of the Tofino Plane Wreck Trail on our Facebook Page photo album.

The Tofino Plance Crash hike 

Signs of the Trail - Tofino Plane Wreck