by Mac Johnston
On Nov. 10, 1997, in Geraardsbergen, Belgium, a nurse from Chilliwack, B.C., went to the funeral of an uncle she had never met. As a tribute, Maureen Thom wore on her coat the WW II wings of Pilot Officer Wilbur Bentz who died four years before she was born.
Wib Bentz was a pilot in 426 (Thunderbird) Squadron of the Royal Canadian Air Force based at Linton-on-Ouse in Yorkshire, England. His plane, Halifax bomber LW682, M for Mother, was part of a 120-bomber raid on the railway yards in German-held Louvain, Belgium. On the flight home, LW682 was shot down at about 1 a.m. May 13, 1944, by a German night fighter. The bomber crashed in a bog and the Germans recovered and buried the bodies of five members of the eight-man crew.
Canadian authorities later declared that the three others were lost in action with no known grave and their names were inscribed on the famous air force memorial to the missing at Runnymede, England. The three were: Bentz, 21, whose last address was Penticton, B.C.; Pilot Officer Fred Roach, 25, the tail gunner from Leamington, Ont.; and PO Jack Summerhayes, 23, the mid-upper gunner from Brantford, Ont.
The story began to come full circle in 1984. After the death of their mother Romaine Hammond, Maureen’s brother Jay Hammond of South Slocan, B.C., resolved to answer the question that had haunted his mother: What happened to her brother? His long search stretched afar, from Belgium to Brazil, where the German fighter pilot Martin Drewes now lived. Co-operation was received from many quarters, including the Belgium Aviation History Association and Veterans Affairs Canada.
Finally, in September 1997, the crash site was excavated in a project co-ordinated by Karl Kjarsgaard, vice-president of the Halifax Aircraft Association, and funded by 426 (Thunderbird) Sqdn. Assoc. and a $20,000 grant from the Department of Canadian Heritage. Uncovered 20 feet down in the marshy bog were the remains of the three missing airmen entombed in the wreckage of their plane.
Veterans Affairs and the Heritage Department were already working on plans for a November pilgrimage to France to conduct remembrance ceremonies and to unveil plaques marking the WW I battlefields of Vimy Ridge and Beaumont Hamel as national historic sites. The concept was expanded and, with the co-operation of the Department of National Defence, VAC organized a military funeral that would come to involve some 25 relatives and descendants of the bomber crew, as well as the other interested parties.
And that’s how Maureen Thom came to go to Belgium. She was accompanied at the funeral by her son Michael, 21. Both had become linked to the airman they never met.
“I grew up looking at this picture of Wib on my mother’s dresser,” Maureen recalled. “My mother had a lot of love for her brother. They were extremely close. Even though I never knew him, I admired him. I have this fabulous image of him as a young man, who obviously has never grown old…. I started to fly I guess in part because of Wib. I wanted to escape the bonds of earth and soar. Wib has also been Michael’s hero. I’ve tried for years to explain how I have so much emotion for someone I never knew. I think my mother passed it on, though not in words. I guess I’ve done the same with Michael.”
Emotions run deep: “…I guess I didn’t feel that I had resolved his loss,” she explained. “It wasn’t right. It seemed unfinished. He died with great courage and honor, but that was never shown because he didn’t have a funeral service.”
Until Nov. 10: “It was overwhelming, the honor and respect shown to these boys,” Maureen continued. “The ultimate in respect was the missing-man formation flypast in propeller planes (by the Belgian air force). I’m a pilot and that’s the ultimate you can do for a pilot. I just lost it. It was very emotional, the pipes, the gun salutes….”
Reflecting later on her tears at the funeral, she concluded: “I’ve come to realize that I was weeping not only for me, but also for my mother and my grandmother and grandfather. I was carrying their grief as well. It’s finally closed in a fitting manner.”
Marjorie Wyse of Kitchener, Ont., the half-sister of tail gunner Roach, will always treasure her brother’s engraved watch and lighter recovered from the wreckage. She also cherishes her memories of their time on a farm near Leamington in southwestern Ontario.
“Fred’s mother died when he was two and I think his older brother brought him up pretty much for a number of years, until my mother came along,” she related. “Fred was 14 years older than me. I remember him being my big brother…. He was lots of fun. He taught me how to ride a bike…. One of the things that he used to do was really a teasing kind of thing. He would be milking the cow, and if I’d peek around the corner of the barn, he’d squirt me with the milk…. I also remember what a great athlete he was. We always went to the baseball games in Leamington and I was always proud of him as a baseball player. When Fred brought his first girlfriend home, I was pretty jealous of her, I must tell you that!”
Fred rejected the idea of seeking a farm-worker exemption from military service and upgraded his schooling to join the air force like his buddies: “I just remember being excited because I got to have his room,” Wyse recalled, “and then I felt very sad when he was going overseas.”
The nurse vividly recalled the day the bad news was received: “I rode my bike to a country public school which was two miles away and I always took a lunch. I came home for some reason one day, and I can never explain why. I found the family looking very, very, very sad and not saying too much, and people were crying and I wanted to know what was wrong. I was told to go into the master bedroom and read the telegram, which I did. It said Fred was ‘missing in action.’ My heart just broke and I started to cry.
“Unfortunately, in those days no one did a lot of comforting–they were into their own grief–and I went back to school! I was crying when I got there and a friend said, ‘What’s wrong?’ I told her that my brother was missing in action and she shared with me the fact that they had gotten a telegram the week before that her brother was missing in action. It was happening all around us.
“My father was very upset. He wasn’t a man who showed it terribly much then–he was still very busy. But within two or three years we sold both of our farms and we moved into Leamington and my father had, I would say, a bit of a breakdown. He really then started mourning. He started calling for Fred and there was a six-month period where he really went through the traumatic business of getting through his grieving, which he had not done before, so it was very tough on him.”
Wyse and the relatives of the other crew members visited the recovery site two days before the funeral: “I’d been told about the Messerschmitt that shot them down, and to have been able to see this, it hurts. You wonder what they were thinking, what fear was in their hearts…. I stood there and I cried, but I also felt that we know now…. We were able to go to the visitation. My husband Derek and I and one of the other family members stood there and we looked at these three coffins. I was able to lay my hand on each of those coffins and say, ‘Goodbye, Fred. I love you!’
Delegation members spoke favorably of the funeral service which put the trio to rest alongside their five crewmates in Geraardsbergen Communal Cemetery, about 40 kilometres southwest of the Belgian capital of Brussels. Soil from Parliament Hill was sprinkled on the three caskets. Relatives and veterans offered readings.
“This has been one of the proudest days of my life,” said Wyse. “I was so deeply touched by the honor that was bestowed on my brother…. It’s just been overwhelming…. It was so wonderful to have all these people working together. I don’t think we ever know or realize what love is in the comrades. It just poured out today. It was wonderful.”
Hundreds of Belgian citizens turned out for the funeral. Also attending from Brazil was the German pilot Drewes who shot down LW682. He was introduced to Wyse. “He held my hand,” she said. “I just didn’t know what to say, so I let him hug me, but I didn’t hug him back. I think he was trying to say ‘I’m sorry.’ We had German prisoners of war on our farm and I understand he was just doing a job, but that doesn’t make me embrace him, even now. It was thrust upon me so quickly. Maybe I thought it would be a betrayal to my brother.”
The president of the 426 Sqdn. association, Larry Motiuk of Ottawa, described his reaction to the funeral: “It was one of the most moving experiences a lot of us have had, burying our three comrades.”
Motiuk is full of information: During WW II the squadron participated in 268 operations, dispatching 3,233 flights and losing 91 aircraft. Fully 67 per cent of the sorties were done in the Halifax. “The squadron number is 426. Our war dead totalled 426. It’s an amazing coincidence,” he said. “I’ve tracked down where everyone is buried–49 cemeteries in seven countries…. We had 115 who have no known grave; now it’s 112.”
Kjarsgaard of the Halifax Aircraft Assoc. trumpeted the Canadian contribution to the air war: “We had the 4th largest air force in WW II. We are a nation of airmen…. Our bomber crews were the best in WW II….”
The Royal Air Force ran Bomber Command, but 6 Group was a Canadian component and 28,000 of its 39,000 missions–that’s 70 per cent–were done in the Halifax, he said. The Halifax was “the long-distance sword” the Canadians used to take the war to Germany, he said, and 11 of our 14 heavy bomber squadrons flew the plane at one time or another, with about 30,000 Canadians serving as aircrew or groundcrew for the plane that was commonly called a Hallie or, in endearing deprecation, a Halibag. The statistics also indicate that 426 Sqdn. was fairly typical in flying 67 per cent of its sorties in the Halifax.
In 1995 the Halifax association recovered another plane from a lake in Norway. Artifacts from LW682 will be used in the association’s ongoing restoration of the first plane, which has been donated to the RCAF Memorial Museum in Trenton, Ont., where it will be displayed.
The Heritage Department had assisted with the Norway recovery project “because it was bringing back into Canada a piece of our heritage,” said Charles Gruchy, director general of heritage policy, so it was natural to support the Halifax recovery in Belgium, which had the added benefit of helping bring about a conclusion for the families.
Physically, the Halifax reconstruction is a big job. “It’s a big aircraft–a 104-foot wingspan and 71 feet long,” Kjarsgaard said. “The all-up weight, with full fuel and a bomb load, was 63,000 to 65,000 pounds.” The project involves a worldwide search for parts, but it’s more than that. It’s a mission to create “a memorial to Canadian bomber crews” and it has become a consuming passion for Kjarsgaard.
“My concern now is that the aircraft won’t be done in time for veterans to see it,” he said, “so my focus is on fund-raising. In the next six to 12 months we’ve got to come up with massive amounts of cash to finish this thing–$250,000 is the estimate. We hope to have a lot of it done by the spring of 1999 for the 75th anniversary of the RCAF and have it completed by 2000.”
People wishing to make a donation or seek information about the Halifax bomber reconstruction project can write to: Halifax Aircraft Assoc., 5444 Yonge Street, Suite 1905, Willowdale, ON, M2N 6J4.