Portraits Of A Farewell

“Flying through a monsoon is something you only want to do once in a lifetime. Honest, Don, they are grim. If it was just the rain it wouldn’t be too bad, but those damn clouds have so many winds and air currents going in about 80 different ways that it is only by the grace of God that the wings stay on.”

Warrant Officer William Rogers was 22 when he wrote those words in a letter to his younger brother, Don. Seventeen days after writing the letter–on June 21, 1945–Rogers and five other Canadian airmen died when the military transport plane they were on crashed in the Burmese jungle, probably because of severe monsoon weather (Recovery In The Jungle, March/April).

Almost 52 years later–on March 5, 1997–the remains of the six airmen were buried together in a teak casket in the Taukkyan War Cemetery on the outskirts of Yangon, Myanmar (formerly Rangoon, Burma). The funeral service was the final farewell to Rogers, Pilot Officer William Kyle of Perth, Ont., Flight Sergeant Charles McLaren of Campbellville, Ont., Flying Officer David Cameron of Oshawa, Ont., WO Stanley Cox of Beresford, Man., and Leading Aircraftman Cornelius Kopp of Duchess, Alta.

Organized by Veterans Affairs Canada, the burial delegation was led by Secretary of State for Veterans Lawrence MacAulay. It included 26 next of kin and 23 veterans from the wartime 435 and 436 Royal Canadian Air Force squadrons. Also participating were 15 members from the Winnipeg-based 435 Transport and Rescue Squadron, representatives from veterans groups, including Dominion President Joe Kobolak, and 12 members from the VAC recovery team that retrieved the remains of the aircrew last December.

For me, the journey to Myanmar was a pilgrimage of portraits. As an artist, I set out to illustrate the funeral and the emotional impact it had on its participants. While there, my mind took snapshots of time and place. Automatically, I tended to remember the moments, not the words. The faces of the next of kin, including Don’s, stand clear in my memory. “Those kids gave everything they had to our country, and the country responded by giving them a decent burial….I’ve never felt so proud to be a Canadian.”

At the cemetery, black and white photographs of the crew were set on a table along with six sets of five medals and six RCAF caps. A senior officer’s cap and a sword were displayed on top of the casket that was draped with the Canadian flag. I remember the flag being stirred by a gentle breeze.

After the funeral service, in a shady corner of the cemetery, members of the VAC recovery team presented Philip Magee with his father’s watch and lighter which had been recovered at the crash site. “I felt grateful to these guys for finding it,” said Magee, whose father was WO Cox. “This made it more definite. To me, it proves that he was part of that group that went down.”

Bob Craig was one of the last men to speak to William Rogers. Craig was also a pilot with the wartime squadron. On the day of the crash, he was flying military transport out of the base at Tulihal near Imphal in northeastern India. “I knew Bill Rogers really well. He was the captain of that aircraft. We had agreed to meet afterwards. He took off 10 minutes before me. This monsoon was over to my left and I steered clear of it because I knew how dangerous they were. We waited at Myitkyina, (now in Myanmar) but Bill never showed up. I made five or six trips to that base afterwards, but I never saw a sign.”

The crash happened more than 50 years ago, but until now no one has had a chance to say goodbye. The next of kin and the veterans I met at the funeral told me their stories, and I have tried to capture–with color and stroke–a little of their hearts.
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