by Natalie Salat
Canadian and Dutch military personnel join in the funeral of three WW II airmen.
Nearly 60 years after their death, three Canadian airmen whose plane had been shot down in a WW II air battle over the Dutch village of Wilnis were finally buried last November with full military honours.
Warrant Officer Robert Moulton of Brockville, Ont., Flight Sergeant Joseph Thibaudeau of St-Eustache, Que., and Flt. Sgt. Joseph White of Thorold, Ont., were hailed as heroes for choosing to go down with their Vickers Wellington bomber rather than put the citizens of Wilnis at risk.
On Nov. 27, hundreds of Dutch citizens joined the airmen’s next of kin, dignitaries and military personnel from Canada and the Netherlands to pay homage to the men, who were laid to rest at the Wilnis General Cemetery following a short memorial service at the Dutch Reform Church.
“I am honoured to have had the opportunity to participate in such a touching tribute to these brave Canadian men,” said Carmen Provenzano, then-parliamentary secretary to the Veterans Affairs Minister Rey Pagtakhan.
Phil Michael, who accompanied the airmen’s next of kin from Canada as part of the Veterans Affairs delegation, described the funeral as “a very moving experience. The family members were all quite appreciative, and (had) a real sense of closure.”
The burial was the final act in a tale that had begun in the early hours of May 5, 1943, when a German fighter plane attacked the Canadians’ bomber over Wilnis, just south of Amsterdam. The Canadians were returning from a successful night raid on Dortmund, Germany. Moulton was the pilot, accompanied by Thibaudeau, White and Flt. Sgt. Howard Hoddinott and WO Gordon Carter. The battered plane which was still carrying a few bombs caught fire and began losing altitude. Moulton ordered his four crew to bail out. Hoddinott and Carter managed to parachute to safety, but were taken prisoner by the enemy.
Meanwhile, Moulton, 22, managed to steer his plane away from Wilnis, averting disaster for the town. The bomber crashed in a watery peat bog and promptly sank. Moulton’s heroic action cost him his life, as well as that of Thibaudeau, 21, and White, 20. While some of the pilot’s remains were found and buried in the local cemetery the next day, there was no sign of Thibaudeau and White. For years their families and the two surviving crew had no idea what had become of them.
Decades later, two men from Wilnis, historian-teacher Jan Rouwenhorst and Jan van Loo, set up the Salvage Vickers Wellington 1943 Foundation. For seven years the group raised money and campaigned to have the crash site excavated so that the airmen could have a proper burial. “These men who died should have a known grave,” said Rouwenhorst.
In September the Royal Netherlands Air Force Salvage Team recovered the remains of White and Thibaudeau, along with the missing remains of Moulton. The men were identified using records provided by the Canadian government. The unit also excavated hundreds of pieces of the wrecked aircraft, including both of its engines, several bombs and some of the airmen’s personal effects.
The Canadian government made arrangements for the airmen’s burial. The Department of National Defence organized the funeral, providing clergy, piper, bugler, honour guard and pallbearers, while Veterans Affairs Canada’s organized the journey for the next of kin. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission chose the burial site.
The Dutch military, the municipality of De Ronde Venen and the village of Wilnis also played a major role, noted Michael, VAC’s director of national and international memorials. “Wilnis is a small town and we had a lot of support from the regional municipality, the military, and even the schools were closed.”
On the morning of the funeral, a hundred Dutch schoolchildren lined the streets leading up to the church wearing poppies and waving Canadian flags. “They all understood what was going on. Their teachers had educated them in terms of the significance … and they were there with tears in their eyes.”
Hundreds of people streamed into the small local church for the memorial service, among them nearly 20 relatives of the entire crew, including the brothers of the doomed airmen and the widow of Gordon Carter, one of the survivors. Most came from Canada, but some arrived from Scotland and the United States. Remarkably, said Michael, this occasion was the first time the crew’s next of kin ever met.
The funeral service was conducted in English, French and Dutch by two Canadian padres and a Dutch padre. Serge April, Canadian ambassador to the Netherlands, read John Magee Jr.’s poem, High Flight, which begins: “Oh I have slipped the surly bonds of earth and danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings…”
At a private ceremony later in the hotel, the padres presented each of the families with something from the personal effects of the airmen. “It was very emotional,” Michael said. After decades of not knowing, the families could finally come to terms with what happened on that fateful May day in 1943.