‘A visit to the 1953 crash site of an American Convair B-36, Nut Cove, NL’ |
I was so pleased that I had finally made it to a place I had been wanting to visit for so long. It was a magnificent Newfoundland late August day, the sky a brilliant blue with fluffy clouds caressing each other as they moved across their blue carpet. A slight warm breeze was blowing, and the smell of the trees combined with the view from my vantage point at the top of the mountain, was an experience well worth the long steep hike to get to this site. The calm seas of the bay in the distance, the sparkling water of Smith Sound just below me, the evergreen trees spreading as far as the eye could see, several small ponds tickled with waterlily pads, the blueberry bushes, and even the lichen on the humongous rocks, were all welcoming signs to me. Yes, it was a perfect day, with a panorama unsurpassed in Nut Cove, Trinity Bay, Newfoundland.
However, the scene below me was disturbing and sad. The wreckage of an American Convair B-36, six engine military airplane, with a span of 230 feet from one wingtip to another, a bomber known as ‘The Peacemaker’ had crashed on this mountain side in the middle of the night on March 18, 1953, with the loss of all twenty-three airmen, one of them being Brigadier General Richard Ellsworth. The aircraft had gone dreadfully off course in bad weather, and the results were spread out over the hillside below where I was standing. The enormity of the impact, and the loss of lives, seared my soul as I let it all sink into my heart and mind.
Accessing this crash site requires a steep forty minute hike to the top of the ridge. A sign, placed by the 515 Air Cadet Squadron, Atlantic Region, marks the beginning of the trail, and tells me that the climb up is at least forty minutes. The trail is rough in spots but has several resting benches that are well used. I started my climb, my camera and essential items secured in my backpack.
Once I start to see pieces of metal I knew I was about to see the place where so many airmen had died. The wind whistles through the pieces of metal, and occasionally the sound of a piece of metal swinging in the breeze, is a stark reminder of what happened here. It is an area that causes me to speak in a hush and I am in awe of the massive engines, the fuselage, still partly intact, and the debris still evident after fifty two years.
The broad spread wreckage and metal is in direct contrast to the beauty that surrounds it. Small buttercup flowers and blueberry bushes are growing up through pieces of metal that are reflecting the suns’ rays. It is a heart wrenching sight that lies before me.
This catastrophe here started to unfold in the Azores on the morning of March 18th, 1953,when the large American Convair B-36 left to fly to their home base in South Dakota. The flight path would take them, on this twenty-five-hour journey, across the Atlantic Ocean and over Newfoundland. The plan was to fly low then increase to a higher altitude starting twenty miles from Newfoundland in order to allow them to fly over the mountainous terrain of the island. However, the large flying machine reached Newfoundland about one and one half hours earlier than they expected, and had not reached the altitude they would need to avoid the rocky hillsides. At 4:00 A.M. visibility was poor as the huge plane flew straight through sleet, fog and freezing drizzle, right into the granite cliff, hitting the 896-foot high ridge at 800 feet, at a ground speed of 202 knots. Nothing could survive the massive collision of aircraft and a granite wall.
Nobody knows what transpired inside the aircraft. There was nobody left alive to fill in the blanks. There is some evidence that the large aircraft was trying to gain altitude at the last minute. However, everything known about the crash was speculation as the pieces of the plane were examined.
The aircraft was ripped apart, wreckage was strewn over half a mile, the crew died on impact, an impact that was followed by a huge explosion and fireball. The plane that was so off course, was so large, had such poor radar, and that carried men with loved ones and families waiting for them at home, had come to a tragic end.
The loggers working on the hill heard the noise, saw the sky light up with fire, and quickly arranged for a search party to hike through the deep snow to the scene. They found a huge burning wrecked plane, engulfed in flames, and no survivors. From then on the frenetic activity centered around trying to do damage control and recover the bodies.
It is fifty-two years later now. Wreckage still lies where it landed. An aircraft wing, the fuselage, the engines, and debris are everywhere. Much of the metal has been removed over the years, yet much still remains. It is the graveyard of one of the biggest aircraft flown at that time, an aircraft with massive bombing capacity, but was known as ‘The Peacekeeper’, never having fired a shot in anger. I have a shivering feeling as I try to absorb it all. Then I notice what looks like a propellor in a block of stone about forty feet further up on the highest point of the disaster area. I had to see what it was, what it said, and look at the tragic site from a higher vantage point. I climbed up to what was indeed a propellor, painted black, mounted on a stone block which has a plaque attached to it telling the names of the lost crew.
From this very high level, the view is endless. The massive pieces of the huge wreck, the wings, and other large pieces of the ill-fated flight, the bay in the distance appears closer, the trees stretch for miles, the sky feels closer, and little wild flowers are growing here as well. I have the disquieting feeling of having invaded a graveyard, of feeling the need to be as quiet as possible. I notice other people have arrived and are in the same quiet mode.
I have a distinct sense of what a story of loss this site tells. I read the names on the plaque and wonder about the lost crew, and of their families that had to accept that loss and continue on.
I take some photos, then I sit and read each and every name on the Memorial. I have heard the stories of how difficult it was to retrieve anything from the crash site because Nut Cove and Burgoynes Cove were much more isolated that long ago. Boats were used to cross over to Lower Lance Cove with anything the investigators retrieved from the wreck, including the remains of those lost.
That night took many more lives as well. A Boeing SB-29 Superfortress and its’ crew from Harmon Air force Base in Stephenville, Newfoundland, was lost and never heard from again after locating the crash site from the air. The plane and its’ crew of ten were never found.
I feel a profound sadness, a question as to ‘Why?’ these things happen. There are no answers. The tiny flowers nod in the breeze, the blueberries grow in the nooks and crannies of the rugged rocks, and life seemingly has gone on in this area, with help from Mother Nature and her drive for renewal.
I think of the families of these lost lives, how their grief would be so profound, their loss so traumatic. I can only hope they went on to grow and blossom as the hardy Newfoundland wild flowers that grace the area where their lost loved one touched the earth.
I glance up again at the Propellor Memorial, and read the words inscribed on it. Words that are all we have to help us understand, but I do not understand it yet. I feel just a sorrow and awe that come from seeing such a massive scene of destruction.
Written on the Propellor Memorial are the words from Isaiah 40:31;
"They shall mount up with wings as eagles, they shall run and not be weary; and they shall walk and not faint."
May it be so for those left behind, as I am sure it is for those who have left.