‘We were a lucky group’

Plunging 300 metres a minute, 12 Canadian armed forced members struggled to survive a crash months before the end of the war

Tofino and its magnificent Long Beach, a serene playground for surfers, hikers, whale-watchers and nature-lovers, was Canada’s front line during the Second World War, buzzing with bombers overhead, ready to bomb any enemy attacks approaching from across the Pacific.

“During that period, there were military posts up and down the beach, and it was covered by barbed wire, ready to repel any invasions from the Japanese,” recalled Renee Wissink, manager of resource conservation for the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve.

Decades after that war, one of the military conflicts we pause to remember in honour of the war dead on Remembrance Day Monday at 11 a.m., it’s hard to imagine the fear of war on Canadian soil.

But an airfield was hastily constructed at Tofino after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbour and radar stations cropped up along Vancouver Island’s west coast, including at a now-popular tourist stop, Radar Hill.

A reminder of that wartime activity not listed in official tourist guides is buried deep in the woods, accessible only by a tough hour-plus slog through a boggy marsh: the wreckage of a Canso bomber, a Canadian-made flying boat that crashed into the side of a hill in February, 1945, just months before the end of the war.

It had a crew of 12 on board, as well as 3,400 litres of fuel and four 100-kilogram depth charges intended for enemy submarines. All on board survived the crash, but the plane did not. It’s been in the bush for the almost 69 years since, salvaged of its valuable parts and covered in graffiti.

“It’s still pretty much intact,” said Gary van der Leer, chief mechanic for the Victoria Flying Club, who has made the “treacherous” trek through the bush and bog to see the wreckage more than once. “There’s not much corrosion on it.”

But gone are its propellers and the two bubble or “blister” windows that van der Leer said were most certainly carted off by aviation buffs or those who knew the original parts would fetch thousands of dollars from those restoring wartime bombers.

He said it’s sad to see the graffiti, but “you can’t stop kids from doing what they do.”

None of that detracts from the feeling that washes over him when he catches a glimpse of Canada’s military history.

“You get kind of an eerie feeling when you come across it,” he said. “You think, how does this plane go from flying to ending up stuck in the side of the hill?” It’s a scene, at least for the immediate future, accessible only to those hardy enough to attempt the hike, as Parks Canada decides what, if anything, to do with the plane.

On Feb. 10, 1945, the Canso 11007, with pilot Ron Scholes and 11 crew on board, including one female air force member, took off from Tofino, after repairs to the port engine, to fly the two hours back to Coal Harbour farther north on Vancouver Island. It was dark and late, 23:00 hours.

“Seconds after lifting off and before we had single-engine flying speed or adequate altitude, the port engine lost power,” wrote crewman Lance Lake in a document provided by the Victoria Flying Club.

Scholes attempted to return to the airport with the remaining engine on full throttle, but Lake could “vividly remember” the controls showing them dropping 300 metres a minute before the plane hit the trees. Scholes expertly sent the plane into a full stall to slow its crash into the trees, a move co-pilot Lace Knechtel called in his written account “sheer guts” and the reason they weren’t killed, considering the half-ton of explosives on board.

“We were a lucky group, with only a few broken bones, some cuts and many bruises,” wrote Lake.

But the nose and starboard engine were ripped off in the crash, and Lake found himself standing next to flaming wreckage and watching fuel gushing out of the ruptured tanks.

It was Knechtel who put out the starboard engine fire with an extinguisher, a “heroic action (that) saved all our lives,” wrote Lake.

Unable to raise anyone at the Tofino airfield on the hand-cranked radio and reluctant to send up a distress flare for fear of igniting the gas fumes, the airmen fashioned a tent out of parachutes in a nearby clearing to await help.

In the early hours of the next day, they heard a plane starting up at the airfield, and Lake launched a flare from a safe distance.

They then watched in amazement – and fear – as the rescuing plane dropped a parachute flare in response. They would later recount their incredible luck at how it missed hitting anything flammable.

The crew were rescued by a ground team 11 hours after the aircraft crashed and the army later returned to the site to remove the depth charges and detonate them, creating a sixmetre crater that remains as a waterfilled hole today, and to retrieve the electronics and machine guns.

Parks Canada agrees the plane is an important wartime relic that can teach Canadians about the role the West Coast played in defending the country against enemy attacks (although he said the only attack on Canadian soil was the couple of shells fired from a Japanese submarine at Estevan Point, north of Tofino).

It has registered the spot as an archeological site as a formal record of its existence, but you won’t find any Parks Canada information on how to find it.

Parks Canada doesn’t encourage people to see the wreck for themselves because hikers can – and do – get lost. They also damage the bog and face danger on the walk along the narrow shoulders of the busy highway between Tofino and Ucluelet that hikers need to walk to access the route.

However, Parks Canada has marked the trail with pink flagging, signs and ropes, to try to reduce the number of times (still two to three a year) they get called out to rescue the lost.

And it recognizes interest in the crash site and is “exploring options” on how to provide information about the site for visitors or even interpret the hike by making it accessible, if it ever finds room in its budget, said Wissink. A display on the plane may be added to the Kwisitis Visitor Centre at Wickaninnish Beach.

“We are worried about the integrity of the aircraft and if people learn about its role in Canada’s military history, hopefully there will be a greater respect for it,” said Wissink.

He said the Canadian Museum of Flight in Langley years ago expressed interest in reclaiming the fuselage to restore the bomber but plans got bogged down because of costs and logistics.

Museum manager Terry Brunner, who once attempted to make it to the site but turned back because of rain, said the museum has no plans to recover the plane, which he said serves as an unofficial cairn to Canada’s fallen soldiers.

“I think it’s best left where it is,” he said.

Van der Leer agreed, saying, “It’s the only way to really appreciate what it must have been like for the crew to be stuck out in the middle of nowhere after the crash.”

“It’s been preserving itself quite well,” he said. “I think it’s going to be there for a long time.”

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