RIDING MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK — At Riding Mountain National Park’s 75th anniversary celebration last year, George Roper was introduced as someone who "dropped in" for a visit many years ago.
Boy, did he ever.
It was a 1944 training mission during the Second World War. Roper, the radio operator, was making his way to the front of the aircraft to get its location from the navigator so he could radio it back to the base in Winnipeg.
On his way, Roper looked out the side window and saw something that wasn't supposed to be there: the tops of spruce trees level with the plane. "What the--" he recalls saying.
The next thing he remembers is waking up from a wild sleep. He dreamt a pal was trying to shake him awake back at the barracks in Winnipeg. "Rise and shine!" his friend kept repeating.
When Roper opened his eyes, he wasn't in his bunk but upside down in smouldering aircraft wreckage scattered across a spruce bog. A wedge cap dangled from a spruce bough. One crew member was moaning and would let out an occasional gut-wrenching scream.
Roper, now 88, reached by telephone at a seniors' residence in Camrose, Alta., said he can never forget that day and what followed -- acts of determination and heroism so inspiring that park officials brought Roper back to visit the crash site last year.
The April 30, 1944 plane crash of the Avro Anson Mk1 is one of 13 in Riding Mountain since it was designated a national park in 1933. The first plane crash was in 1937 by a farm kid in a home-built aircraft. The majority of crashes have been flight training missions around the time of the Second World War.
In one case, two planes on training missions flying from Winnipeg to Yorkton, Sask. flew too close and touched wings, coming down near where the park's bison enclosure is today. In the park's last crash, in 1947, three British Commonwealth Training Program planes were playing at dog fighting when two of the planes, one piloted by an Australian and the other by an American, collided. A third plane, piloted by a Canadian, caught fire but managed to fly safely to Dauphin.
It had been a low cloud ceiling when the Avro Anson started out after lunch that day in 1944. The crew was in flight training in preparation for combat overseas.
Their training mission that day was to fly in a triangle from Winnipeg to Miniota (southwestern Manitoba) to McCreary (east of Riding Mountain) and back to Winnipeg. They were to drop down low enough to spot landmarks at Miniota and McCreary, like the name on a grain elevator.
The low cloud made flying tricky because the crew was required to fly by 'dead reckoning,' meaning by sight and calculations of their position. But the navigator forgot to include the headwind in his calculations. He reckoned they were well past Riding Mountain, a mistake that meant a 2,000-foot difference in elevation. When the pilot dropped the plane down to spy their whereabouts, he flew straight into the ground.
Most of the wreckage is still in the bush, and it makes for a sombre hike 65 years later. It's especially interesting if you happen to be accompanied by park interpreter Brett Smith, and Ed Stozek, author of his second self-published book, A Slice of the Parkland: Circa the late 1890s-1970s, that includes the story of the 1944 crash.
Along the way, Smith pointed out various signs of wildlife, like wolf scat, grouse scat, tufts of bear fur, scars on poplar trees made by the claws of climbing bears, and a pair of moose tracks (the hoof has a wider splay than an elk's). He also pointed out a "puff ball" mushroom the size of a potato, whose powder was once used by early peoples to stop bleeding and heal wounds.
111A steady rain was falling when Roper regained consciousness. They'd crashed at exactly 3.44 p.m. Roper could tell because his shattered Rolex watch had stopped at that moment.
He had somehow escaped serious injury other than a broken shin, cracked length-wise, that caused his leg to swell up so badly that his pant leg became skin tight. The navigator, Leading Aircraftman F. C. Webb, was also lucky, suffering just a bad facial gash.
The pilot, Sgt. G. H. Hill, who occasionally screamed, was not. His body was completely crushed. The navigator's apprentice, Ray Lawrence, was also alive but his body was so broken that one side of him hung like a rag. Lawrence had been hit by the first tree the plane crashed into.
"He was smashed from shoulder to ankle, and never had a bit of pain. He just talked calm. Thank God he did! It just brought you back to earth so that you got down to what had to be done," Roper said in the telephone interview from the Rosealta Lodge in Camrose, where he lives.
Rain fell steadily. Otherwise, the forest was completely silent. Using a nearby fire axe, Roper cut his way out of what remained of the canvas and plywood aircraft. He tried to assist Lawrence, who was lying on sopping muskeg.
Roper took off his sweater to make a pillow for Lawrence. Then he managed to pull away the tail section of the airplane and placed it under Lawrence. He pulled out airplane seat parts to further brace Lawrence's body. He and Webb then ripped open some parachutes and made a crude tent to keep the rain off him.
Pilot Hill was barely alive. When Roper tried to move him next, the pilot gave out a blood-curdling cry that shook up Roper emotionally. The pilot died a short time later.
The radio didn't work. Roper and Webb had to walk out of the bush somehow.
Fortunately, Roper grew up on a farm in the Alberta foothills and had hunted since he was a tyke. He oriented himself in the bush by the colouration of the bark on poplar trees: lighter bark is on the south side where it got the most sun, and darker on the north side.
So they started to make their way east, Roper limping badly on his fractured leg. Webb was from London, England, and had never been in the bush in his life. "He kept crying, 'We're lost, we're lost,' until I got so angry I told him to shut up or stay with the plane," Roper recalled.
Roper used the axe to double-blaze trees, chopping out strips of bark on opposite sides of the tree, as landmarks so they could find their way back to the plane. Even so, it was remarkable they didn't become lost or discover they were going in circles. But they didn't, and Roper and Webb trudged through the forest for about seven kilometres and reached the park's eastern boundary.
It was around dusk and foggy, but Roper was able to make out what looked like cattle in the clearing. Then he saw what he thought to be the legs of a man.
111But the farmer siphoned gas out of his water pump and tractor -- it amounted to just a gallon -- and got the truck started after several cranks. Then they drove to nearest town Kelwood, about 10 kilometres away.
Every light in Kelwood was out except at the St. Michael Anglican Church. They could hear singing inside. When the men burst through the church door, one by one people stopped singing and turned to stare at them. What did they want? the minister asked. Help, they replied.
They'd come to the right place. The men in the congregation, still dressed in their Sunday best and smooth-soled shoes, followed them back to the farm. An RCMP officer at the church had his horse and rode to the farm.
They tried to go back into Riding Mountain to rescue Lawrence, using coal oil lanterns for light. Roper could hardly walk so he rode the farmer's work horse, an extraordinary feat of will considering all he'd been through.
But it was too dark and they were getting lost themselves. It was approaching 2 a.m. when they gave up. They started out again at the first light of dawn.
Roper thought for sure Lawrence was dead by now but underestimated that amazing man's determination to live. Lawrence had become unbearably thirsty and managed to roll over to drink from the muskeg. But he couldn't roll himself back again.
The problem was if he passed out, his face would lay in water and he would drown. So Lawrence held his head up as long as he could, then let it fall into the water while holding his breath, and he repeated the exercise over and over. He did that for seven hours.
"I will never forget him," Roper wrote of Lawrence, in an account of the ordeal written in 1988, provided by local historian Stozek. Neither has he ever forgotten "those dear people of Kelwood. I learned more about mankind in those 24 hours than I probably will learn all the rest of my days."
That was not the end of the story. What followed was the long, arduous task of moving Lawrence on a gurney over the rises, ravines and deadfall of Riding Mountain. He was taken to Neepawa Hospital and then flown to Winnipeg.
He survived. Roper met him a few years later and he was walking and looked almost fully recovered. It isn't known what happened to Webb. Roper returned to Alberta to farm.
Years later, people lost track of the location of the wreckage. Bob McCrae, son of the farmer who helped Roper that night, spent two years searching by horseback over Riding Mountain, along with his daughter, until they finally found it.
The wreckage is scattered over an area of about 25 metres. A plaque sits on the ground to commemorate the event. Some of the aircraft was removed by the department of defence, and some by souvenir collectors. Any visitors are urged to leave the site as they find it so it can continue to tell its story of tragedy and the triumph of the human spirit.