The mystery of officers lost to Lake Muskoka has been solved
By Neil Etienne
Under Lake Muskoka’s murky surface, the shattered remains of one of the world’s only known Northrop Nomad A-17As- a Second World War plane – rests silently in wait.
Eighty feet of water, silty sands, algae and 71 years of mystery shrouded its location until recently. Now, whether or not the plane will ever again see the unfiltered light of day is the focus of a group who in 2004, took up the hunt for her hidden grave and the remains of the two military officers who fell under Lake Muskoka’s icy surface Dec. 13, 1940.
“It was quite a sensation when we saw the first images of the plane,” said Al Bacon, member with the Lost Airmen of Muskoka Project (LAMP). “It made the effort worth every minute and I’m so proud we stuck with it; it is such an honour to have done this for our fallen comrades and I truly think we’ve done something for history.”
More importantly, Bacon said, LAMP has honoured the families of the Nomad’s pilot Peter Campbell and his fellow officer Ted Bates who perished in that mid-December crash.
“Now that we’ve located the crash site, that we’ve seen it, been down there and returned some of their (the two officers’) personal effects to the families, we know it gives them some closure,” said Bacon, a veteran of the Second World War, the Cold War and a former merchant marine.
The two men’s only existing earth-bound markers on the Commonwealth Air Force Memorial in Ottawa are marked as ‘grave unknown’.
“That will be changed, their grave is known,” Bacon explained. “It’s an incredible feeling to have this one mystery solved, but there’s a bit more we want to do yet, we still want to see if we can get her to the surface.”
While Bacon and LAMP attempt to pen the Nomad’s final chapter, hoping it’s one of a phoenix rising, her early tale is one of fascination and tragedy.
Although an American-made plane made in the early parts of the war when the US was still neutral, the Nomad was purchased by the Canadian military, boasting a powerful 825 HP, nine-cylinder engine to churn a three-bladed, single prop. Standing a total of about 12 feet tall, with an approximately 37-foot wingspan, each of the propeller’s blades reached out eight feet. It was a powerful plane and decent to manoeuvre
The Borden-based plane and her two-man crew set off Dec. 13 as part of a rescue mission with 50 other military planes, searching for a training flight that had gone missing in terrible winter storms a day earlier. As the Nomad flew over Lake Muskoka, it began to circle and bank, intent on landing to refuel. Unfortunately, a second search plane was in the same process and the two planes collided, sending both into the ice-covered lake below. The remains of the two men from the second plane and their RCAF Nomad 3521 were eventually found after another massive aerial search, but no trace of Bates, Campbell nor their A17-A were discovered.
That is until LAMP approached the Ontario Provincial Police and its underwater search and rescue team, pointing them to their best estimate of where the plane may be.
“If we didn’t have them (the OPP) the plane would still be hidden down there; all I can say to them is ‘Tuesentakk’ (Norwegian for 1,000 thank yous),” Bacon said.
Using lake surface scanning devices, the police were able to locate the crash site (to be kept secret to hinder scavengers and protect the final resting site of the officers) and eventually sent down both drivers and remote-controlled underwater crafts equipped with video cameras to confirm it was in fact the A17-A. Found closely scattered, the plane is in four main sections with its wings, the tail section and the main cabin severed from each other.
Bacon said upon investigation of the site, it appears the two planes clipped wings, sending the A17-A toppling over and down toward the ice. The engine had been pushed back into the fuselage, the rotor blades sheered, apparently from going through the ice and the landing gear remained in the upright position. Bacon said it looked as though the propellers had “chewed everything up”
“We had hoped it would be in better shape than it was, but it is salvageable,” he said, adding planes in similar condition have been pulled from waters before and restored, either for display or for actual flight again. If LAMP has its way, the A17-A will one day fly again. “Right now it’s entirely in the hands of the DND (Department of National Defence) and they will have the final decision; I will be talking with them very soon and plan to keep on them about getting it up.”
He added he is also working closely with the Canadian Warplane Heritage Society to find suitable hosts for the Nomad should it ever come to the surface.
As for the officers, ghostly traces remain; however, 70-plus years of exposure to algae left no discovered traces of bone. Police managed to raise several personal effects and clothing, including the gnarled remnants of a .38-calibre hand gun, a well-preserved fountain pen and a log book still partially legible, Bates’ nearly perfect gold ring baring his initials and found in his old gauntlet and Campbell’s personal cigarette case, still showing most of the inscription of his name. The brass buttons of their flight jackets still carried some shine, but maybe most incredible, according to Bacon, was that both officers’ ‘wings’ were discovered, “just like the day they put them on”.
As the pilot, Campbell had already earned his wings which were sewn on to his jacket. Ironically, Bates was to graduate to flight officer the day after his fateful crash and had his RCAF wings stuffed in his front pocket, waiting for the time he could officially don them on his uniform.
While the effort to raise the A17-A will continue – Bacon said the only other remaining one is on display in Dayton, Ohio – LAMP is aware of at least 16 other planes in Muskoka, none of which have been located. He said one is thought to be in Lake Rosseau and another in Skeleton Lake.
He added that between 1940 and ’45 some 10,000 men were lost during training in Canada. To put an end to even one mystery is a feeling he finds difficult to describe.
“These are our brothers and sisters; it’s an honour for us to be able to do this work on their behalf,” Bacon said.