When Royal Air Force Sgt. David Langlands left to serve in the Second World War, his friends and family were understandably concerned.
They would miss the man who was studying Morse code to become an RAF radio operator, and who helped others plant Victory Gardens in his community. They worried for him, but not for long.
“We were all relieved to find out he was posted to Canada, for training purposes,” recalls Derek Watson. “Safe haven.”
Watson chokes back a lump in his throat, tears in his eyes.
His family and the Langlands lived in a shared home in the early 1940s, he explains, and the two befriended each other. They became as close as brothers, with Watson the younger of the two.
One day, the families received a letter saying he would be coming back to England soon.
“We were looking forward to him coming home,” he said. “Sadly, this was not to be.”
Langlands was 33 on June 1, 1945. As any visitor to Thompson Regional Park can now learn, he was among a crew of 11 men who died during a routine training exercise across the rugged Mt. Cheam range. Their B-24 Liberator KK241 crashed into the top peak of Mt. Welsh. They had been stationed in Abbotsford, and were headed out on an early morning training flight that would traverse parts of southern B.C.
Their story is written on an impressive memorial erected in the park recently.
When their plane went missing, one of the largest search efforts in modern Canadian history ensued. Over 16 days, 53 aircraft and 200 men scoured 700,000 miles. When the crash site was finally found, a quiet service was held on the mountainside. The crash site has since been lost to the ever changing mountainside. Decades later, a plaque was placed in the valley to commemorate the men. But that, too, was lost at some point.
Still, the men were not entirely forgotten.
On Saturday, the lives and memories of those 11 men were honoured in a moving ceremony unveiling the brand new monument. Thompson Regional Park is a tranquil spot along Chilliwack Lake Road, about six kilometres from the Vedder bridge. The monument sits near the back of the park, and its centrepiece is a granite slab with the men’s names inscribed. Their story is also etched out in two more slabs that reach out to each side like airplane wings. And sitting in the very front is an engine from their downed airplane, recovered from Airplane Creek.
The effort to properly and permanently honour these men began again in earnest a couple of years ago. It’s been a colossal effort by several parties, including Air Cadets from squadrons in Abbotsford (861 Silver Fox) and Chilliwack (Airwolf 147), Legion Branch 280, 192 Construction Engineering Flight, and about 30 private companies. Their tasks ranged from research and design, to fundraising for the project.
One of the most important tasks for organizer Ron Shore was to bring family members of the men to the ceremony, to share the monument with them, and to hear their stories.
Watson traveled from Victoria, B.C. to be here this weekend, and share the story of his lost friendship.
Two of Langlands’ nieces also made the trip, although they came from Norway and the United Kingdom to be here.
Francis Langland’s message to the crowd of about 300 was simply a list of names. She carefully and clearly read the names of Canadian soldiers who died in Norway, and are buried there.
Just as the Royal Air Force members who died in Canada will be remembered forever, she said, Canada’s soldiers are remembered in Norway each year, on May 17.
Her sister, Fay Jenkin, also spoke. She said the monument was “humbling, and so greatly appreciated.”
“This is a beautiful, grand memorial,” she said.
Nick Hammond traveled from New Zealand, a nephew to Gordon Hammond.
“It has been a long journey to be here,” he said, to realize some closure for the families who lost these men. He heard about the memorial by a stroke of luck. While doing a bit of research recently on the internet, he fell upon a news article about the project.
While his mother has passed and, of course, his grandmother, he did manage to bring a special family heirloom with him.
“I brought my father’s watch for a part of him to be here with me,” he said, holding his arm up.
“We are a small but extended war family,” he said of other survivors. “Death has touched us all and we all have a sadness.”
His grandmother took the news of the loss of her son the hardest, he added.
“She collapsed into tears and never quite recovered,” he said.
He read the War Mother’s Prayer, and thanked those who put the project together.
“Thank you very much,” he said. “These boys will not be forgotten. Thank you, Canada.”
Numerous speakers took to the podium, including Legion president Bill Higgdon, Mark Strahl, MLA Laurie Throness, and FVRD Area E Director Orion Engar.
The day was marked with heavy rains, blocking the view of the mountain range, but the sky opened up in time for a flyover from the Fraser Blues Formation Demonstration team. They crossed over the park three times in formation, followed by a final ‘missing man’ formation.
There are still few final touches for the park’s memorial, Shore said after the ceremony.
“We are still short $18,000,” he said, and are accepting donations. They are also hoping somebody will chip in for some sod to be placed around the monument, where the ground was disturbed from the installation.
He’s worked tirelessly over the last year to get the project completed, and was thrilled to see it all come together on Saturday.
“It was absolutely exhilarating,” he said. “It was phenomenal.”
Donations under $500 can be made through their GoFundMe account, while larger donations can be organized through Shore, by calling him at 604-857-2488.
June 6, 1945, CHILLIWACK PROGRESS ARCHIVES: Mists shroud fate of airmen lost five days.