From 1942 to 1944, during the Second World War, an average of five airmen lost their lives each week in air training accidents across Canada.
Flight training during wartime was a risky business, especially on the B.C. coast. Flying in unpredictable winds over mountainous and forested terrain, that claimed the lives of 1,240 trainees and instructors.
Many of those lives were lost in crashes on or near Vancouver Island. An operational training base at Patricia Bay in Victoria became the third busiest in B.C. and graduated more than 5,000 air crew, but also tallied 179 training deaths from that base alone.
A new exhibit at Vancouver Island Military Museum depicts the dangers and costs of flight training thousands of air crew in the unforgiving skies of the B.C. coast.
“It’s strictly on British Columbia, on the four bases that are here and on the searches for the aircraft that have been found on Vancouver Island afterwards,” said Brian McFadden, Vancouver Island Military Museum vice-president.
There are some well-known military aircraft crash sites on Vancouver Island. One, a Consolidated Canso bomber used to hunt enemy surface craft and submarines off the B.C. Coast, lies near Radar Hill, south of Tofino. The wreckage of a North American B-25 Mitchell bomber that crashed into a mountain in the Nanaimo Lakes watershed in 1944 lies in an undisclosed location, its crew buried near the wreckage.
In all, 57 crashes on Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands claimed the lives of airmen and instructors during the war. Some of those crash sites weren’t found for decades and remains of their crews never recovered. Others couldn’t be brought home because terrain and weather made it impossible.
“Eleven guys died in 1945 at Mount Welch in Chilliwack when their Liberator crashed into the top of the mountain and they couldn’t recover the bodies. It was just too dangerous,” McFadden said.
Adding to the pain of the families who lost their loved ones was that the deaths weren’t counted by the military as combat casualties and are often overlooked by historians.