Destination: Adirondack Mountain

Ellie S. Thomas   

© Copyright 2012 by  Ellie S. Thomas


Photo of an crashed airplane on a wooded slope.

It was a wild, stormy night and the sounds of planes passing over in such weather boded ill for flyer, aircraft, or people below. Residents of the tiny hamlet of Owl's Head, New York, peered anxiously overhead as the machines chugged past. They were in a place where no planes ought to be and watchers were understandably worried.

''Those boys are in trouble," someone exclaimed.

It was wartime, mid-June, 1942, and most men were away in the service of their country, so no matter who was up there flying over the Adirondack Mountains, they felt a certain sympathy for them, certain they must be 'our boys.' So those on the ground held their breath and prayed the pilots would get over safely. They didn't. Minutes later there was the dull thud as the aircraft struck the side of the mountain.

"They've crashed," another one gulped. It had all started just a few miles north of the border. The morning of June 14th, 1942 had started out rainy and miserable and by afternoon, it was pouring; however, 'G' flight took off from Saint Hubert's Field near Montreal, Canada, and flew until about 1500 hours, (3 p.m. civilian time.) By then, the planes were grounded and their superiors conceded that night flying would likely be washed out, too.

The following morning dawned cloudy and cool again. Conditions weren't much better and the flight instructor of 'C' group struck a gas tender while taxiing along and damaged his starboard wing. Again, there was no flying but the following day, the 16th, although it was still cloudy and cool, the aircrafts were busy and they flew day and night. And that's the day when luck ran out for 'G' group. Now, four of the instructors and their student pilots were missing. Aerial search flights had been searching since the break of dawn but with ceilings of 200 feet, or less, they'd had to give it up and return to base.

The preceding day, 'G' flight, under Flight Officer G.G. Raccine, had departed at about 2100 hours on a triangular navigational run from St. Hubert's Field, near Montreal, Quebec, to Ottawa-Alexandria, Ontario, and then back. Each plane held a student pilot and his instructor and these flights were one of the final exercises for each novice in plotting courses to fly, ground speed, calculating wind, speed and direction from latest weather reports, and estimated time of arrival at each destination. Sad to say, when the time came for their return, only five of the original planes had made it. Where were the rest?

The first word of the disaster came about 0730 hours on the 17th of June when Flight Officer E.A. Wilson, J7943, telephoned from Fountain's Store in Owl's Head, New York, to say that he had crashed about 11:10 p.m. on Tuesday night and his student pilot, Leading Air Craftsman J.E. Desloges, R117157, was seriously injured. Realizing there was little he could do to help the unconscious man, he'd covered him as best he could with bits of the plane, parachute, etc. and set out for help. He'd wandered through the forest until he spotted the lights of a camp across the water. Somehow, he was able to break the lock and get into a boathouse, launch a canoe and row to the camp of Joe Gagnon, or Gonyea, as he was known locally. Gonyea was a caretaker of the Fitch camp, about six miles back in the rugged wilderness and named for a man who'd gone down on the Titanic. Fortunately, Gonyea lived there year around.

Gonyea got Wilson down the rough mountain road into the village where they found a phone at the store and Wilson made his report. Rescue personnel and various branches of law enforcement went into high gear. Troop B Barracks of the New York State Police in Malone called Department of Environmental Conservation officer Carl Prue to request help. Prue relayed the call to District Game Protector Ray L. Burmaster, Saranac Lake Division, asking for assistance, requesting authority to proceed on this detail, and asking to be accompanied by Game Protector Paul Benoit who'd grown up in the area and knew it well. These men led the party that would find the first plane.

At about 1100 hours, news came from LAC R.V. Sanders, #658130 (native of England,) who'd emerged from the broken and crumpled remnants of his plane, (later reports list damage as 'total,') to find his way out of the dark forest and request assistance. He didn't know what had become of Pilot Officer R.A. Thomson, J10153, who was from the St. Lambert, Quebec, or Guelph area, and recently married, but later on, at 1730 Sanders reported again that he was all right but another aircraft had crashed nearby. Later it was learned that although the first two planes had crashed within 400 yards of each other, the shocked and injured men were quite unaware of it. Sanders plane, Harvard #3092, had hit a rocky ledge, flipped on its back, instantly killing Thomson.

RCAF rescue personnel went into high gear and ambulances under S.L. O'Connell, Senior Medical Officer, began making their way to the scene. They included F/O Raccine, the flight instructor who'd narrowly escaped crashing with the others, (in fact, it was only by a quick gain of altitude that he'd saved his plane from the same fate, lifted over the mountain and followed the Saint Lawrence River home, all unaware of the fate of his companions.) Now he was put in charge of the detail to rescue his team mates.

Game Protectors were called by State Police and they, in turn, alerted District Game Protector Ray L. Burmaster who sent Game Protectors Herrons and LaPlante in from Chateaugay Lake on the other side of the mountain. He also notified Albany and State DEC planes under Fred McLane, of Saranac Lake, soon landed on the wide, flat meadows of the farmers in Owl's Head. There McLane was joined by Forest Ranger O.A. Betters who brought Walky-Talkies and a radio-equipped truck. District Forest Ranger Hopkins set up a field rescue station at Owl's Head and Burmaster co-ordinated the work from the Saranac Lake end.

By noon, Wednesday the New York State Guard, doctors, ambulance workers, civilian volunteers, boy scouts, and public health nurses merged on the rutted, muddy trails to the mountain. The Gonyea camp became a base for operations around the wooded lake and boats ferried searchers back and forth in an effort to locate the other three planes.

The DEC planes had pin-pointed the wreckage of two of the planes, the Harvard 3109 with Flight Sergeant E.H. Shum, R77071 of the Montreal area and LAC Rosario 'Bob' S. Lacerte, R115519 of Saskatoon, and Harvard 2931 with Desloges and Wilson on Ragged Lake Mountain by afternoon and RCAF flyers located the wreck of Harvard 3092 in which Thomson had been killed and Raccine and F/O E. Shea dropped flares and maintained a circling pattern to guide rescue workers to the site.

High on the mountains, the ordeal continued for F/Sgt Shum, who lay in his plane seriously injured. At the last minute, the navigational instructor, the only one with any wider training at all, had decided to place the instructors in the front seats, so Shum had taken the full brunt of the impact. His co-pilot, Lacerte, not seriously injured, fumbled in the dark and wet, trying to figure out just how bad his friend's, and his own, injuries might be. Despite the danger of fuel tanks exploding, he popped his cigarette lighter and used the tiny flame to talk to and encourage his 20 year old instructor. The absurd thought floated through his mind that this was probably the only time the thing had worked for him. Shum floated in and out of consciousness, (a state he was to maintain throughout the coming week,) and Lacerte remained at his side, trying to build small fires, tearing off pieces of the cowling and placing them around to provide some protection from the pouring rain and the wind, anything to keep his mate going until help arrived. He used the silken parachute and odd lengths of limbs to split Shum's broken leg with pieces of limb he found nearby and somehow, the time passed. It was difficult finding pieces of wood or anything that would burn, everything was wet, and he didn't dare wander too far off for fear of not being able to get back, and there were rustles and noises as wild things paused to sniff and stare. By four p.m. they were found by Game Protectors Prue and Benoit. Prue administered first aid and placed Shum's leg in a traction splint but authorities said that Lacerte had already saved the young man's life. He later received a commendation approved by the King for his act of valor.

Shum spent the next 16 months, and his 21st birthday, in a military hospital. His teeth had been knocked out, his leg was badly broken, and he had a broken back. By a strange course of events, he shouldn't have been on the training flight at all, but had been brought in from another squadron as a last minute replacement for someone else who'd got sick and was relieved of duty for that night. He'd begun instructing at nineteen in a country desperate for instructors during wartime and his student, Bob Lacerte was almost the same age as himself.

The rain drizzled down again in the afternoon but by 4 p.m. the injured men had been carried off the mountain: Joe Desloges, semi-conscious from face and head wounds, Lacerte, managing to walk on his own, and Shum, who'd been splinted for his broken leg and given morphine for his other injuries, was brought three miles down the mountain, across the lake by boat and taken to Alice Hyde Hospital in Malone. Others with only minor cuts and bruises went to the Troop 'B' Barracks of the NYS Police where a command post had been set up with communication links to the office of Burmaster in Saranac Lake.

Night time showed six of the missing men accounted for and hope for the remaining two was very slim. The wreckage was so scattered and in such rugged wilderness that it seemed impossible anyone could still be alive; however two groups of Company G., NYS Guard, local volunteers, Rangers, and DEC spent a miserable night in the woods in the rain, then at 6:30 a.m. the last plane was accounted for. The Reverend Francis G. McMahon who'd worked with the volunteers made the comment:

"I've seen things I'll never forget. The five men who were rescued can thank God and tell their mothers that they've been born again, and one of them twice."

" When two of the planes went down, the trees were mowed down in a 50 yard path. The bottom of the cabin was another 50 yards away and the engine 50 yards further."

"The plane on Frazer Hill was badly smashed. The boy who survived that crash had just tightened his safety belt and perhaps that's why he's alive today." "One boy stuck by his wounded companion without water throughout the night and day, putting parts of the plane around him and building a fire to keep him warm. That boy deserves special credit."

"Another covered his companion and started to get help. The one who was left is the one who was born again, twice. He crawled 50 yards into the bushes and Clate Westcott stumbled over him. When he saw his rescuer, he passed out. That's how he'd hung on."

"One in another ship saw his companion was dead. He found his way to the outside and spread the word, leading to the rescue of the others."

On Thursday June 18th, the bodies of Pilot Officer R.A. Thomson, and Leading Air Craftsman J.C. Theorette, (who'd expected to get his wings in the near future,) were brought out to Malone. The body of Warrant Officer Val D. Legacy, 21, late of Amherst, Nova Scotia, had been brought down on Wednesday. After the inquest in Malone, the RCAF rescue detail, led by F/O G.G. Raccine, headed back to Saint Hubert's Field, the bodies of Legacy and Theorette wrapped in their parachutes. It was determined that their plane had hit a birch tree about 2 feet across at base, shearing it off and cutting a wide swath in their path through the woods, leaving a trail of debris for over 150 feet.

Aircraft crash cards from the Department of National Defense summarize the event in detail. They report 11 aircraft starting on night dual-instructional flights from St. Hubert to Rockcliffe, then Alexandria and back home. Seven of the planes broke away and stayed close together, arriving at Rockckiffe, then turning for Alexandria. They followed the Saint Lawrence River and were safely back at base. The remaining 4 crossed the river by mistake, and crashed into the mountains near Malone, New York. The report ends with the stark sentence: they flew into the ground; survivors claim they 'flew into a cloud.'

Many often thought of the young boys and wondered how they'd gone on. They'd have been gratified to know that after getting out of the hospital, finally, young Ed Shum went on to University and graduated from Magill with a degree in civil engineering in 1948. He was married in 1949 and he and his wife produced four children: one a chemical engineer, one a dentist, one with his MBA in food production.

Rosario 'Bob' Lacerte graduated from the flying class and was posted to a fighter squadron, went to England and flew in combat from D Day until after the Battle Arnhan. A bout of double pneumonia sent him back to Canada on a hospital ship where he spent a year convalescing. The next four years he was at the University of Alberta, graduating in 1950 with a degree in Education. He married and fathered five children. Since they have grown, and with the passing of his wife, he's devoted his life to the service of others through the Airforce Association, the Knights of Columbus, volunteer civic work, and various church works.

Joe Desloges lost the sight of one of his eyes in the crash, bad luck for a man who was active in sports. He married Mathilda Sutherland in 1944 and they produced five children. He began new hobbies of gardening and joined the Legion. He worked for the C&N Railroad, working as fireman and, later, as engineer and his children say he never discussed the crash..

The Adirondack Mountains have lured more than one plane to destruction. There have been other crashes and close calls and while the June 1942 crash was listed by officials as 'faulty navigation,' the Harvards were advanced training planes with only the most rudimentary equipment aboard. Their navigational equipment was a compass and they were flying over mountains with rich veins of iron ore. The weather was terrible, visibility poor, and bad electrical storms had been predicted. The planes somehow got off course and although they had no aircraft-to-ground radio contact, four of them somehow missed the mountains all unaware and followed the Saint Lawrence River back to Saint Hubert's field and safety. The others weren't so lucky. Many who lived in the area wondered if the huge deposits of iron ore mightn't have lured the planes to their doom, throwing their navigation instruments out of kilter and them off course?

As the residents of Owl's Head watched the bodies of the gallant flyers being carried down to the waiting vehicles, they offered prayers for 'our boys' for surely they were that. Many of the inhabitants had blood ties running back intoCanada, and they felt a deep sense of grief that these airmen should have lost their lives so young.

Today bits and pieces of wreckage are still unearthed from time to time and youngsters with adventure on their minds climb the mountains and retrieve parts of the planes. As they stare at their souvernirs, their minds may wonder about the brave fellows who flew them and what their story was? Perhaps this will set the record straight.

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