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Town Salutes Canadian Heroes

Posted on Wednesday, November 27 at 14:43 by Natooke

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AMSTERDAM -- By the hundreds, with wreaths of red orchids and white roses, they came to pay respects to the Canadians who saved their town.

Young and old, they came to the Dutch Reform Church in Wilnis to honour the three men who, in 1943, chose to go down with their plane rather than risk many more lives in the Dutch community. They came to pay thanks to the Canadian relatives -- 18 next of kin -- who also were among the mourners. And after six decades, they came to help put to rest one of the great mysteries of Canadian military history.

Just about everyone in Wilnis turned up last night to view three caskets that were draped in Canadian flags and bore the remains of three airmen, whose Vickers Wellington bomber was shot down by a German fighter on May 5, 1943.

Amazingly, the aircraft and the remains of Sergeants Adrien Thibaudeau and Joseph White sank in a bog and were discovered just two months ago by a special search team. Some of the remains of a third crew member, Warrant Officer Robert Moulton, were also found in the plane.

The men will receive a full military funeral this morning at Wilnis cemetery, presided over by two Canadian ministers and a bagpiper, before all eyes in the town turn to a flypast of Dutch military planes in the "lost man" formation -- three ahead and one behind.

A military guard, representing all parts of the Canadian Forces, will lead the procession, followed by Dutch war veterans and many of the townspeople who remember the night the bomber crashed in a nearby field rather than in their town.

In the town of 10,000 people, just south of Amsterdam, all schools will also be closed so that children carrying Canadian flags can line the route to the cemetery.

"Usque ad finem," a banner in the church reads. "Until the very end."

For decades, the heroism of the Canadian crew that stayed with their plane until the very end has been part of Wilnis lore. Two of the five crew members parachuted out of the plane after it was attacked during its return from a night raid in which 600 Allied planes raided Dortmund, just across the German border.

Although the two were taken prisoner by German forces and released at the end of the war, they never knew what happened to the rest of their crew. The two men, Sergeant Gordon Carter and Sergeant Howard Hoddinott, died many decades later.

Britain's Royal Air Force made efforts to recover the plane when the war ended, but failed to do so, and the investigation was put to rest. The families endured years of not knowing what happened to their airmen.

Some of WO Moulton's remains were found and buried in the local cemetery decades ago. But with no evidence of Sgts. Thibaudeau and White, they were listed as missing in action until this year.

"My father went to Holland after the war to try and figure what the hell happened to my brother," Sgt. Thibaudeau's younger brother Jean-Claude, now 70, said yesterday. "We were told he was lost in flight, which means his plane crashed, but nobody knew where."

The renewed bid to find the bomber began several years ago, when, prompted by a grandson's history lesson, an older Wilnis man came forward to say how he had watched the burning bomber crash into a nearby farmer's field. With the country under Nazi invasion, the lad snuck out of the family home and ran to find that the plane had landed in a peat bog and was sinking quickly. The next morning, only water remained.

A local teacher and others founded a group that fought reluctant officials and red tape to have the plane excavated, a process that concluded last September.

"Remarkably, the bomber, its contents and most importantly, the remains of Sgts. Thibaudeau and White, were fairly well preserved in the peat," said Robert de Jong, head of the Dutch Royal Army's excavation effort.

The Canadians planning to attend the service were of mixed emotions yesterday -- nostalgic for times long past, sad for their lost relatives and friends, appreciative of the effort made in Wilnis.

Mr. Thibaudeau was moved by the discovery of his brother's remains, calling it "painful" that it happened after the death of his parents, who knew Adrien best.

Peggy Carter, a Winnipeg woman whose navigator husband Sgt. Carter died in 1990, hopes to be given her husband's ruler, which was found in the wreckage. She and Jan Hoddinott, the widow of the other PoW, were hoping to pay their respects on behalf of their husbands.

"Although my husband rarely talked about the war or being a PoW, and he never wanted to come back to Europe after the war ended, he would have wanted to be here today to pay respect to his friends," Mrs. Carter said.

"It's so very sad that all this information came out after Gordon died, because he really believed the plane crashed in the North Sea," she added.

According to her husband's debriefing report, which he later filed to Allied forces in Britain, WO Moulton told them to bail out two minutes after the bomber was hit. Sgt. Carter woke up in a field, where a farm family found him and took him in before handing him over to the Germans.

Mrs. Carter's son Kevin, 51, said his father never faulted the family who handed him over since Nazis were killing people for harbouring Allied airmen.

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