The hunt for John McLea: the story of a missing Hamilton airman
Decades after his plane went down in Germany, McLea's best friend trekked across continents to find him
It was 1999 when Fraser Muir stood in a German graveyard clutching a fistful of Hamilton soil with hot tears in his eyes.
He had everything planned down to the letter — where he’d stand, what he’d say. His good friend John McLea deserved that. Muir had ripped the earth right from Hamilton Mountain himself and flown it with him overseas — it was to help the 19-year-old Second World War bomber tailgunner to rest in peace.
McLea never did shut up about Hamilton. When the two met in basic training in PEI, it was all he could talk about — the allure and glow of the city, and how he couldn’t wait to get back.
This friend of mine that had so much love for the city of Hamilton — and yet he didn’t live to enjoy it.- Frances Muir, veteran
But standing amid the grass and the worn headstones, everything went to hell. “I felt like a damn clown,” Muir said. All the things he’d had in his life that Johnny never had a chance at kept popping into his mind — the five kids, the ten grandkids.
Muir couldn’t get more than ten words out before he broke down. He knelt at his friend’s grave, pouring the soil across it. “This is for you, Johnny,” he said.
Finding McLea and his family was almost an obsession — a yearning to honour him and the city he loved. But even at his gravesite, the search wasn’t over. Muir couldn’t know that half a world away, McLea’s nephew was looking for answers too. John McClenaghan has carried his own obsession about McLea for years. He followed his missing uncle’s path into the air and remarkably, into a special role with Hamilton's World-War-Two-era Lancaster bomber — possibly the very kind of bomber his uncle had flown in.
How the two met is a story of extraordinary coincidence.
Shot down in hostile territory
John McLea’s plane was shot out of the sky during a Royal Canadian Air Force bombing run in November of 1944, just over the small town of Haas, Germany. His flaming aircraft narrowly missed a house and burrowed deep into the dirt in a nearby garden, killing four of the six men onboard.
McLea and one other man managed to get to their parachutes and tumble to the earth just before the crash. They came down about 100 km behind enemy lines — relatively close to friendly territory, all things considered.
They could have run for safety, but family members believe the two followed the smoke and the glow emanating from the fallen craft, hoping there were survivors.
Locals reported seeing two men in military uniform walking towards the crash site just after the plane plummeted from the sky.
Some minutes later they were seen going back in the opposite direction — this time escorted by armed SS officers. It wasn't long after that his family received notice of his death.
Like uncle, like nephew
McLea’s family knew almost no details about how he died — or if they did, they sure as hell didn’t talk about it when his nephew John McClenaghan was in the room. He was born in 1953, and never met his uncle, even though he was named after him. As a kid, he was drawn to his uncle’s pictures and medals, which hung on the walls of his grandparent’s house.
But the family never talked about him. All they’d say was he was a “great guy,” and he died during the war. “He was an unknown quantity growing up,” McClenaghan said. But whether it was his namesake, genetics or the universe pulling a balancing act, McClenaghan was always looking skyward and thinking about flying. He rooted through boxes of his uncle’s photos, looking for pictures of planes.
Later in life he followed his uncle into the sky — first in the air force, then as a commercial pilot with Air Canada. “I certainly felt a connection to him getting my wings,” McClenaghan said. “But there was just this nagging thought of what happened to him. Nobody knew.”
So he started looking. The military archives in Ottawa were a dead end. Was he shot down by nightfighter or flak? Where did his plane crash? The questions wouldn’t go away. When his grandmother died he inherited his uncle’s logbook and his medals, which revealed some details. Three years ago he asked the Hamilton Military Museum for help.
The museum put some feelers out online, and information started pouring in — from the name of the nightfighter who claimed he shot the plane down to the village where he crashed with a map of the parachute area. McClenaghan went to a RCAF 426 squadron reunion in England in 2012, and then visited Germany to find his uncle’s grave. He talked to townspeople and local historians about what had happened, and started to piece together how his uncle died.
But he sill didn’t know him. He was still an unknown in so many ways.
Then about three months ago, a message popped up on his phone. It was from Fraser Muir.
'He had so much love for the city of Hamilton'
Muir — who is very computer literate for a man of almost 90 — had found the Hamilton Military Museum online as well. He sent along an email to the staff telling the story of his dead friend and his tearful visit to his grave. Military researcher and historical interpreter Brydie Huffman called him back and said, “Mr. Muir what are you doing to my staff! They’re all in tears.”
She began to help him research, and soon dug up information on McClenaghan’s family. Muir learned McClenaghan was a pilot for Air Canada — exactly like his own son, who also loved to fly. Even more amazing, Muir's son knew him. Then it was a matter of a simple phone call to connect the two.
They talked for an hour and a half that first night, sharing stories about John McLea. Muir told John how for years, he asked every person he met from Hamilton “Did you know Johnny McLea?” He told him about the last time he ever saw his uncle — on shore leave in 1944 in Edinburgh, Scotland. They talked about the raids they’d been on, and Johnny pined away about Hamilton.
“It was a wonderful time, but little did we know it would be the last time we’d ever meet,” Muir said.
McClenaghan had lots to share too — about his time in the air, and how he was one of the lucky few to fly Hamilton’s beloved Lancaster, the Second World War bomber much like his uncle could have flown during his tenure as a tailgunner. In fact, McClenaghan will be one of the pilots flying the Lancaster during its transatlantic tour this summer.
On May 25, Muir will finally get what he always wanted — a chance to meet McLae’s family when a plaque honouring the young airman’s service is unveiled at the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum in Hamilton.
“It’s working out like a dream. People will know this guy … this friend of mine that had so much love for the city of Hamilton — and yet he didn’t live to enjoy it,” Muir said.
“It’s one of the saddest experiences of my life.”