Audrey Somers has done her best over the last 73 years to put the death of her 23-year-old brother Harold behind her, but it's caught up with her yet again.
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At 87, she vividly recalls the moment the telegram arrived at her family's Hamilton, Ont., home, informing her parents that the brother she describes as "loving but quiet" was missing in action over Germany.
"I was upstairs in my bedroom, and my mother came running up and told me," Somers said.
"She kneeled at the side of the bed and said the Lord's Prayer."
"The next day my father's hair turned grey."
Summoning that memory still brings tears today, as Somers talks about the memorial to be unveiled in Germany later this month near the spot where the wreckage of her brother's Royal Canadian Air Force bomber fell to earth after it was hit by anti-aircraft fire in the early hours of July 29, 1944.
'They were nobodies to anybody else'
The memorial is the result of a 42-year effort by Somers's nephew, Lloyd Truscott, to learn the details of what happened to the crew of the Lancaster bomber nicknamed "Berlin Special" that night during a raid targeting Hamburg.
The Edmonton resident tracked down relatives of his uncle's 408 "Goose" Squadron crewmates in Canada and England, offering them the information he's pulled together on the fate of the plane and its crew.
He's met some, and others didn't care, but Truscott says what matters is he found them.
The crew of "Berlin Special" / Lancaster LL687 EQ-M
- Donal Ryan, pilot (Montreal).
- Bob Whitson, navigator (Edmonton).
- Al Durnin, bomb aimer (Hamilton).
- Gordon Croucher, wireless radio operator (Montreal).
- David Scott, flight engineer (England).
- Jack Imrie, tail gunner (Toronto).
- Harold Truscott, mid-upper gunner (Hamilton).
- André "Andy" Blais, mid-under gunner (Montreal).*
*Lancaster bombers normally carried a crew of seven, but Blais was added to the mission to make up flight hours he had lost while wounded. His regular crew survived the war.
"I was just trying to locate all these families and give them the information I had, so at least somebody's thinking about all these boys," he said.
"They were just nobodies to anybody else."
The photo on the mantel
Truscott says his quest took root in the family silence that always shrouded the death of Harold, who was one of three boys, along with Lloyd's father, Art, and their eldest brother, Claire.
"It was never talked about in the house," he said. "They didn't do that back then, but there was always the picture of my uncle on my grandparents' mantel."
"Whenever I asked about him, it was always, 'He died during the war.'"
All three Truscott brothers served with the RCAF during the Second World War — Art and Harold were bomber crew and Claire flew Typhoons with Fighter Command.
Only Harold didn't make it back.
Lloyd Truscott's curiosity about his uncle's story got the best of him in 1975, when he was living in Ottawa.
Digging through the Department of National Defence archives, Truscott found a few details of the crash, including the tantalizing fact that one of the eight crew members onboard had survived.
His research came to a halt when he sought his Uncle Claire's permission to continue probing Harold's fate.
"My dad said go for it. My aunt said do it. But when I checked with my Uncle Claire, he said no, he didn't want anything done," Truscott said.
"He was the eldest and the first one to join the air force. Harold followed him, and my dad followed him, and he always blamed himself for Harold's death."
David Scott's diary
It wasn't until March 4, 2013, on the anniversary of his father's death, that Lloyd Truscott resumed his search in earnest.
That night, Truscott dug into his old research to see what, if anything, he could find online.
He started with the name of the bomber's Royal Air Force flight engineer David Scott, the only crew member to survive the crash.
The search results left him floored.
Among the first hits was the diary Scott had written as a prisoner of war in the months after he bailed out of the burning bomber into the swirling dark over Germany.
Posted online by his son Craig Scott in England in 2007, the diary included an account of the ill-fated mission and photos of his fellow crewmates, including Harold Truscott.
"I was in the basement, and I just screamed to my wife, told her she had to come and see this stuff," Truscott recalls. "It was phenomenal — how he survived all that, the pictures of the crew — that's what really struck me. These are pictures that nobody in my family had ever seen."
Truscott contacted his siblings and phoned his cousin, Audrey's son, to make sure his elderly aunt saw the diary.
"She just sat in front of the computer for hours with tears down her face," Truscott says. "She was only 13 when Harold went away."
The idea for a memorial grew out of conversations between Truscott, Craig Scott and Jean-Claude Charlebois, a relative of the doomed bomber's wireless operator Gordon Croucher, who Truscott tracked down outside Montreal.
They knew from a postwar forensic investigation conducted by the RAF that five of the crew were pulled from the wreckage and buried in a cemetery in Spreckens, a tiny hamlet 100 kilometres west of Hamburg.
Charlebois got in touch with a friendly, English-speaking newspaper publisher in the nearby town of Bremervörde who got reporter Rainer Klöfkorn on the story.
Klöfkorn tracked down Spreckens resident Margret Weiss, who was 11 at the time and remembered the "enormous noise" as the Lancaster hit the ground.
"At first we thought one of the pilots had dropped a bomb," Weiss told Klöfkorn. "Then the adults made their way to the crashed aircraft, and five dead were found in and near the huge crater."
The newspaper story helped forge a bond between the people of Spreckens and the crew members' families, who requested permission to erect a memorial plaque to the Lancaster crew at the same cemetery where five of the Canadians were first buried.
The plaque will be unveiled at a ceremony on July 29, the 73rd anniversary of the crash. Truscott, Scott, Charlebois, and their partners and families will all be there, along with townsfolk from Spreckens.
"To do this memorial, I can't put it into words — it means so much to me," Truscott said. "I know my dad would be really pleased with all this. I'm doing it now for my aunt. She's the last survivor of those siblings."
The bodies of Harold Truscott and Gordon Croucher were never found. Their names are carved on the Air Forces Memorial in Runnymede, England — two of more than 20,000 Commonwealth aircrew from the Second World War who were reported missing and never found.
Audrey Somers said it took her about 20 years to surrender the hope that her brother had somehow survived the crash.
"When you're young, you just imagine that he stayed over there and he's living over there – until you finally realize that he's not coming back," she said.
She's been to Runnymede to see her brother Harold's name. And despite the sad memories it's stirred, she's thankful that a new memorial will honour her brother, his crewmates, and the countless others they represent.
"It's brought back so many memories," Somers said. "But it's not just this boy, my brother, I think about. I think about the thousands and thousands and thousands of boys who lost their lives....They were so, so brave."
"Younger generations have no idea what war is."