70 years on, Air Force vet meets missing friend's family

At a Sunday ceremony at the Canada Warplane Heritage Museum, Second World War veteran Fraser Muir finally met the family of his friend John McLea, a Hamilton man and Royal Canadian Air Force tailgunner who disappeared in November 1944 when his Halifax bomber crashed in Germany.

John McLea, of Hamilton, disappeared in 1944 after his plane crashed in Germany

Fraser Muir, right, and John McClenaghan unveil a glass plaque commemorating missing Hamilton airman John McLea at the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum on Sunday afternoon. (Cory Ruf/CBC)

Seventy years after his friend and fellow airman went missing behind enemy lines, Fraser Muir got his wish.

At a ceremony at the Canada Warplane Heritage Museum in Hamilton, the Second World War veteran finally met the family of John McLea, a local man and Royal Canadian Air Force tailgunner who disappeared in November 1944 when his Halifax bomber crashed in Germany.

The Sunday event, which saw Muir, 89, help to dedicate a frosted glass plaque in his fallen friend’s honour, culminates a decades-long search to find and meet with McLea’s relatives.

During the Second World War, John Mclea was a tailgunner in 426 Squadron stationed in Linton-on-Ouse, England. He died in 1944 at age 19 after his Halifax bomber was shot down in Germany. (Courtesy John McClenaghan)

“It’s an answer to a prayer,” said Muir, who met McLea at basic training in P.E.I. when the two were still in their teens. “I feel on top of the world.”

McLea, Muir said, bragged about Hamilton and spoke often about how much he looked forward to returning to his hometown.

So in the years since McLea’s disappearance, "I would ask everybody from Hamilton if they knew John or knew of the family," said Muir, a resident of Wasaga Beach.

But nobody did — until this year. 

A back-and-forth over email with staff at the Hamilton Military Museum led Muir to learn of one of McLea’s nephews, Air Canada pilot and Warplane Heritage museum volunteer John McClenaghan.

Three months ago, Muir rang up the 60-year-old up and told him about his search for McLea’s family and the time in 1999 when he sprinkled soil from the Hamilton Mountain by the gravestone in Germany engraved with the missing man’s name.

In the hour-and-half call, McClenaghan, of Etobicoke, spoke of his own research on what became of his namesake uncle, whom he never met.

Emotional encounter

The two men met face-to-face for the first time at the plaque dedication on Sunday, and McClenaghan treated the 50 or so people in attendance to a presentation on McLea’s life.

“It’s pretty special,” said McClenaghan. “I’m having trouble just not breaking down when I talk about.”

McClenaghan set up a table of memorabilia about his uncle's life and gave a presentation on what's known about McLea. (Cory Ruf/CBC)

He estimated that most of the people who came out were either relatives of his — some close, some he didn't recognize — or history buffs who learned about Muir's story from the news.

McLea’s last surviving sibling, Ancaster’s Margaret Stephenson, was on hand at the ceremony. She said she was 14 when a telegram arrived at her house notifying the McLea family about her brother’s disappearance.

“It makes me feel kind of teary-eyed,” Stephenson said of Muir’s story. "And I'm trying not to do that."

But she noted the heartbreak and uncertainty of having a sibling, child or spouse disappear overseas was a common experience during the Second World War.

“So many families had someone go missing."

With files from Adam Carter