Lost in history: Memory of WW I flying ace returns home after century away

Nearly 100 years after being forgotten in history, the Falkenberg family returned to its roots with a sizable donation to the Botwood Heritage Museum.

'It's a marvellous tale of a marvellous man,' says son of prolific WWI pilot Carl Falkenberg

The four eldest members of the Falkenberg family (Eric, left, John Charles, Dagmar and Andreas) joined Botwood Heritage Society archivist Lisa Hemeon for the opening of the Falkenberg Room at the Botwood Heritage Museum on July 9. (Ryan Cooke/CBC)

He was a hometown kid — a hero of the First World War, a personal friend of Lester B. Pearson, and a descendent of Swedish nobility.

And then, as quickly as he came, Baron Carl Falkenberg was forgotten for a century.

Last Saturday, the Botwood Heritage Centre was filled to capacity as the Falkenberg family brought home the memory of their father, a decorated pilot with 17 confirmed victories.

It's just a marvellous tale of a marvellous man.- Eric Falkenberg, son of Carl Falkenberg

It all started 11 months ago, with a surprising phone call from a film crew in Ottawa.

The company, Sound Venture, was teaming up with National Geographic to produce a series on the Flying Aces — a list of pilots who had shot down five or more enemy aircraft.

They reached the town's archivist, Lisa Hemeon.

"That is the very first time I ever heard the name Falkenberg," Hemeon said.

"We had no idea. We knew he had been born here, we knew he was a pilot, but we didn't realize he had been a flying ace. And on top of that, it's hard to tell his story without telling his family's story."

The Falkenberg's story in Canada starts with Baron Gerhard Alfrid Falkenberg, Sweden's first Consul General to British North America in 1855. His uniform, still in perfect condition, was donated to the Botwood Heritage Society. (Ryan Cooke/CBC)

Amidst political unrest in the 19th century, Gerhard Alfrid Falkenberg fled his home country of Sweden for New York City.

After the smoke blew over, Falkenberg, a man with strong political connections at home, was made the Scandinavian country's first Consul General to British North America, and was relocated to Quebec City.

In 1891, his son, Frederick Falkenberg, moved from Montreal to Botwoodville to work as an accountant for the company running the Exploits River.

It was here, in 1897, Carl Falkenberg was born. The family would hang around until 1905, when they returned to Quebec. Thus, the Falkenberg name faded from Botwood's books.

Carl would go on the enlist in the army, and spent six months in an English hospital after being gravely wounded in 1916. He later recalled the story to his son, Eric.

"He looked up in the sky and saw the air force. He didn't say 'I want to go home,' (he said), 'I want to go do that.' And he did."

Falkenberg's skill in the sky soon became apparent.

The exhibit features many photos, including this one of Carl Falkenberg alongside Billy Bishop, a colleague of his and Canada's most successful wartime pilot. (Ryan Cooke/CBC)

In a little more than a year of flying, he earned the Flying Ace banner and also picked up the Distinguished Flying Cross and Bar, the Allied Victory medal and the Coronation medal.

A century later, Lisa Hemeon sat in the windowless archivist's office at the Botwood Flying Boat Museum with no more than a few documents bearing the family name. Curious, she began her hunt to learn more.

"I started almost in a way stalking the Falkenberg family," she smiled.

"I started looking on Facebook, I started looking all over Canada ... everywhere."

Hemeon eventually found an article on the family by a grand-nephew in Maine. Through a tangle of connections, she reached the four surviving children of Carl Falkenberg: Eric, Dagmar, Andreas and John Charles.

She reached Eric first, and introduced herself. On the other end was a surprised, but relieved man.

"I've been waiting for your call," he said.

Family happy to donate collection

A self-proclaimed pack rat, Eric had held onto everything relating to his family's history – from his great grandfather's sword and uniform as Consul General, to his father's in-depth war diaries and photos of him with Billy Bishop. 

Without hesitation, he offered everything in his collection to the Botwood Heritage Society.

"I tried to interest Ottawa in it (previously) but they have all kinds of stuff. They didn't care," Falkenberg said.

"They thought he was just another soldier. So when this call came, I said, 'Well, what do you want?'"

That is the very first time I ever heard the name Falkenberg.- Lisa Hemeon, archivist 

As dozens of people strolled through the exhibit on Saturday, Dagmar stood at the end of the room answering questions and pointing out facts to passersby.

Hemeon, relieved at the opening's success after months of work, retreated downstairs.

"It's the golden find for us, without a doubt," she said.

"And then to have the family come here and see the exhibit and be very pleased with it — that's just the icing on the cake for me."

For Eric, it's a way to ensure his father's memory lives on in his hometown, never to be forgotten again.

"It's just a marvellous tale of a marvellous man."

The Falkenberg Room features relics from Baron Carl Falkenberg's career as a fighter pilot in the First World War. A decorated Flying Ace, Falkenberg was credited with 17 victories. (Ryan Cooke/CBC)

About the Author

Ryan Cooke

Ryan Cooke works for CBC out of its bureau in St. John's.