The '45 Gander crash: Left behind on the home front

When a B-24 Liberator bomber crashed near Gander on Valentine's Day 1945, it took the lives of 10 young American airmen.

Historian examines fate of families, fiancées and girlfriends of crash victims

2nd Lieutenant Charles E. Topham of Chester, Penn., sits with his fiancée, Cherrie Shoop. (Submitted by Don Wyman)

When a B-24 Liberator bomber crashed and burned near Gander on Valentine's Day 1945, it took the lives of 10 young American airmen.

It also changed forever the lives of 10 families and the fiancées and girlfriends they left behind.

That's the focus of a master's thesis paper by Darrell Hillier published by Memorial University's history department.

Crew of the B-24 Liberator bomber who died near Gander on Feb.14, 1945. Standing left to right: Cpl. Nicholas Brando, 2nd Lt. John S. Barry, Cpl. John E. Baker, Cpl. Charles J. Parsons Jr. and 2nd Lt. Charles E. Topham Jr. Kneeling left to right: Pte. Harry J. Karpick, Pte. Mark G. Lantz, Cpl. John W. Tarpey, 2nd Lt. Robert E. Billings (who wasn't on the aircraft that day) and 2nd Lt. Edmund H. Breschini. Inset: Colonel William C. Dolan (Photo courtesy of Mary McCosker)

Hillier says he's been fascinated by Second World War crash sites in central Newfoundland since he moved to Gander as a teen in 1980.

"Some of my schoolmates … they told me about this B-17 crash down near the Trans-Canada Highway," he said. "Being a curious teen, myself and my buddies hopped on our pedal bikes and went down to check it out. So that's sort of where it began.

"It piqued my curiosity and from there I was trying to find out more about other crashes. Kind of like a genealogist, it becomes a bit of an obsession."

When he decided to write his thesis, Hillier immediately knew he wanted to tell the story of another crash, the Liberator.

Two views of tail wreckage of B-24 Liberator bomber near Gander, 62 years apart. (Photo courtesy of Darrell Hillier)

"It piqued my interest because it was so remote. Second of all, the aircraft was being flown by a high-ranking officer, Col. William C. Dolan. And also, the aircraft carried a confidential radar system," he said.

"I started to look into the story in more detail. It was at this time I started to contact some of the family members," he explained.

Records burned

The problem was, it was difficult to find much information about the lost airmen. Their military records were burned in a fire in St.Louis in the 1970s.

Part of the landing gear of a crashed B-24 Liberator bomber near Gander. (Courtesy of Darrell Hillier)

Hillier did find some American files produced after the crash that contained a few details about the men, but he really cracked the story open when he hit the internet.

"If I had an airman from a small town in the U.S. with an uncommon surname, I might just Google that name. And if I found someone in that town with a similar surname and an email address, I'd take the chance and email them."

He hit paydirt in one of those online queries.

"A lady out in California, Mary McCosker, whose uncle was the navigator, was absolutely fabulous. She was the family historian and she had a large collection of letters she kept from that time period between the mothers of the crew, and she gave me access to everything."

Propeller at site of B-24 Liberator bomber crash near Gander. (Photo courtesy of Darrell Hillier)

McCosker's files were a treasure trove of insight into the lives of the people left behind when the 10 men died.

The letters and newspaper clippings contained details military records would never have revealed, such as the particular song an airman liked to sing to entertain his buddies, details of the neighbourhoods where they'd grown up and the shows they saw in New York before taking off for Gander.

Betty Ellen Cass stands with her fiancé, 2nd Lt. John S. Barry of El Paso, Texas. (Courtesy of William Cass)

As Hillier began to fill in the picture of who the men were, he became as interested in how they'd lived as in how they died.

"Three of the air crew were engaged, and they were a pretty tight-knit group. The airmen, as they trained at different bases as a heavy bombardment crew, the fiancées went with him. These girls became pretty close, and they're referenced in these letters."

Little power for unmarried women

Hillier says it was particularly poignant to learn the stories of the young women who didn't have a chance to marry the men they loved. Instead, they waited in futile hope of there being survivors, supported each other and fought for years with the U.S. War Department to have the victims' bodies and effects returned to them.

"There hasn't been a lot written about the experiences of families and how they dealt with grief and the narrative about how people should behave," he said.

Bill Dolan, son of Colonel Willian C. Dolan, who piloted the lost B-24 Liberator bomber, visits the wreck site near Gander. (Photo courtesy of Darrell Hillier)

"As far as fiancées go, I really found no evidence that it had been looked at in any great detail. If I came across an obituary, it mentioned the parents and the wife if they were married, but the fiancées and girlfriends were basically forgotten. There was no mention of them in the obituaries."

Hillier's work is helping people understand more about the aftermath of crashes like the Liberator.

It's also introduced him to people who knew the victims, including Dolan's son Bill, who found some closure after visiting the crash site with the historian.

It also taught Hillier that despite memorials and the eventual repatriation of the bodies, for some, women especially, the war never really ended.