Nova Scotia

How a persistent diver in the Bahamas solved a WW II mystery involving a Halifax pilot

An American with a passion for military history set out last fall to find the wreckage from a Second World War plane that crashed off the coast of the Bahamas during a training exercise. One of the pilots on board was from Halifax.

B-26 Marauder flown by 2 Canadians in late 1944 crashed off the Bahamas and wasn't found until recently

Maurice O'Neill, 27, was from Halifax. He died in a plane crash in the waters off Nassau, Bahamas, on Oct. 17, 1944. (www.findagrave.com)

Tom O'Neill didn't know what to think when he got an unexpected email last fall.

The email was from a man who claimed to have found a plane, the one O'Neill's uncle was in when it crashed during the Second World War. The plane was located off the coast of Nassau, Bahamas.

O'Neill's uncle, Maurice (pronounced Morris) O'Neill was from Halifax. He was one of two people to die after a mechanical failure on a B-26 Marauder on Oct. 17, 1944, during a training exercise.

"It was interesting to hear what happened," said Tom O'Neill, who lives in Villa Nova, Ont. "They didn't talk a lot about it in the family, just that he'd gone down, [they] didn't know the circumstances or why they had not been able to find them."

The discovery of the plane also provided answers to Joanne Green of Guelph, Ont. Her uncle, Jack Wood, was the other person on the plane.

"My mom didn't like to talk about it," said Green. "She was always very upset. So when this started, this has gone from a little bit of family lore to, like, this is real."

John (Jack) Wood is shown in a photo, circa 1942. The Toronto man died in a plane crash off the coast of Nassau, Bahamas, on Oct. 17, 1944. (Submitted by Joanne Green)

The discovery was thanks to Eric Wiberg, a determined American who lives in Boston. He frequently visits the Bahamas and spent time there growing up.

Last year was a tragic one for him. A nephew who lives in the Bahamas died in a car accident and his mom died after an eight-year battle with cancer.

'I was mesmerized'

He found solace in diving and became fixated on finding something he spotted decades ago as a teen.

While out on a friend's powerboat In 1985, he and his best friend came across the wheel from a plane.

"I was mesmerized," he said. "Basically, what the hell is a wheel doing on a reef, you know? It really caught my imagination and that question stuck with me."

Wiberg is an author and historian who has published more than a dozen books. One of those books is Bahamas in World War II: A Military Chronology 1939-1945.

A B-26 Marauder from the U.S. 12th Air Force division is shown bombing enemy installations over southern France in this undated photo from the Second World War. (U.S. Air Force Number A61969AC)

The Bahamas was an important training ground for pilots during the war, as well as a critical stopping point for aircraft constructed in North America making the journey overseas, said Jeff Noakes, a Second World War historian at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.

While it was possible to disassemble aircraft and transport them by ship, that came with problems.

Some of the pieces from the B-26 Marauder that Wiberg found include the cowling and fuselage. (Submitted by Eric Wiberg)

"That takes time and it takes up room on ships that can be used for other things and if the ships get sunk, you lose the aircraft," he said.

As a result, the Bahamas was a popular transit point for Allied aircraft.

Wiberg's book, in part, looks at the more than 100 Royal Air Force crashes that happened on the Caribbean island during the war.

One of those crashes caused the deaths of O'Neill and Wood. The location listed on official military records led Wiberg to believe the plane wheel he spotted in 1985 was from that crash.

"I was just deathly afraid that somebody else would find it and desecrate it and steal," he said.

Eric Wiberg is shown during one of his dives looking for the B-26 Marauder. (Submitted by Eric Wiberg)

Engulfed in personal turmoil, he set out to find the plane.

He thought he found it, but his hopes were dashed when aviation experts rebuked him. They told him he'd found the remnants of a Beechcraft plane, not the B-26 Marauder flown by O'Neill and Wood.

It wasn't even the plane he had spotted in 1985.

"My colleagues in Australia and other places rejected me and said, 'You've wasted our time. This is obviously not a B-26. You obviously don't know what you're doing,'" said Wiberg.

What the crash report got wrong

He was dejected, but became more determined than ever to find the plane flown by O'Neill and Wood.

While the crash report offered up latitude and longitude, Wiberg's dive in the area turned up unsuccessful.

Eyewitnesses had been consistent that the plane crashed 400 yards (366 metres) from shore. Aided by a reference to where a building was located, Wiberg's focus narrowed.

"So if you ... drew a line and you swam that line, eventually you'd find something, right?" said Wiberg.

Cable Beach in Nassau, Bahamas, is shown. Wiberg dove in this area to find the B-26 Marauder. (Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty)

Over a span of three weeks last November and December, Wiberg spent about five hours a day diving around a 1.6-kilometre grid. An accomplished swimmer in his youth, Wiberg dove without a breathing apparatus.

Fittingly, he made his breakthrough on Remembrance Day, finding a first piece from the plane, about three kilometres from where the official records said the plane would be. In the weeks that followed, he found around 45 pieces belonging to O'Neill and Wood's B-26 Marauder.

"I had done my job," Wiberg said, fighting back tears.

A gruelling experience

The diving, done in depths averaging six to seven metres, was physically demanding. The twisting and turning caused by trying to lift wreckage from the sea floor caused a case of stenosis.

In some cases, Wiberg found the wreckage within three metres from the shore.

The area where he dove is located on the north coast of Nassau, which houses the Marley Resort and Spa, formerly a vacation home for famed musician Bob Marley.

O'Neill then contacted Green. They had first met several years ago through the research he did for Bahamas in World War II: A Military Chronology 1939-1945. She helped Wiberg connect with Tom O'Neill.

This picture shows one of the handles from the escape hatch of the B-26 Marauder on the ocean floor. (Submitted by Eric Wiberg)

Green is an only child and her mother's only sibling was Jack Wood. Her father did not have any siblings.

Interested in genealogy, she's long tried to find answers about her family's history.

Wiberg's discovery has brought her one step closer to the uncle she never met.

'It's all about closure'

Wood married a year or so before he enlisted in the war in 1942 and worked as an assistant manager in the mail order department for Simpsons in Toronto. He had a son, John Jr., who was only 10 months old when Wood died.

"I think it's all about closure, you know, coming full circle," said Green. "Someone I didn't know at all, and now I feel like I know him. He was a good guy and that's just great with me."

For Tom O'Neill, the discovery gives him a better understanding of his Uncle Maurice, who lived in south-end Halifax.

Before the war, O'Neill worked in a stationery shop in downtown Halifax with his father. Tom O'Neill believes his uncle planned to return to work there after the war.

The investigation into the cause began on Oct. 18, 1944, one day after the crash. (Submitted by Eric Wiberg)

Green said her mother was always bothered by the fact no funeral was held for Uncle Jack. She was told it wasn't allowed. The reason why is unclear.

But that will change.

Plans for memorial service

Green plans to go to the Bahamas this fall to have a memorial service in the area where the plane crashed. Wiberg has even lined up a bugler for the occasion.

"Here we are, like, the next generation, us meeting up," said Green. "And I hope that we maintain our friendships."

For Wiberg, finding the B-26 Marauder wasn't an action just fuelled by grief. It was an act of family history.

Maurice O'Neill, second from left, is shown in front of a Hudson aircraft in this undated photo. (Submitted by Tom O'Neill)

His father was a longtime Swedish consul in the Bahamas. He instilled in his children the value of service to others, especially when they were far from home.

Joanne Green says the discovery of the plane flown by her uncle John (Jack) Wood has provided with her some closure. (Submitted by Joanne Green)

Locating the B-26 Marauder wasn't the reward — it was letting O'Neill and Green know what happened to their uncles.

"I brought them back to life in a small way," said Wiberg.

For Noakes, the Canadian War Museum historian, stories like that of O'Neill and Wood are important to remember.

"These are loved ones who never came home or someone who's always been a picture in a family photo album, so there's obviously that connection," he said.

"It bears tremendous importance for people who have these direct personal connections to these events. It's also important because it is a reminder that the Second World War has this global impact … and takes Canadians to locations around the world that people here in Canada right now might not necessarily think of."

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Richard Woodbury is a journalist with CBC Nova Scotia's digital team. He can be reached at richard.woodbury@cbc.ca.

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