How a Dutch man brought 2 Island families together, 75 years after loved ones died during WWII

A P.E.I. connection that went undiscovered for decades is being celebrated by two Island families, who say thanks to the work of some historians in Germany, they feel much closer to loved ones lost in the Second World War. 

Bob Gates and Cyril Sutherland of P.E.I. both died when their plane was shot down by the Germans

Frederick (Bob) Gates, left, and Cyril Sutherland were both killed while on a flight from England to India in 1944. It was 2018 before their families learned that both were from P.E.I. (Submitted by Mary Gates)

A P.E.I. connection that went undiscovered for decades is being celebrated by two Island families, who say thanks to the work of some historians in Germany, they feel much closer to loved ones lost in the Second World War. 

"He was a story before," said Angela Johnston-Villard, the niece of Cyril Sutherland, a Canadian soldier who died in 1944. He was a passenger on a Royal Air Force Douglas C-47 plane that was shot down by the Germans. 

"He was in our hearts but not like this. This has brought him to life."

Johnston-Villard said for decades, very few details were known about her uncle's death. She knew he 37 when he was killed, and that he initially wasn't assigned to the mission that saw him board that flight, but volunteered to go in place of a younger soldier who had a family. 

Now she knows much more, including the fact that her uncle was not the only Islander on the plane. That's all thanks to a man in Germany who is part of a historical research group that unearths old Second World War plane wreckages.

An undated photo of Cyril Sutherland, who was among the 23 people killed when a Royal Air Force Plane bound for India was gunned down by the Germans in September 1944. (Submitted by Angela Johnston-Villard)

2 Islanders on ill-fated flight

Angela Johnston-Villard, who was born a Sutherland, is the niece of Cyril Sutherland. The last time she saw him she was three years old, and he'd brought her a pair of shoes. (Jessica Doria-Brown/CBC )

Frederick (Bob) Gates, a radar technician from Charlottetown, was only 21 when he took that flight.

For his family, learning more about that crash, and what became of the plane, has been monumental. 

Frederick (Bob) Gates received the Canadian Volunteer Service Medal, the Defence of Britain Medal, and the War Medal. He's buried in Rheinberg Cemetery in Germany. (Jessica Doria-Brown/CBC )

"Well it brought more closure to it, but it brought it all back again, of course," said Lloyd Gates, a Second World War veteran who took part in the Normandy invasion, and younger brother to Bob. 

"It boggles the mind that somebody would take the time to do that, because it's a big undertaking."

Connection made

It was just last year that both families were able to piece together what happened when the Gates family discovered that Erik Wieman, a Dutch man living in Germany, was researching the crash site.

He was trying to contact the family members of all 23 people aboard the flight, which included 20 Canadians, two men from Britain and one from Australia. 

Lloyd Gates, a Second World War veteran, says he and his brother Bob were 'like twins' and it means a lot to him to know more about the crash. (Jessica Doria-Brown CBC )

Since then, the two families have become connected, and gather often to share stories and memories. 

"I think that's a wonderful, wonderful thing to do," said Gates about the work of Wieman and his group. "He should be given a medal for that because, well, the work he's done, it's taken him years."

The families now know that the flight was heading from England to India and had navigation problems because of bad weather. It veered into German territory and was shot down and crashed in Neuleiningen, about 100 kilometres southwest of Frankfurt. 

The last photo ever taken of Bob Gates and Lloyd Gates together, May 9, 1944, with sister Joyce and Gwen Baker in England. (Submitted by Mary Gates)

Seatbelts, coins, combs among items recovered

Thanks to the work of Wieman and his team, the crash site — now a cornfield — has been located and many artifacts have been recovered including airplane parts, seatbelts, coins, luggage, and combs belonging to the men. 

For Wieman, the goal is to bring hidden crash sites and the stories of those who perished, to life.

Erik Weiman searches the crash site with a metal detector. He's part of the Historical Research Group of Rhineland-Palatinate in Germany. (Submitted by Erik Weiman)

"That's what it's all about," said Wieman, reached at his home in Waldsee, Germany.

"You get a connection to these people that died there. And when you walk by this site you don't see anything anymore. You only see a field. And that's what we want to change."

A letter from the Royal Canadian Air Force to the parents of Frederick (Bob) Gates confirming he was killed on Sept. 24, 1944. (Submitted by Mary Gates)

The group's work is done in their spare time, with their own equipment and their own money. 

Memorial planned for 2020

Wieman said excavation on the site will continue this summer and a memorial featuring a monument to the victims is planned for next year.

He said it'll be the largest memorial gathering of its kind in the region, in part because of the number of men that were on the plane — Wieman said previous plane crashes he has helped uncover have had far fewer men on board. 

This one will involve the families of all 23 passengers and crew, as well as officials from the three air forces to which they belonged.

Wieman expects over 100 people will attend next year's memorial.

Hope hopes it will offer those families a chance to come together and remember. 

The Douglas C-47 Dakota was a twin-engine aircraft used for transporting English troops. (Submitted by Erik Weiman )

"It's very good, people from different countries, maybe former foes coming together, it's very connecting," he said.

"It's going to be very emotional," said Johnston-Villard, who said there will be at least 12 members of her family there.

Cyril Sutherland was commended for volunteering for the mission to India in the place of a younger man with a family. He was awarded the 1939-1945 Star. He's buried in Rheinburg Cemetery in Germany. (Submitted by Angela Johnston-Villard)

"What it would have meant to my grandmother and my father and to the rest of his siblings to have had somebody find out all of this ... nobody knew where the crash site was until just two years ago," she said. 

Gates, 94, said he and his wife aren't able to attend the memorial in person — but the work of Wieman has already given him plenty. 

Relatives of Cyril Sutherland, with Erik Weiman (centre, holding a model airplane), gather in Neuleiningen in 2018, at the site where the plane crashed. A memorial is planned there for 2020, involving the families of the 23 passengers and crew. (Submitted by Erik Weiman)

"We were very close," he said, of he and his brother Bob. "I was 19 then, he was 21. Everywhere he went I went and vice versa. So I was really surprised because [in the decades since] we never heard a thing about it, then all of a sudden it comes alive again."

Gates said at least one member of his family plans to attend the memorial.   

"I think it'll be a wonderful experience for them, a very sad experience, but wonderful to know how it happened and why and where they were buried."

A passenger list from Douglas C-47 KG653 that crashed in Neuleiningen on September 24, 1944. (Jessica Doria-Brown/CBC )

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