Quest for a stolen totem: Regina woman unravels Second World War mystery

A Regina woman has spent years trying to unravel the mystery she first glimpsed in a Second World War-era photo, which has its roots in a theft that goes back more than 75 years.

Book details Bev Lundahl's search for thunderbird totem, stolen in 1942 and used as the HMCS Quesnel's mascot

The crew of the HMCS Quesnel took a thunderbird totem, seen at the bottom left of this photo, from its home in Alert Bay, B.C. Now, surviving members of the crew say they would like to return the stolen totem to its home — if it can be found. (Submitted by Bev Lundahl)

Bev Lundahl has spent years trying to unravel the mystery she first glimpsed in a Second World War-era photo, which has its roots in a theft that goes back more than 75 years.   

The Regina woman's search for a thunderbird totem, seen in a photo taken by crew members of her father's ship, the HMCS Quesnel, has inspired her to write a book called The Thunderbird, the Quesnel & the Sea.

"This story started out as, 'What happened to it? Where was the thunderbird?' The veterans didn't know, and so we started looking for it," she told CBC Saskatchewan's Morning Edition.

The quest to recover the totem and return it home began back in 2004, when Lundahl and her father were looking through a photo album on Remembrance Day. One picture showed her father's crew aboard the ship.

"Beside them, in full view, stood a thunderbird totem. How had I missed it?" Lundahl writes in her book, saying she gasped with shock when she spotted it.

She asked her father about the totem, but it was already being used by the crew as a sort of mascot by the time he joined them, and he was unable to answer her questions.

The thunderbird totem, standing at the top of the HMCS Quesnel, is seen on the cover of Regina writer Bev Lundahl's book about the search for the missing artifact.

Photo begins coast-to-coast search

Lundahl's thirst to uncover the truth would lead her from one coast to another, and to Quesnel, the small town in B.C. that gave the ship its name. The woman who worked in the Quesnel museum was the first to tell Lundahl about how the crew had acquired the thunderbird.

"It may have been stolen," she told Lundahl.

A grainy picture shows Michael Dutch, who died in the 1920s, and whose Thunderbird totem grave marker was stolen by a crew of sailors in 1942. (Submitted by Bev Lundahl)

"That was the first indication this story was not going in the direction I thought it was going in," Lundahl said. "I thought, 'This doesn't sound very good.'"

From there, her search led to a cultural centre in the B.C. village of Alert Bay, where the totem  had originated.

Photo of a missing grave marker

The cultural centre had found a picture of a grave marker for a man named Michael Dutch, who had died in the 1920s.

That weatherworn marker had been taken by the crew of the Quesnel in 1942, according to Lundahl.

"They put new wings on it, they painted it, and they put it up in the crow's nest of the ship. It became their mascot until the end of the war," said Lundahl, who tracked down the surviving members of her father's crew and spoke to them as part of her research.

But the veterans told her they didn't know what had happened to the totem after the war ended.

Bev Lundahl, at right, has long searched for the origins of the thunderbird totem. She found out that the totem was a grave marker for a man named Michael Dutch, who died in the 1920s. Pictured with Lundahl is Dutch's great-niece, Greta Picard. (Submitted by Bev Lundahl)

When they had taken the totem in 1942, they were young men serving in a war, at an uncertain and dangerous time, said Lundahl. Now, through the lens of time, they see that action differently and want to make reparations, she said.

"They wanted the thunderbird returned back to Alert Bay, but of course, that hasn't happened yet."

While the mystery of where the thunderbird has gone remains unsolved, Lundahl said the federal government has indicated it is looking into making a replica to return to Alert Bay, as a way to restore the stolen grave marker.   

It remains Lundahl's great hope to see the totem restored to its rightful home.

"It would be a wonderful ending to the story."

With files from Stefani Langenegger.