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In search of Excalibur

A U.S. family’s quest to solve a WW II mystery takes them to Newfoundland

When Crawford Lansing walked from the terminal toward the hulking aircraft before him, he had no idea it would be the last time his feet touched the ground.

Dressed in his U.S. navy whites, Lansing boarded the Excalibur — a four-engine flying boat on the cutting edge of aviation in 1942. The plane taxied through gentle waves in the last hour of autumn daylight as the passengers settled in for what was supposed to be a short flight.

Water splashed on the windows, obscuring the view of Botwood Harbour as the plane launched forward at full speed. Seconds later, the short flight came to a sudden end, and 11 people were dead in the water.

In the wake of the Excalibur disaster, there was a heroic rescue effort, rumours of sabotage, a marine board investigation, and 80 years of silence for Crawford Lansing’s family.

Until now.

This is a story about a plane crash, an enduring grief and how one family’s search for answers brought them from Lower Manhattan to the depths of a harbour in rural Newfoundland.

(Image 1 of 2) A mural on the side of an industrial building, showing a little boy listening for trains with his ear on the tracks. (Image 2 of 2) A mural of the Excalibur in Botwood Harbour.
Murals are painted on the majority of buildings of historical significance in Botwood. The town hosted the Global Mural Conference in 2018.

Botwood, N.L., is a mural town. Many of the old buildings in town are splashed with artwork, painting pictures of their history.

It used to be a shipbuilding town. Then a forestry town. A port town. A military town. Each iteration of Botwood brought new hope — and then fresh disappointment when work dried up and people left.

But for a brief period in the late 1930s, Botwood was the doorstep to the world — home to the first transatlantic passenger flights. It saw some of the wealthiest and most influential figures pass through en route to New York and London, travelling in style along the way.

All that changed in 1939 with the outbreak of the Second World War. Those ritzy flying boats were transitioned into personnel carriers. The suits and gowns turned into uniforms. Intriguing figures continued to pour into town, but they were soldiers instead of socialites.

Gerrity and Sims Lansing got the history lesson over omelets at a gas station restaurant on a rainy morning in late August. The brothers — both big players in Lower Manhattan’s financial sector — had pulled tables and chairs together to make space for a team of underwater explorers, a cameraman and me.

Their goal wasn’t thrill-seeking, they told us. It was about closing an old wound. They wanted to dive to the bottom of Botwood Harbour to find whatever was left of the crash that killed their grandfather.

Two men siting in chairs.
Sims (left) and Gerrity Lansing are brothers from New York who came to Botwood in search of the Excalibur — a plane that crashed in 1942 carrying their grandfather. (Dan Arsenault/CBC)

The mission started 13 years ago, with a death in the family.

“After our father died, we were always trying to find different pieces of connection to him,” Gerrity said.

WATCH | Go underwater with the Lansing brothers and see what they found in Botwood Harbour:

Two brothers from Lower Manhattan travelled to Botwood, N.L., to unearth answers to explain their grandfather's mysterious death on an airplane in 1942.

“I hardly remember talking to our father about his father,” Sims continued. “Our father was only six months old when his father was killed. I think it was a very sad subject for him.”

“He probably met his father once and that was it,” Gerrity said. “We know very little about our grandfather because it was never really discussed at home. It was such a sad issue in our family. Our grandmother remarried a couple years after our grandfather passed away and that was sort of it.”

Imagine their surprise when they discovered an entire town dying to talk about it.

A painting of a large plane with four propellors.
A mural of the Excalibur on the side of Botwood's Flying Boat Museum. The plane took off in the water just behind the museum. (Dan Arsenault/CBC)

Disaster strikes and a hero emerges

The citizens of Botwood would stop what they were doing to watch the flying boats come and go. It was a sight so foreign in small-town Newfoundland that it never became any less novel in the six years the airport was in operation.

It was no different on Oct. 3, 1942. People watched with fascination, then horror, as the Excalibur lifted into the air several times only to come back down and slam into the water. On the last lurch, the plane lifted up 30 feet and came down hard, crushing its hull against the water on impact.

The screams of passengers and crew could be heard all over town.

Crash boats were on scene within minutes, with their men pulling people from the water as fast as they could.

A painting of a woman in a flight attendant uniform.
In the lower right corner of the mural on the Flying Boat Museum is a painting of Adele Jenkins, the hero of the Excalibur story. (Ryan Cooke/CBC)

In the midst of the chaos, a diminutive flight attendant named Adele Jenkins switched into hero mode. After getting all the uninjured passengers out of the plane, Jenkins would dive back into the fuselage five times to rescue people who were stuck and drowning in the frigid water.

On the sixth attempt, Jenkins grabbed the hand of her fellow flight attendant and tried to pull him free of the plane. Despite struggling against the underwater currents, Jenkins let go only when she felt the life go out of his hand. She then spent the night in the local cottage hospital, tending to the people she’d saved.

A recovery mission was launched in the days that followed. The first attempt to raise the plane was a disaster. Steel cables cut through the fuselage and sliced the plane into three pieces, with one piece drifting off in a strong subsea current. Divers from the Royal Canadian Navy were then tasked with recovering sensitive documents in the cargo hold, while being overseen by the FBI at all times.

The second attempt to raise the plane also ended prematurely when the nose of the plane slipped free and floated away with the tide. It was never found.

Seven bodies were recovered, including that of Crawford Lansing. Four were lost forever.

An investigation would later determine the most likely cause was pilot error — the flaps were in the wrong position on takeoff. The mundane explanation did little to quell conspiracy theories in a small town where rumours of German U-boats, spies and sabotage have carried on for decades, despite little or no evidence to back them up.

A large rusted propeller.
The propeller from the Excalibur sits in the Botwood Flying Boat Museum. Parts of it are rusted from the salt water, while other parts are still in near mint condition, as they sat below the silt at the bottom of the harbour. (Ryan Cooke/CBC)

The Botwood Flying Boat Museum is filled with artifacts from a period so short-lived it seemed like a fever dream. By the time the war was finished, aviation had progressed to a point where flying boats were no longer necessary. The base was decommissioned and the planes stopped coming.

At the centre of the museum is the piece that cements the reality of the flying boat era — one of the four propellers from Excalibur. It was positioned to loom over the museum, one of the curators explained, as a constant reminder of the 11 lives lost on board that morning in 1942.

After breakfast, the Lansing brothers — along with Gerrity’s two sons, Gerrit and Magnus — walked through the museum doors. They were met with hugs by the town’s archivist, Lisa Hemeon, who was brimming with excitement to welcome the New Yorkers.

When Gerrity reached out to Hemeon a year earlier, it felt serendipitous. She had just begun compiling biographies of the men and women on board the Excalibur after another family reached out with questions about their grandfather.

“To get an email from Gerrity saying they wanted to come over and dive on the spot where their grandfather had died, I thought, ‘This is great. We can allow some closure,’” Hemeon said. “I’m sure a lot of the families of victims in this crash have never had closure on a lot of things.”

A woman wearing a pink shirt sitting in front a plane propeller.
Lisa Hemeon is the archivist for the Town of Botwood. (Dan Arsenault/CBC)

Hemeon knew some of the bodies were sent to Gander, so she had someone scour the cemeteries there in search of the elder Lansing. When that came up empty, she began to investigate further and found some of the bodies in Gander had been exhumed and sent home to the United States. Gerrity was later told by a government employee that Crawford Lansing’s remains were sent to Salisbury, Conn. He brought his son in the spring of 2023, and they walked through the graveyard until they found it.

“We were blown away,” he said. “I imagine our father never saw it himself. Maybe he did. He’s never told us.”

Early in their quest for answers, the Lansing brothers had an idea to turn it into an adventure. They didn’t just want to learn more about the Excalibur — they wanted to see it for themselves. The first hurdle was getting the blessing of the U.S. Defence Department, since the remains of four servicemen are still somewhere — in some condition — at the bottom of Botwood Harbour.

Once permission was granted, the brothers enlisted the help of Ocean Quest Adventures, a diving company based in St. John’s, to lead them on an expedition to the debris field.

A man in a wet suit.
Gerrity Lansing prepares to dive into Botwood Harbour, in search of the plane his grandfather died on in 1942. (Ryan Cooke/CBC)

On a misty morning in mid-August, they followed in the footsteps of Crawford Lansing — crossing the former air base, down to the boat launch.

“It’s sort of strange to think that the last steps that our grandfather took were right over here and then onto the boat some 81 years ago,” Sims said. “But it’s very special for us. We’re here with my brother’s two sons, to do this all together as a family and honor our grandfather.”

There was a quiet excitement as the Lansings set out with their guides — John Olivero manning the boat, Chris Power leading the dive and Neil Burgess of the Newfoundland and Labrador Shipwreck Preservation Society with his enormous camera equipment in tow.

The rain tapered off as the boat was unmoored, giving way to a gentle breeze and a slight chop on the water — identical conditions to the final Excalibur flight in 1942.

The group headed for the debris field, a general location provided by the U.S. Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, which has dived to the wreckage on multiple occasions since 2008 in a futile effort to find human remains.

The boat hovered over a spot in about 40 feet of water. Olivero gave the nod. The Lansing family split into groups of two and flipped over the side into frigid waters. They used lead weights to sink to the bottom and moved together in a horizontal line toward the former air base, scouring the seafloor for any remnants of Excalibur.

At the top, Olivero explained it’s a needle in a haystack. They’ve got an idea of where the debris field might be, he said, but without exact co-ordinates the best they can do is make an educated guess based on a number of clues from JPAC and historical accounts.

About 30 minutes into their dive, Ocean Quest’s best guesses led to a discovery.

A long steel rod — similar in size and design to the support beams on the Excalibur — was found in an area where the wing is believed to be.
Gerrity (bottom) and Lansing Sims put their recent dive training to the test in frigid waters.
The cold waters were filled with colourful jellyfish.
Sims Lansing poses for a picture while diving for the Excalibur debris field.
images expandA steel rod on the ocean floor.

Resting at the bottom was a large steel pole with ends angled at 45 degrees — closely resembling the support beams between the wings and pontoons of the Excalibur. It was poking out of the sediment, glistening in the radiance of their flashlights as if it were just waiting to be found after decades in the frigid water.

If the odds were “needle in a haystack,” then this was a huge win in the Lansings’ eyes. They sent hand signals to each other, taking turns swimming down near the bottom to look until the sediment was kicked up and clouded the steel beam in a haze of muck.

Moments later, the guides checked their oxygen levels and made the call to come to the surface and bring an end to the search for Excalibur. Olivero expertly swivelled the boat around bobbing heads in the water, collecting each of the beaming divers.

With everyone back in the boat, the group chatted excitedly through jittering teeth. Rain began hammering the canopy of the Zodiac as the beauty of Botwood’s shoreline drew closer.

“It felt like an actual mission,” Sims said. “When the photographer pointed and said that’s something to look at, that’s a piece of the plane, it felt like this was a real mission for us and our family.”

It was a small discovery, but it was caked more in sentiment than sediment.

As the day wound down, their brief time in Botwood drawing to a close, Gerrity reflected on what the trip had meant. Standing before the massive propeller in the museum, something dawned on him.

“It’s kind of strange — on the one hand in our family, we experienced this death first-hand, I guess, and the loss was never talked about. And then here, there’s such an openness about it and such a focus on it …definitely the latter is the better way to deal with it.”

The Lansings came in search of a family connection. They left with a connection to an entire town — a place doing its best to remember its rich and tragic history with every brush stroke.

“We have to remember these things,” Hemeon said. “Because here we are 80 years later, and we still have descendants of one of the people who died on that plane wanting to come and have closure. We can’t erase that history.”

Illustration: Katie Rowe/CBC

Video editing: Dan Arsenault/CBC

Copy editing: Daniel MacEachern/CBC

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