Air base service honours veterans

Air base service Honours veterans
by Barb Rayner, Courier/ Transcribed by G. Christian Larsen

PENNFIELD – Veterans who lost their lives while serving at the Pennfield air base and the Camp Utopia army base were remembered during ceremonies held at Pennfield Sunday afternoon.

This was the third annual service organized by the Charlotte Fundy Kin Club and the organization has erected a memorial1 at the park alongside Route 1 where the service was held.

Following a welcome by MC Morris Harris and the singing of O’ Canada, Rev. Keith Osborne offered a prayer then local historian Jason Gaudet read the names of those who lost their lives. There were 70 casualties2 during air crew training and five3 at Camp Utopia army base.

After the playing of the Last Post and two minutes silence, Kin Club President Karen Avery read a poem written by 14-year-old Jeremy Murray.

Following the laying of wreaths at the memorial and the singing of God Save the Queen, everyone moved off to the Legion hall in St. George for the remainder of the program.

"Flag bearers stand at attention during the service Sunday to remember those who died from the Pennfield Air Base and Camp Utopia Army Base during the Second World War."

Blacks Harbour mayor Terry James, who praised the Kin Club for honouring the veterans of the air base and the army camp, said, "We, here today, are guardians of that history and they enabled us to enjoy the freedoms we have today. They made the ultimate sacrifice and were a long way away from their homes."

St. George mayor Sharon Tucker thanked those who stepped up to the plate to ensure that the lives of the 70 men and women from the two bases who made the ultimate sacrifice were remembered.

Kin District Governor Leigh Dingley said that the Kin organization was started by a young man who came home from the First World War and longed for the fellowship of his comrades.

He tried to join the Rotary Club, said Dingley, but was turned down so he decided to start his own service organization and that was the beginning of the Kin Association. During the Second World War, the organization became involved in sending assistance to Britain and they sent over five million quarts of milk.

Since 1964, said Dingley, the association has been helping cystic fibrosis and has raised over $32 million. Here in the Atlantic Provinces, he said, they also support multiple sclerosis and have raised over $2 million.

Jason Gaudet, who has done a lot of research on the two bases, then spoke about one of the casualties, Sgt. Herbert Burnham, who had been born in England and then his family immigrated to Australia.4

He was just 19 when he was killed in February 1943 and Gaudet said he will be meeting one of Burnham’s relatives next week. He said the memorial at the picnic park in Pennfield is a place where family members can go to remember their loved ones.

The crash that claimed Burnham’s life was one of many, said Gaudet. He said there were 150 accidents5 at the air base with 70 casualties and 22 of these men were never found.

Burnham’s plane was on a training exercise when it crashed in the Richibucto area then exploded – all three crew members were killed. The reason for the crash, said Gaudet is not known.

"This was just one of the many accidents that claimed the lives of these 70 men. They may not be on the battlefields but they did step up to the plate, they did challenge the enemy and were willing to die for their country.  We should remember these men as well as the other veterans who made the ultimate sacrifice."

Chris Larsen <see below>, president of the Pennfield Parish Historical Society6, has also done a lot of research in his efforts to preserve the military history of the parish.

He spoke of traveling to Ottawa to meet with veteran David Stewart7 who served at Pennfield Ridge and was very pleased Larsen had taken on this project. Larsen said veterans feel more needs to be done to make sure the history of the bases is not forgotten.

Advancing age has slowed the veterans down, he said, so it is up to the younger people to make sure their history lives on, which is why he has been traveling the country and recording the history of Camp Utopia.

He said Stewart <Stuart> could remember the first accident and he talked about the damp days at Pennfield. Some of those who served there, said Larsen, met and married local girls.

"My journey began as a personal experience to better understand the history of Camp Utopia. It has now become much more. Those who served helped to define who we are and must never be forgotten and we owe them that much."

Minister of Veterans Affairs Greg Thompson thanked the Kin Club for what they have done to honour these men and women who really made a difference in the world.

"We truly do have the best country in the world and we owe all of it to the men and women in uniform that allow us to live in a country as great as Canada," Thompson said.

There are 6,000 monuments across the country, said Thompson, and many of them were started by people such as the members of the Kin Club, which decided it was time to do something.

"It is never too late to honour our men and women in uniform. We will continue to pay homage and respect to these men and women," he said.

Speaking of the situation in the world today, Thompson said the men and women serving are doing exactly the same as those who served in past conflicts.

Minister of Fisheries Rick Doucet said, "People drive by that location on a daily basis and probably have no idea the significant role the air base played in our lives for many years and the military history."

The weather conditions there made it an ideal location to train air crews, said Doucet, and probably some of the greatest pilots came out of Pennfield because they had every condition thrown at them.

"We are here to honour the men who lost their lives while training here. We are adding one name to the list this year and two more will be added next year. I applaud the efforts of Jason for his research and the Kin Club for the efforts they have put forward."

The Pennfield air base, with its three big runways, was opened July 21, 1941 as #2 Air Navigation School of the Royal Canadian Air Force. The following year it became a Royal Air Force base – No. 34 Operational Training Unit – where hundreds of crew members were taught to fly bombers and other aircraft. While there were many crashes and fatalities, the base turned out a steady stream of aircrew for the war in Europe and elsewhere.

A few kilometers away, a Canadian Army construction crew arrived in July 1942 to begin construction of Camp Utopia, the largest military facility in New Brunswick at the time.

Ground assault troops began training there in 1943, preparing for the invasions of Italy and northwest Europe. Thousands of assault troops trained there during the war and the camp continued to operate into the 1950s.

There were drill halls, rifle ranges, a mock village, a field firing range, a battle inoculation range, sten gun ranges, an anti-tank gun range, mortar ranges, a grenade range, obstacle courses, a bayonet assault course, mine fields and a booby trap hut.

SOURCE: The Saint Croix Courier (St. Stephen, NB) - September 23, 2008.

Transcriber's Notes:

1 The memorial stone was brought about by the hard work and dedication of the "Charlotte County War Memorial Committee (2005)". The committee members were: J. David Stuart, Mark Pedersen, 250 RCAF (Saint John) Wing, A.F.A.C. and Charlotte Fundy Kin Club.

2 There were 69 airmen and 1 British seaman (passenger aboard Ventura aircraft when it crashed). Also there were 6 civilians as well.

3 There are actually 8 military service personnel and 1 civilian.

4 Only Hubert Burnham immigrated to Australia under the Boy Scout movement. His parents and two siblings remained in England.

5 By 9 December 2008, 2 months & 18 days after the service, Gaudet had only 135 accidents documented. However this report, "Incident Report For Pennfield Ridge" contained at least 287 mistakes and/or errors and/or ommissions.

6 Should be J. David Stuart, founding member of "Charlotte County War Memorial Committee (2005)".

7 There are actually 8 military service personnel and 1 civilian.

Speech given at memorial service by G. Christian Larsen, September 21st, 2008.

My name is Christian Larsen and I am currently serving as president of "Pennfield Parish Military Historical Society."” The society was established in November of last year to further help preserve the rich military history of Pennfield Parish, including the Pennfield Ridge Air Station and Camp Utopia. The purpose of this society is to discover, procure, collect, preserve, display and interpret material of historical value associated with the area and work with other organizations that have similar goals.

Since January of 2007 I have been actively researching the history of the Air Station and Camp Utopia. In March of this year I traveled to Ottawa to meet with J. David Stuart, a veteran from No.2 Air Navigation School at Pennfield Ridge. I remember vividly Mr. Stuart’s first statement to me when we sat down to recall events from sixty plus years ago. The statement was: "I’m very pleased Chris that you’ve taken on this project." You see Mr. Stuart was the driving force behind the Pennfield Ridge Memorial and spent three years bringing it to fruition. He, along with a couple of dozen other veterans I’ve been in touch with, feel strongly that more needs to be done to make sure the history of the Air Station and Camp Utopia is not forgotten. To make sure the memory and the sacrifices of those who served were not lost. However, the advancement of age has slowed our veterans down so it is now up to the younger generation to carry on with their journey.

My own personal journey during the past twenty months has been traveling across Canada interviewing veterans such as Mr. Stuart and recording the "living" history of the Air Station and Camp Utopia. While it is true that the history of these two bases exist within microfilm, newspaper accounts, accident reports, etc. that only tells a portion of the story. The "living" history is the personal reflections of each and every individual who served and is unique to them alone. They bore witness to the historic events that shaped us as a nation and as the ranks of veterans become thinner, their first hand accounts take on even more significance. So it's time those over-chocked fields spoke. The stories shared and recorded for future generations to enjoy.

Most of the stories have been lost to the ravages of time and what do remain are widely scattered. Personal reflections, I have often discovered, come in the form of what is important to the veterans themselves. For example: Mr. Stuart could easily recall, among other things, the first accident of an aircraft from Pennfield Ridge in August of 1941. Stan Collins recalls fresh salmon on the menu during the summer and donating blood regularly at the clinic in St. George. Cy Poissant spoke about the crash at McAdam which claimed the entire crew of a Ventura in December of 1943 and about being at the base "...during the cold, damp, blustering, snow, sleet wintery days of November, December and January..." Others such as Mac McNevan, George Manning, John Morden and Leonard Gass, just to name a few, would meet and fall in love with a local girl who would eventually become their wife. Some of these individuals would remain in the area and others would move away. Mac McNevan often returned for visits and would never miss an opportunity, while driving across the ridge, to pause and gaze at the over-grown fields and decaying tarmac strips...just to stare and stare. Mr. Manning too would often return and this past summer his son Peter had another opportunity to visit as well. During the course of our meeting Peter remarked about how much he enjoyed driving on the same runways his father once piloted his plane on during his training here. It’s now become a priceless memory Peter will pass down to his daughters, and thus the circle continues.

So my journey that began as a personal experience to better understand the history of the Air Station and Camp Utopia has now become something much more. The personalities of the veterans and their passion to keep the Air Station and Camp Utopia alive keep me coming back. When there are no more veterans to guide me I will still continue my journey in the memory of those such as J. David Stuart who taught me what it means to be a Veteran.

So in closing I just wish to say that those who served helped to define who we are, and their sacrifices must never be forgotten. We owe them that much. Thank-you!

"Rev Keith Osborne reads a prayer during Sunday afternoon’s memorial service in Pennfield to honour those who died  from the Pennfield Air Base and Camp Utopia Army Base during the Second World War."

"Jessie Nason, who served as a fabric worker at the Pennfield Air Base during the Second World War, was among those who attended a memorial service held at Pennfield Sunday afternoon to honour the casualties from the air base as well as the Camp Utopia Army Base."

"Blacks Harbour mayor Terry James lays a wreath at the memorial in Pennfield to the casualties from Pennfield Air Base and Camp Utopia Army Base during a service held Sunday afternoon."

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