August 2, 2012: Recovery of Missing U.S. Airmen at Longue-Pointe-de-Mingan
by Guest Blogger Consul General Quebec Peter O’Donohue
For 30 days this summer, the U.S. Navy salvage ship, the USNS Grapple, spent several weeks in Longue-Pointe-de-Mingan as part of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) mission to recover five crew members who perished when a U.S. Army seaplane crashed off the Quebec coast in 1942. JPAC’s motto is “Until they are home.” This mission to Quebec is a testament to JPAC’s commitment to keeping that promise and to ensure that every United States service member or civilian who gave their life for our nation is entitled to one certainty: that he or she will not be forgotten.
Our Consul General in Quebec, Peter O’Donohue took the opportunity to visit Longue-Pointe-de-Mingan and learn more about this important mission. Here is his blog:
On July 22, my wife and I – after a twelve hour drive along the North Shore of the St. Lawrence – arrived at Longue-Pointe-de-Mingan, scene of a November 1942 disaster in which an amphibious PBY Catalina with 9 U.S. airmen aboard suffered a catastrophic breach while in an attempted water take-off and plowed nose first under high waves, drowning five of the airmen. Local fishermen, watching from the shore, quickly rowed to the scene of the accident and rescued the remaining four airmen moments before the aircraft disappeared beneath the waves. For nearly seventy years, the aircraft remained lost in the dark and icy waters of the St. Lawrence, although the accident itself remained a vivid memory for local villagers who had known some of the airmen and retained warm memories of the U.S. soldiers stationed at a local airbase from 1942-1949. It was only in 2009 that a Parks Canada archaeological team stumbled upon the drowned aircraft and, quickly realizing its probable identity, set in motion a chain of events that led to the arrival in early July of the U.S. Navy salvage ship, USNS Grapple, with a team of some 50 divers and forensics experts from the U.S. military’s specialized recovery unit, the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), with a mission to retrieve human remains and associated personal items for repatriation and identification.
The next day, my wife and I joined Ottawa and Mingan-based Parks Canada officials – who have worked closely with JPAC in the recovery operation – along with representatives from Quebec’s Ministry of Culture, the Mayor of Mingan and other local officials – on a VIP visit to the USNS Grapple. In rough weather that recalled the day of the crash, we were, after some delicate maneuvering by local boatmen, able to clamber aboard the deck of the USNS Grapple just in time to observe a pair of divers emerge from the 120 foot depth where the aircraft rests in 2º C water. Support teams immediately helped the divers out of their specialized suits – the stress of the working conditions apparent on the divers’ faces – and rushed them into a decompression chamber where they were forced to remain for an hour. Following an extensive tour of the USNS Grapple and discussions with JPAC team leader Captain Russell Grigsby and many of the crew, we were allowed to view items that had been recovered from the wreck in an astonishing state of preservation – a watch, glasses, legible log book entries, pieces of uniform, navigational instruments and more. Forensics experts shared with us that three sets of remains had been found, although no names can be revealed until full identification has been completed, and hopes were high that the remains of all five will be recovered before the operation winds up in early August.
For me, one of the most interesting aspects of the recovery mission was the extraordinary sense of emotion — and even kinship — that linked the living with the lost. Aboard the Grapple, there was a palpable sense among the crew of being part of an indispensable mission to repatriate, and thereby honor, comrades whose sacrifice was as important today as on the day the accident occurred. A Parks Canada archaeologist who was present when the first human remains were brought aboard told me of the almost electric sensation that ran through the ship when that moment occurred and, particularly, as one crewman intoned “welcome home, brother.”
Quebecers, too, were and are deeply involved with the tragedy. A number of eye- witnesses to the crash still live in Longue-Pointe-de-Mingan (pop. Approx. 450) and the event is now an important part of local lore. Many residents excitedly asked me about the USNS Grapple’s progress in recovering the lost from “their” wreck. The village Mayor, Jean-Luc Burgess after our ship visit, took me on a tour of the municipal headquarters and showed me old photos of the airbase –then just under construction– that the PBY had come to visit at the time of the crash and recounted how the presence of the base and its soldiers had had an unforgettable impact on the community, providing the poor and once-isolated hamlet with a road, jobs, a hospital, educational support and, for some of the local women, husbands. Although the U.S. abandoned the base in 1949, a hanger and landing strip remain intact, used occasionally by small private aircraft.
JPAC personnel told me how this operation, although conducted under very severe conditions, is one of the most successful that many of them have been on in years. They have high hopes of being able to repatriate and identify all five missing airmen and attribute the excellent state of preservation of the human remains and other artifacts to the cold, dark water and the fact that the remains lay undisturbed inside the body of the aircraft, which was itself largely intact after all these years.