Monday, April 03, 2006
Photo: Halifax Bomber NA 337, shown here partly restored at the RCAF Memorial Museum in Trenton, Ontario. Since this photo was taken (July 2005) the plane has been completely restored and is now on public display.
Halifax bomber NA337
First published in The Pioneer (Belleville, Ontario)
The crowd gathered early in the cold outside the Royal Canadian Air Force Memorial Museum in Trenton last Saturday morning. Some shivered; some drank coffee; some shuffled their feet. Tripods were set up, cameras were readied, and microphones were pointed. Pressed up against the wire fence, they came to this spot for the same reason – to witness history.
On the other side of the fence, a group of senior citizens milled about. Some chatted in small groups, while others made themselves busy with the task at hand. This was no ordinary group of seniors, and this was no ordinary day. These were World War II veterans, and they had come to move their baby – Halifax bomber NA337 to its final place in the sun in the glass enclosed front of the museum’s new $5 million expansion.
Dressed in a blue fleece vest with the words Halifax Restoration embroidered on the back in bright yellow thread, Jeff Jeffery, 80, president of the Halifax Aircraft Association hangs onto the scaffolding and looks down as the airplane, gigantic even without its wings, is slowly pulled out of the workshop in the back of the museum. The crowd of several dozen onlookers roars its approval.
“I’ve got tears in my heart and tears in my eyes,” Mr. Jeffery said. “It’s a beautiful thing. It’s just sad that so many of our group isn’t here to see this day. Today is for them.”
Mr. Jeffery has been involved from day one with the plan to get Halifax NA337 off the bottom of Lake Mjosa in Norway and back to Canada.
“Eight of us got together in 1994 and decided to do something to perpetuate the memory of those who died fighting for freedom,” said Mr. Jeffery.
Mr. Jeffery knows how to get the job done. Between July and December 1944, he piloted a Halifax over Germany on 32 missions.
“I had some difficult times,” he said. “But we had a great crew. We won four Distinguished Flying Crosses.”
Other memories are as vivid today as they were when they occurred.
“The worst thing was, you would wake up in the middle of the night, and they would be taking someone’s belongings out of his locker. You knew you lost a buddy. You knew he wasn’t coming back,” Mr. Jeffery said quietly.
Why is the Halifax so important? Because Canadians flew 29,000 missions in Halifax’s during the Second World War. Out of the 50,000 Canadians who served in Bomber Command, 10,000 died. Mr. Jeffery and all the other vets who have put in more than 250,000 hours of volunteer time restoring the plane don’t want anyone to forget the sacrifice that was made. By the time the restoration and the museum expansion is complete in 2006, the plane will be the only technically correct Halifax bomber in the world.
NA337 was shot down by German anti-aircraft fire one night in April 1945. It was returning to England with an RAF crew of six after successfully dropping off supplies to the Norwegian underground. The crew ditched the plane in the lake; unfortunately, only one made it through the night in the frigid water. Tail gunner Flt. Sgt. Thomas Weightman was captured by the Germans, but with only 15 days left in the war, didn’t have time to get transferred to a PoW camp. He is still alive and living in England.
Eventually, the plane was located in 750 feet of water and enough money was raised to put together a salvage operation. After four flights of C-130 transport aircraft, the plane was relocated piece by piece to the RCAF Memorial Museum in Trenton. Since then, a dedicated group of volunteers have methodically taken apart, repaired, and reinstalled thousands of parts.
“Don’t forget about the 740,000 new rivets,” Lloyd Wright shouts out over the din of a nearby lathe, a couple of weeks earlier. In the background, Bev Renshaw, 90, pours oil on a piece of aluminum and starts to cut it into shape. He’s making a piece to attach to the bomb-bay doors. The mind is willing and today, so is the body.
Mr. Wright, 82, is another Halifax pilot working on the restoration. He successfully flew 33 missions before coming home. He spends a lot of his time working on the “bits and pieces” that get attached to the plane. Technical drawings from the airplane's manufacturer, Handley-Page, are sprawled out all over the workshop. What they weren't able to recover from the bottom of Lake Mjosa, they make by hand themselves.
“Joan Wright (Lloyd's wife) said: ‘We used to go to Florida in the winter until Lloyd met that other woman,’” Mr. Jeffery says as he laughs loudly and points at the Halifax as it gets pulled into position in the new building.
Later, they are all standing in front of the plane, getting their picture taken. The warmth of their smiles could take the ice off the wings of the Halifax at 20,000 feet.
Outside, Jodi-Ann Escritt, curator of the museum is running around wearing a hard hat and a smile the size of the fuselage.
“I’m very excited and very happy to have the aircraft sitting on its pad,” Ms. Escritt said. “It has been slow moving, but we made history today. It’s been a long time coming and to see us moving to the next stage – complete restoration of the plane for the public. I can just see people walking into the new building and literally walking into the Halifax. It is going to be spectacular,” she said.
Money remains a problem however. The museum is looking for more than $2 million to complete the project.
“I really hope the federal government finds a way to support this project,” Ms. Escritt said. “We need to preserve this part of our history. The U.K. national lottery supports cultural and heritage industries. We need to do the same. Kids don’t know enough about Canadian history,” she added.