Warrant officer f.e. jenkins was one of 24 young men onboard an airforce bomber that disappeared over quebec one night in october 1943. for almost three years, his parents in millview, p.e.i. waited for news of his fate.
Even in late May, snow hides under the pine trees at the top of Black Mountain. The ground is clear and green where the sun gets in. Large granite rocks are spewed along the ground. Where you can see out from between the trees, the rolling hills of the Laurentian Mountains around Saint-Donat Quebec look like large rolling waves of brown and green. Only a few kilometers south of Black Mountain, the foliage is green and thick.
It’s a hard climb up the mount. The trail is steep and rocky. It takes about two hours to climb it from the trailhead to the very top. And yet it doesn’t go all the way to the summit. It stops at a clearing just under it. There, an average hike on Victoria Day-weekend turns hushed and solemn. Because there lies the graves of 24 young men.
Among them is Franklin “Elwood” Jenkins of Millview, Prince Edward Island.
Elwood was smart. There is no doubt about that. He graduated at the top of his class with honours in Guelph, Ontario where he studied wireless for the airforce. After that he was sent to CFB Mountain View in Prince Edward County, Ontario where he was trained to become an Air Gunner and was promptly promoted to sergeant. He had joined the airforce only one year earlier in May, 1941 when he was 20 years old.
As a sergeant, Elwood was then sent to Mont-Joli, outside Montreal to learn about the Liberator aircraft. The Liberators were bombers. Massive, heavy looking pieces of machinery, made in the United States. During his training at Mont-Joli, he would have looked down on the green waves of the Laurentian Mountains, not realizing what role those hills would play in his ultimate fate.
Once he was schooled about the Liberator, Elwood was promoted again, to warrant officer, then posted to Newfoundland. It was there that he was put into active service.
On his time off, Elwood would head for home. Millview.
There he would sleep in his own bed, and enjoy home cooked meals with his parents, Milton and Elizabeth. He was their only child. While on the Island, Elwood would go into Charlottetown and sport his uniform while on dates. He was 21 years old then.
Goodbyes are never easy. Especially during war-time. We will never know what was said between he and his parents whenever Elwood left Millview to return to service. His cousins. His distant relatives and friends. That young girl pictured with him in Charlottetown. They all said things that are lost to time.
Like watching a movie with the volume muted. We can see Elwood speaking with them all, but can’t hear what is said.
When he left the Island for the last time in July 1943, the precariousness of the world war would have been obvious to his parents. The newspaper was filled each day with Personal notes--each just a couple sentences long. So-and-so had made it safely overseas. This person had just been promoted to a new rank. That person was presumed killed in action. Articles about war budgets of commonwealth countries carried large headlines.
In early October 1943, Elwood nervously boarded a Liberator with his fellow airmen. It wasn’t the mission he was nervous about. It was because of who was flying with them. On that mission they had Air Vice-Marshall Albert Godfrey. He was one of the most senior members of the Royal Canadian Air Force, but more than that he was a legend. At the outbreak of World War I, Godfrey had been building his own airplane. In combat, he quickly made a name for himself as an air-ace, having shot down numerous enemy aircraft.
As the Liberator left sight of Newfoundland and flew out over the Atlantic, Elwood knew that that flight would be a story to tell his parents back home. It wasn’t everyday that a crew had an air vice-marshall fly with them--let alone “Steve”, an air-ace.
Elwood’s story then took a dramatic turn. The crew of the Liberator sited a German U-boat in the mid-Atlantic and quickly engaged it. Steve, the air vice-marshall took control of one of the large guns and began firing at the submarine. The Liberator would have pitched and circled that expansive area of ocean time and time again as it attacked the U-boat. Eventually it would have pitched west one last time and headed back to base.
The excitement on board would have been electric. Adrenaline would be high. Elwood and his fellow crew would be thrilled to tell the story over and over to friends and family at home.
When the Liberator had landed, taxied, then shut-down for the night, Elwood, his comrades and the air vice-marshall piled onto a small aerodrome tractor to drive back to the hangar. A RCAF photographer snapped a dark photo of the group, with Elwood at the wheel.
A few days later on October 5th, that photo with a small caption would be published in The Charlottetown Guardian. In Millview, Milton and Elizabeth would bring the paper close to their face to get the best view of Elwood as possible. Then they would show it to friends and family. That was their son there with the air vice-marshall.
A couple weeks after that mission, on October 19th, Elwood and several of his comrades started leave. Elwood, as usual, was going back to Millview to enjoy his time-off. He and the group of airmen, would fly on a Liberator from Gander, Newfoundland to Mont-Joli, Quebec before boarding another military flight to get home. But fog set in and the plane couldn’t leave Gander until shortly after 10 p.m..
It took about three hours to fly to Mont-Joli. During that time, Elwood might have thought back on the missions he had flown over the last few months, and what he would do at home in Millview.
When the Liberator crew radioed ground control at Mont-Joli, they were advised that the airport was closed for the night because of bad weather. They were told to try landing at either Ottawa or Dorval, on the Island of Montreal. The plane pitched and changed direction.
Early in the morning of October 20th, Elwood would spend his last couple hours with the airmen that he had worked alongside in Newfoundland. Some of them would drift in and out of sleep, chat intermittently amongst themselves, or sit quietly and think to themselves. Someone may have cursed the weather for delaying their leave plans, and wasting time that they could have spent at home.
At dawn of October 20th, people who lived in the Saint-Donat area recalled hearing a low flying-aircraft the night before. Some would recall how they heard thundering crashing noises, presumably of the same aircraft. A man who had been manning a nearby fire tower, reported seeing light coming from the top of Black Mountain. But he thought it was only the sun reflecting off a rockface. That morning he and another local man took a boat out on Lake Archambault to look for signs of a plane crash but found nothing.
On the same morning, ground control at Mont-Joli, Dorval, and Ottawa reported that the Liberator never landed at those airports. There was no communication with the plane after Mont-Joli had advised the crew that their landing strips were shut for the night, and there was no sign of it having crashed somewhere. RCAF command quickly organized a search party and began looking for the crash airplane.
In Millview, Milton and Elizabeth patiently waited for their son to arrive on the Island. They were excited to hear about his latest missions over the mid Atlantic. But mostly they would be happy to have the peace of mind that he wouldn’t be in harm's way for at least a few days.
Instead they were told that the plane Elwood was flying on had disappeared somewhere over Quebec.
For over a month, RCAF command sent planes out over the Laurentians to look for the missing Liberator. They followed it’s planned flight path, and an estimate path that it may have flown toward Ottawa or Dorval. But the search group had no luck.
On November 26th, the air force called off the search. There was no sign of the plane or any debris. Their best guess was that it had crashed into the St. Lawrence River and sunk.
No one knew for sure what had happened to the crew of the Liberator. If they had crashed somewhere, perhaps there were survivors who were living somewhere in the wilderness. But that was clearly wishful thinking.
In August of 1944, nearly a year after the aircraft went missing, Elwood was officialy presumed lost. A few months after that in January 1945, he was then presumed dead. With the no body, or evidence of a crash site, the Jenkins were left to mourn their 23 year old son.
The crash of the Liberator was--and remains, the RCAF’s worst aviation disaster. For almost three long years, the remains of the plane and it’s casualties was a painful mystery to the families of those lost.
On June 20th, 1946, a pilot was flying over Black Mountain looking for another aircraft that had gone missing. Spotting sunlight flicker off something metallic, he flew down for a closer look and saw what looked to be parts of a bomber. A group was organized that bush-whacked its way up through the thick forest of Black Mountain to the crash site. A few days later on the 24th, the airforce confirmed the wreckage was that of the lost Liberator.
All the crew and passengers died on impact. The resulting fire, melted much of the metal and burned all but three of the bodies. Elwood's remains could not be identified.
On the morning of July 3rd, 1946, an entourage of cars left the hotel in the small village of Saint-Donat. They drove across Lake Archambault, then a short distance up Black Mountain to a parking lot. Leaving the vehicles behind, the group made the difficult hike up the mountain side, crossing creaks, and boulders until they came to the small clearing in the woods. There, three military padres of the Catholic, Protestant and Jewish faiths gave a service to commemorate those lost. Maple leaves from trees in Ottawa were laid on each grave, two wreaths were laid on a small cairn placed on the site, and bible passages were read.
Many in the group were family members of the young crew, although Milton and Elizabeth were unable to make the trip in time.
The next day, the Principal Chaplain for the RCAF wrote a letter to Milton and Elizabeth, to explain the funeral in detail.
“We realize most intimately that the belated discovery of the wrecked aircraft had broken open again the wounds of your sorrow and loneliness,” the chaplain wrote. “And all of us in the Royal Canadian Air Force join with you in your grief.”
Eventually Milton and Elizabeth would make the trek to Saint-Donat, then up Black Mountain to see the grave site of their only son in that small clearing.
For 75 years, Elwood has been on Black Mountain in Quebec. Abruptly stopped there on his way home to Prince Edward Island. Abruptly stopped there at 23 years old. He is visited by many strangers, and sometimes by Islanders, too. At the back corner of the small cemetery, under a large rock-face of wet granite, a small white cross bears his name.