Doubts linger over possible human remains in World War II plane wreck
LAKE MUSKOKA - The wreck of a World War II plane in Lake Muskoka was officially declared to have no remains when it was found in 2008, and Al Bacon believes that is likely still the case.
Bacon, who formed the Lost Airmen of Muskoka Project (LAMP) with several local men to find the wreck several years ago, has shared video footage from a 2011 OPP survey dive with this newspaper showing the condition of the wreckage when it was first discovered. Official reports after the OPP dive said no recoverable human remains were found.
“If there was any flesh, they would have found it,” Bacon said.
Bacon came forward with the video footage after the brother of Ted Bates — one of the pilots killed in wreckage — told this newspaper that the military has informed him their divers may have found human remains during a second survey dive conducted last month.
The aircraft, a Northrop Nomad 3521, has remained underwater since it collided mid-air with another plane in a December 1940 accident that killed four crewmen. Though the other plane and two crewmen were recovered before the war was over, the bodies of Bates and RAF Flight Lt. Peter Campbell have remained underwater with the wreck since.
Video footage from the original OPP dive shows a plane split into several pieces over an eight-metre radius.
The grainy, murky footage shows no trace of either Bates’ or Campbell’s body in the ghostly, barnacle-encrusted cockpit. Only a few eerie material remnants of the servicemen’s presence are seen in the video, including a shredded overcoat, a boot, Bates’ glove — still balled into a fist — and Campbell’s cigarette case.
Project LAMP members have long contended that the acidity of the lake has dissolved the bodies of the crewmen.
Bacon pointed to Bates’ ring as proof, which was recovered in near immaculate condition when it was found in a recovered glove without a trace of human remains on it.
“It’s like it came out of the store,” said Bacon.
Bacon said the military was not interested in finding the wreck before the OPP went down to have a look. In a 2008 letter to Bacon, Defence Minister Peter MacKay said the military doesn’t start looking until they have some proof that human remains belonging to military personnel could exist.
“Given the high numbers of missing (over 4,000 Commonwealth soldiers and airmen lost in Canada alone), the Department of National Defence does not actively search for remains,” MacKay wrote. “Furthermore, the department will not become involved until informed by either the coroner or the Commonwealth War Graves Commission that they have in their possession remains that are likely from a Canadian soldier.”
The military, however, apparently did an about face after the OPP resurfaced with artifacts in their 2011 dive, and scheduled their own dive in mid-October. Department of National Defence spokesperson Melanie Villeneuve had said the dive was intended to recover potential human remains and artifacts, and to remove potential physical or environmental hazards.
Based on Bacon’s footage and still photos, one of the closest things to human remains previously recovered during the OPP dive was an unknown grapefruit-sized mass that at first appearance looks like barnacled human bone.
But citing the OPP’s expertise in handling cold case investigations, Bacon sides with their official reports and sticks by his doubts as to whether any human remains could be recovered after 70 years of exposure to lake water.
“To me it looks like a piece of a skull,” he said. “Who knows, it could be the shell of a turtle.”
Though Campbell’s cigarette case and Bates’ ring have been returned to their respective families, Bacon says to his knowledge, all the other items recovered went to the military.
After performing their own dive last month, the military has remained tight-lipped on what they found, but Bates’ brother has told this newspaper that they are in the process of obtaining a DNA sample from him for comparison. Carl Mills, another Project LAMP member, said he’s heard second-hand rumours that the military recovered a small, one-centimetre smear of calcified substance, and a bit of fatty material from inside the cockpit.
Project LAMP members have expressed concerns that the wreck would be declared a war grave if the military confirms they have found human remains, and that the military would refuse to resurface the wreckage. As the plane is a rare one — one of three left in the world — Project LAMP members have been working to have it resurfaced and turned into a war memorial.