In reassuring contrast to President Donald Trump’s tempestuous Tweets undermining Canada-U.S. relations, an emotional ceremony Sunday (Sept. 9) in a soy field east of Lawrence Station serves as confirmation of the lasting bond between the two countries.
The occasion was the unveiling of the commemorative plaque at the crash site of the Flagship Erie, American Airlines Flight 1 en route to Detroit from Buffalo that slammed into the ground at 10:10 p.m. Oct. 30, 1941, killing all 20 aboard the DC-3.
It’s final resting spot was the farm of Thompson and Viola Howe.
Their deaths made it Canada’s worst airline crash at the time and it remains Elgin county’s worst disaster. An almost forgotten chapter in the history of Southwold Township.
Seventy-seven years later, those 20 souls, including the Flagship Erie’s captain, David Cooper, were honoured through the efforts of the Green Lane Community Trust, the Southwold Township History Committee, S.S. #12 Southwold School Alumni and the Township of Southwold.
“The memorial is really an honour for the families of the survivors,” advised David Cooper Jr., who was two years old at the time of the crash that took the life of his father. He was one of 34 children left without a father that evening.
“It’s an indication of the strength of the Canadian-American friendships. My father would be very proud to know that his last efforts are being memorialized in such an honest way.
On a wind-swept afternoon, the 200 or so in attendance witnessed the plaque unveiling, within sight of where the Flagship Erie hit the ground – dangerously close to the Howe farmhouse – and burst into flames.
There is speculation that perhaps Cooper, at the last minute, did all he could to avoid further loss of life.
“My dad said there should be a marker put up where all these people lost their lives,” says Ken Howe, who was five at the time and whose bedroom window reflected the flames from the wreckage.
“This should have been done 75 years ago.”
“This one story of a plane crash spawned countless other stories,” advised Ross Burgar, chairman of the Southwold Township History Committee and ceremony moderator.
“Stories of people impacted by the shock of sudden loss. People with memories of witnessing such a horror. And the endless wondering why and how this anguish happened.
“For many of you, the effects of experiencing this tragedy at such a young age would influence your ideas and attitudes throughout a lifetime. It is our hope today’s gathering . . . might at least provide some measure of comfort.”
With no official cause of the crash ever determined, the plaque dedication did bring a measure of closure to relatives who travelled to Lawrence Station.
“There was an extensive investigation, both by American agents and Canadian agents, and they never even published a final paper,” noted Burgar in a previous interview. “They explored so many possibilities, including pilot error, weather, a lightning strike and a Canada goose strike.
“They considered everything, but any of the pertinent evidence was destroyed in the fire, so they never were able to determine the cause. They just left it as cause unknown.”
“Although the mystery remains as to why the flight went down, the impact changed aviation here in Canada and the United States forever,” pointed out Elgin-Middlesex-London MP Karen Vecchio.
“That crash highlighted the need for flight data recorders which are commonplace now,” added Burgar. “That flight was one of the ones that impacted the move toward developing a black box (flight data recorder).”
The crash is comprehensively documented by the late Robert Schweyer in his book Final Descent: Loss of the Flagship Erie, published in 2015.
His son, Matthew Schweyer, supplied the back story to the book’s publication.
“Decades after the crash, my dad undertook his own examination . . . about 70 years after this major tragedy, my dad completed a manuscript entitled Final Descent Loss of the Flagship Erie. In 2010, he lost his battle with cancer and it became a family project to see that manuscript finished.
“Part of what motivated my dad was the utter mystery that proved unsolvable on both sides of the border,” continued Matthew Schweyer.
“More than that, my dad loved people and was passionate to hear people’s stories. This is a story he couldn’t let go of. It forever changed 20 unique families, leaving 34 children fatherless.
“Today our family connects with you as a result of location. That is, the last radio transmission of Flagship Erie was heard above the radio range station at Jarvis, Ontario. The same small village where our family, many years later, would come to live.”
For 43-year-old James (Jim) George of Buffalo, the financial secretary of the International United Auto Workers, the flight aboard Flagship Erie was undertaken reluctantly.
“Our family has come together to pay tribute and honour the lives of the 20 passengers and crew members of the Flagship Erie,” said George’s grand-daughter, Beth Saleet, whose mother, Janet, was three years of age when her father perished on his very first flight aboard an aircraft, “and the community members who came forward to help as best they could on that tragic night.
“Jim did not want to fly and, in fact, it was the first time he had ever flown.
“I do believe there is always good that comes out of any event,” continued Saleet. “The idea of putting black boxes in planes came out of that crash. And now, air travel has been made safer for all of us.”
The pilot’s actions that evening in the light rain and fog, as he struggled to maintain control of the DC-3, were not a topic for family discussion recalled his son.
“As far as I can remember, my mother never mentioned anything about my father,” advised David Cooper Jr. “I asked my brother and Peter said she never talked to him about our father. So our father exists for us mainly in the written record . . . in the Rob Schweyer book.”
And the significance of the Lawrence Station plaque is not lost on him, even though nearly eight decades have ticked over since the final descent of the Flagship Erie.
“It existed all these 77 years in the memory of many of the people here and many bear some emotional scars from the experience their grandfathers or fathers had that night. It was a very difficult scene and we’re glad that, to some extent, that those painful memories can be put to rest.”
In her closing prayer, Rev. Diane Macpherson acknowledged, “that to some people this is just a farmer’s field, as time has eroded memories.
“Today, we acknowledge that this place is so much more than a farmer’s field. It holds a significant place in the history of this community and of the Township of Southwold, as we honour and remember the lives lost and the lives forever changed by this tragedy.”
What hasn’t changed, stressed Capt. Cooper’s son, are the ties that bind two neighbouring nations together.
“At a time when so many try to divide Americans and Canadians, we Americans want to tell you how thankful we are for your compassion and generosity over the years. It demonstrates the enduring bond of friendship between us.”
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