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The aftermath at WWII air-crash site

Laurel Clegg, casualty identification co-ordinator with the Department of National Defence and Courtney Brown, Coroner from the BC Coroners Service search though aircraft debris at the site of the Avro Anson aircraft crash on May 5, 2014.  - Brandon O’Connell, MARPAC Imaging Services
Laurel Clegg, casualty identification co-ordinator with the Department of National Defence and Courtney Brown, Coroner from the BC Coroners Service search though aircraft debris at the site of the Avro Anson aircraft crash on May 5, 2014.
— image credit: Brandon O’Connell, MARPAC Imaging Services

Forensic-expert Laurel Clegg fought mud, rain, cold weather and tough terrain excavating for wartime human remains in May.

But the Canadian Department of National Defence scientist wasn't unearthing artifacts in Europe's Flander's Fields; she and her team worked on a steep, forested slope outside Lake Cowichan where a training plane, carrying four airmen, crashed on Oct. 30, 1942.

The site of that mangled 1937 Avro Anson from the Patricia Bay airfield, was accidentally found and reported seven months earlier by three local forestry engineers.

RCMP and military agents visited the site at October's end, followed by Clegg's exploratory site visit in December. But foul weather, similar to that believed to have claimed the plane, also delayed Clegg and company from returning until spring.

By then, she and her team were ready to positively identify the plane and its crew: Royal Canadian Air Force Sgt. William Baird, and British air force Pilot Officer Charles Fox, Pilot Officer Anthony Lawrence, and Sgt. Robert Luckock.

The fliers were among 794 Commonwealth airmen who died and went missing in North American during training and operations.

Lake Cowichan's case proved the most satisfying of Clegg's career.

"You are able to tell their families, after 70 years, that we found them all. It's morbid, but satisfying. It was the worst site, with the best team," she told the News Leader Pictorial that first reported the tragic wartime find in January.

In late October, RCMP and army ordnance staff attended the site to find any explosives, clearing the way for a forensic expedition.

"Ordnance found the tail fin of a bomb, but they weren't sure if there was a live bomb there," said Clegg. "It was unknown if the aircraft was armed. They were convinced it was an old aircraft, and did not seem to have any major dangers."

Armed with those reports and opinions, Clegg began planning her visit in November.

The plane's engine serial number allowed military records to confirm details about the downed Avro aircraft, and its missing crew.

Dec. 10 saw the trio that originally found the Avro guide Clegg, an ordnance pro, and a military crash expert to the debris-strewn scene.

Clegg called the three plane finders — Dennis Cronin, Walter Van Hell, and Tom Weston — "amazing" for helping authorities, and keeping the case quiet.

"They let us get our jobs done to the best point possible; that's ideal."

She and her colleagues dug for five hours before Mother Nature intervened.

"We confirmed there were remains on site, and the site became the B.C. coroner's. The law protects the site under their (coroner's) jurisdiction," she said. "We went back up with coroners two days later, but it had snowed and road conditions were bad."

Clegg confirmed the plane was made of wood and canvas "so there was very little left of it."

"We also found part of a human shoulder; that's enough to bring in the coroner, and we started planning," she said of a return mission.

But first, lots of site and artifact photos were snapped. Ordnance agents looked for ammo, and poked for possible radiation in the Avro's control-panel dials.

Clegg got a military work order, and talked with the B.C. Coroner's staff plus other forensic experts about the cold case.

"The intention is to recover as many of the individuals as possible, and remediate the site while removing hazards."

Her plans didn't become reality until spring.

"We went back the first week of April with experts from environment, radiation, aircraft wrecks, military project leader Maj. Patrick Levis, plus BCC's Courtney Brown. We started planning for a return May 5.

"This is the first time most of them had seen the site. You can't understand how difficult it is until you get there."

The potential for explosives, radiation and wildlife on a wooded slope spelled chainsaws to clear logs while armed animal-control officers stood by.

"The whole point is to give these guys dignity, and not put people in danger," Clegg said of the May 5 to 8 operation. "It's a wicked slope. Our focus was around the control panel."

Personnel were hazard-suited in case of radiation contamination, while forensics folks did remains recovery.

"You're looking for repetitions of four as we knew from records, plus dental records, four guys were missing. You try to get as many remains and personal items as possible."

ID tags, bracelets, wallets, four combs, a cigarette case, coins, teeth, buttons, RCAF pins, and boots were found amid mud, needles, moss and twigs. Investigators would go down to rock, one layer at a time.

The plane landed belly up, as hemlocks crashed on top of it.

"You have trees right through the middle, so you excavate, then cut trees away," said Clegg.

Soldiers helped sift through the debris where bone fragments (not whole skeletons) were uncovered.

"You feel frantic, but feel really fortunate to get all those people at the top of their field in the forest for four days, all working flat out on a project like this to give these guys this level of expertise. It really matters," Clegg said.

A week later, a temporary mortuary was established with the coroner's OK at Esquimalt's navy base.

"We arranged, photographed, and logged everything recovered. We confirmed we had four individuals," explained Clegg, a DND forensics expert since 2007, who did research in Bosnia.

She was helped by B.C. coroner Brown, and forensics-ID person is Laura Yazedjian.

Clegg told Baird's niece in Alberta that his remains were located. She also worked with the U.K.'s RAF staff to find and inform the three British fliers' families.

"They found pilot Luckock's family; the other two families are being sought. It's a relief to be able to tell them something — it's their business how they want to share it with family."

An interment ceremony for the four airmen is planned this fall in Royal Oak cemetery in Victoria.

"There's a rule of non-repatriation because so many are missing, and you can't possibly repatriate them all," said Clegg. "The closest to where they died is where they're buried, and you're buried with those with whom you fought and died."

The coroner released recovered personal items to the Canadian Armed Forces. Most items were given to the families, or will head to museums. Any contaminated stuff was destroyed. Everything else was left on site where a memorial is planned by a local group, she said.

"It's not a war grave, but some will see it as such," Clegg said.

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