A Langford resident has forged a lasting friendship with an author through the connections they share to a tragic event that unfolded in the skies over Saskatchewan 75 years ago.
Al Ennis was an 18-year-old in his first year of service when he was selected to be part of the firing party for a funeral for 21 Royal Canadian Air Force pilots who were killed in a crash near Estevan on Sept. 15, 1946.
“I was only a kid at the time,” said Ennis, who turns 94 in October. “I didn’t know much at the time other than there had been a plane crash, but I understood the significance of what we were doing.”
|Langford resident Al Ennis circa 1946 when he took part in a funeral for the 21 RCAF officers killed in a crash chronicled in a book by Marie Donais Calder, “Together Forever in the Clouds.” (Photo courtesy of Ennis family)|
An old schoolmate of Ennis who joined the Air Force at the same time contacted him this year after seeing an interview with the Estevan-based author of Together Forever in the Clouds. The 2021 book profiles the 21 men killed in the crash, all veterans of the Second World War.
“I tracked the author, Marie Donais Calder, on the Internet but couldn’t make contact with her,” said Ennis, a long-time volunteer with the West Shore RCMP’s community policing section. “She spent hours trying to reach me on the telephone, but our number had changed.”
They finally connected with the help of a Victoria family member of Calder, and that led to many back and forth conversations between the author and Ennis.
“It’s very impressive how she tells the story of those who died in the crash by using stories from their family,” he said. “I hadn’t thought much about it until recently. These officers had flown all kinds of aircraft in combat and then they died in a peace-time crash. It’s definitely an important story worth sharing with Canadians. We spent a few hours together talking about it. It was a very moving experience and we plan on keeping in touch.”
In an interview with the Gazette, Calder said to her knowledge, Ennis – the youngest of the group in the firing party, is the only surviving member.
“We are blessed that Al’s still with us and his memory is so clear,” she said. “Even though I had talked to him many times, I flew out to meet him because I wanted to make that special connection. I have a real fondness for Al.”
Calder has spent much of her life researching the Second World War and has written 25 books in the past 20 years.
“My dad served in World War Two and I lost him in a car crash when I was 11,” she said of her inspiration for Together Forever in the Clouds.
The officers had been ferrying trainer planes back to the United States after the war when the Dakota 962 bringing them back to Canada crashed.
“It seemed even within the hierarchy of the RCAF, little was known about the Estevan crash,” Calder said. “That’s what led to working on the book and the monument project.”
Calder, who is legally blind, had four people help with the challenges of researching the crash and tracking down the families of the pilots for their stories and photographs.
Lester Hinzman assisted with the project of completing the monument, which has the faces of the pilots carved into the surface. A ceremony is planned for Sept. 15 to mark the 75th anniversary of the crash, at 15 Wing Moose Jaw, where the Snowbirds aerial team trains.
“It has to be a private service this year because of COVID,” Calder said. “But I’ve been told it will become an annual event.”
Saanich resident Nancy Bains is the niece of Chuck Proctor, one of the men on that fateful flight.
The crash had a lasting effect on the family, she recalled.
“His daughter was my cousin and was about two at the time,” Bains said. “We spent a lot of summers together when we were very young. All of the men had served overseas. My grandmother had four sons and a son-in-law who served. She had already lost one son during the war, so to lose another son after they came back must have been devastating.”
Bains said she’s delighted someone has taken the time to put the book together.
“They were really just more of an afterthought until now.”
A private Facebook group, Forever in the Clouds 75th Memorial, has been established and will contain live streaming information for the ceremony.
Check out mariedonaiscalder.com/ for more information about the author.