The fallen airmen of Fernie

News Article / November 8, 2017

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By John J.N. Chalmers      

We will soon observe Remembrance Day, when we pause to remember those who have fallen in the service of Canada. Over the years, more than 100 men from a small British Columbia community have died during three wars. Six of them served in the Royal Canadian Air Force.

They symbolize all those who served in the RCAF and especially those who never returned home. Here are their stories. Lest we forget.

On the war memorial in front of the court house in the small city of Fernie, British Columbia (population just over 5,000), are the names of all the young men from Fernie who gave their lives in service to Canada during three wars.

Named are 93 who fell in the First World War, 20 who lost their lives in the Second World War, and one who fell in the Korean War.

During the First World War, Canada had no air force of its own, but more than 900 Canadians served with the United Kingdom’s Royal Naval Air Force (RNAS) o. On April 1, 1918, the RNAS combined with the Royal Flying Corps to form the Royal Air Force. Following the war, the Canadian Air Force was formed in 1920 and, on April 1, 1924, it became the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF).

Although all those 114 young men who made Fernie their home lost their lives in three wars, I wondered how many of the 20 men named on the war memorial who died in the Second World War served in the RCAF. My research began in a book of 892 pages called They Grew Not Old. It was published by the Commonwealth Air Training Plan Museum at Brandon, Manitoba. Along with 128 more pages in two later supplements, all RCAF personnel are listed who fell during the Second World War. The internet and other sources helped provide information about six who served with the RCAF.

Those six served in aircrew and would have taken their training at various air stations of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan at locations in Canada. Not all six were killed in battle. Three lost their lives in accidents. Four are buried with military headstones marking their graves. Two have no known graves, but are remembered in other ways.  Their names are commemorated on the Fernie war memorial, on the internet, in some cases on the names of mountains in British Columbia and on street names in Fernie. They are also remembered on military monuments in Canada and England, and at cemeteries in England and Europe.

Richard Paul Frayn (misspelled as Frayne on the Fernie monument) was born in Gettysburg, South Dakota. A pilot with the rank of flying officer, he was killed in a night cross-country flying exercise on January 8, 1943 when the crew’s Airspeed Oxford aircraft crashed in England. Two other crew, not Canadians, were also killed in the crash. Flying Officer Frayn is buried in the Cirencester (Chesterton) Cemetery, Gloucestershire, England. He died at the age of 30 and left behind a wife and three young children in Fernie. Mount Frayn near Fernie bears his name.

James Howell, son of Charles and Sarah Howell of Vancouver, British Columbia, was killed in action on February 20, 1944, at age 23 while serving with the RCAF’s 431 Squadron on a Halifax bomber operation to Leipzig, Germany. A pilot with the rank of pilot officer, he is buried in the Berlin War Cemetery at Charlottenburg, Germany. His squadron first flew Wellington, then Halifax and Lancaster bombers. Reformed as a fighter squadron in 1954, it is known today as 431 Air Demonstration Squadron, based in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, and better known as Canada’s famous aerobatic team, the Snowbirds.

Flight Sergeant Aloysius William “Bill” Klauer from Fernie, son of Adam and Sarah Klauer of Fernie, was an air gunner. He was killed at the age of 29 on May 4, 1943. He was serving with No. 22 Operational Training Unit, preparing for combat service, flying in a Wellington bomber which stalled and crashed while making a turn. The entire crew of six perished in the crash. Flight Sergeant Klauer left behind his wife, Catherine, and is buried in the Stratford-on-Avon Cemetery in Warwickshire, England, where 97 of 179 Second World War graves are of Canadian airmen. Flight Sergeant Klauer is commemorated by Mount Klauer north of Fernie and on Mount Klauer Street in the city.

Another Fernie son, Pilot Officer James Robert McLean, was a navigator, killed while serving with No. 111 Operational Training Unit at Nassau, Bahamas, on April 21, 1943, at the age of 21. He and his pilot were lost when their B-25 Mitchell bomber crashed and he has no known grave. He is commemorated on the Ottawa Memorial in Ottawa, Ontario. Mount McLean, and Mount McLean Street in Fernie bear his name.

Flight Sergeant Alexander Swiderski, also a Fernie native, was a wireless operator / air gunner. He was killed in action at the age of 20 on June 12, 1942. He and all crew were lost when their Wellington bomber from the Royal Air Force’s No. 9 Squadron failed to return after night operations. Flight Sergeant Swiderski has no known grave, but is commemorated on the Runnymede War Memorial in Surrey, England, the Ottawa Memorial and on Mount Swiderski, north of Fernie.

Dean Jerome “Butch” Washburn was the son of Lenox and Teresa Washburn of Fernie. A pilot, he held the rank of flying officer and flew with the RCAF’s 438 Squadron.  He was killed on December 24, 1944, at the age of 21. Flying Officer Washburn was diving and firing at an enemy vehicle from under 1,000 feet when his Typhoon fighter-bomber aircraft was hit by flak. It went into a spin and crashed near Schmidtheim, Germany. He is buried in the War Cemetery, Hotton, Luxembourg, Belgium. Washburn Street in Fernie bears his name, as does Mount Washburn, north of Fernie.

The statue of a soldier atop the city’s war memorial honours the 114 men of Fernie who are named on the monument. They served on the sea, on the land and in the air – remembered in perpetuity. We must not forget.

Edmonton resident John Chalmers enjoys visiting family in Fernie and takes an interest in the city’s history. He served as an aero engine technician trainee 418 “City of Edmonton” Squadron while in high school and then graduated with the rank of pilot officer in the University Reserve Training Program program at the University of Alberta. He is historian for Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame.

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