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The plane crash, the missing airmen and the mystery of their fate
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In 1944, a pilot and his navigator were shot down over occupied France - but their bodies were never found. Where did they go, and why did they never make it home? It took their family, amateur historians and a team of student researchers to find out
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By ERIC REGULY
  
  

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Saturday, July 6, 2019 – Page A8

PETITMONT, FRANCE -- Madelaine Schultz remembers the terrifying explosions like they were yesterday. She was 22 years old and living in the village of Petitmont in northeastern France, not far from the German frontier. In the months after D-Day, British and American heavy bombers began flying over not in the dozens or hundreds, but in the thousands. By day, the lumbering four-engine aircraft were American B-17s; by night, British Lancasters. They filled the skies and flattened German military sites and factories, sometimes entire cities.

The Germans retaliated with intense flak from anti-aircraft guns and attacks from deadly fighter planes. The Allied losses were horrendous: The Royal Air Force's Bomber Command, made up of aircrews from Britain, Canada and other Commonwealth countries, alone lost almost 55,600 men.

"We heard the aerial battles," Ms.Schultz tells me from her hospital bed in the city of Lunéville, just west of Petitmont, where she was suffering from varicose veins in her legs. "I was just a girl. We were so scared."

The night of July 28-29 was particularly frightening, she says. Records of the RAF mass raid on Stuttgart, involving almost 500 aircraft, show that 62 planes went down. One of them, a Lancaster with the registration number L7576, crashed nearby in the Vosges mountains, close to the village of Saint-Sauveur. Four of the seven crew members were Canadian, including the pilot, Harold Sherman (Al) Peabody, and his navigator, James Harrington (Harry) Doe.

The crash of the big, black bomber triggered a small but gripping mystery. Mr.Peabody and Mr. Doe were reported killed in the wreck. But their bodies were never found and their families weren't convinced the results of the official postwar investigation were accurate - all the more so since various witnesses claimed that two airmen in Allied uniforms were seen alive shortly after the crash.

Did Mr. Peabody and Mr. Doe really survive? If so, how, and what happened to them?

The mystery has long gripped the oldest residents of towns and villages near the crash site, and it spawned a remarkable exercise in investigative research that brought together students from Bishop's University near Sherbrooke, Que. (Mr.Peabody's alma mater); relatives of the missing airmen in Quebec, Ontario and California; and enthusiastic amateur historians, who guided the Bishop's students on their voyage of discovery.

Before filing their final, shocking report on L7576 last year, their work took them on a transatlantic adventure that saw them examine a plethora of speculative and sometimes contradictory accounts about the flyers' fate, led them into dead ends and saw theories embraced and dashed as new evidence was found. Along the way, they encountered stories of horror that saddened them and still haunt those who lived through the air raids.

"The French locals were tickled that someone from the other side of the world cared what happened in Petitmont," says Sean Summerfield, who led the Bishop's research team. "For some of them, the memories of the crash are still fresh. When I told them what I was researching, some would hold me and start to cry."

One of those locals was Ms. Schultz, now 97. She still goes quiet and tears up when she remembers that night. She considers all Allied bomber crews heroes and for decades tended the graves of three of L7576's crewmen - one Canadian, two Britons - in the small, rarely visited Petitmont cemetery. But how to honour the fallen airmen whose bodies were never found - men such as Mr. Peabody and Mr.

Doe, who seemed to vanish into thin air?

"Had they not come, we'd be German," Ms. Schultz says. "They kicked out the German trash."

Pierre Vinot was one of the first local residents to reach the L7576 crash site. His story - and his grainy black-and-white photos - provided some of the first clues that Mr. Peabody and Mr. Doe did not die when the plane slammed into a forested hillside in the Vosges mountains.

Mr. Vinot is 92. He is a small, alert man with a mustache who hobbles around Saint-Sauveur, about three kilometres from the crash site, with a cane.

The son of a forestry warden, he was 17 in the summer of 1944 and remembers a policeman banging on the door early on the morning of July 29, a Saturday. Several locals had reported seeing an aircraft in flames streak across the night sky, and the policeman was raising a search-and-rescue party.

Young Pierre grabbed his primitive box camera, a French-made Gap, and they scrambled up the hill. When Pierre arrived, he saw that the bomber had been destroyed. "I saw two dead - they were all in one piece - and another one who was dismembered," he says. "Dogs were eating this third man." There was no sign of the other four crew members and the cockpit was empty.

Pierre saw four Germans going through the clothing of the three dead aviators, presumably looking for identification.

Later that day, French civilians used a horse-drawn carriage to take the dead airmen to the church in Petitmont, where they would be given a funeral. "When they saw the bodies, everyone was crying," Mr.

Vinot says.

The villagers also noted a crucial detail: L7576's bombs had not exploded. That observation would later help cast doubt on the official report, delivered after the war, that said Mr. Peabody and Mr. Doe were probably blown to pieces in the crash.

That report might have remained the final word on the tragedy, if not for two of Mr.

Peabody's relatives, Jon and Robert Peck, whose late mother was Mr. Peabody's second cousin. Jon Peck, 58, runs a mining technology company in Montreal called Peck Tech Consulting. His brother Robert, 60, is a career diplomat who, most recently, was Canada's ambassador to Greece.

Together, the brothers Peck revived and financed an investigation into Mr. Peabody's fate - the Peabody Project - which began in earnest in 2016.

The Pecks had always wondered what happened to the young pilot. Their cottage on Lake Memphrémagog, near Sherbrooke, Que., is next door to the old Peabody property. A yellowed Sherbrooke Record article from 1944 about Mr. Peabody's disappearance is pinned to a wall in the Peck cottage. "Sherman was always a mystery to us," Jon says. "Did he bail out of the plane and get lost forever, maybe suffering from amnesia? Did he get married to a French woman? If he was killed, where was his grave?" In 2008, after learning from a Canadian military buff that L7576 had crashed near Petitmont, Jon and his wife went to eastern France and discovered the cemetery where three of the aircrew were buried under simple white headstones. They were Richard Proulx, the Canadian upper gunner, who was 21 when he died; Percy Buckley, the British tail gunner, who was 18; and Arthur Payton, another Briton, who was the 30-year-old wireless operator.

That same year, Pierre Vinot's son, Noël, sent Jon an intriguing reference from an out-of-print book called Viombois, written by a Vosges-area resistance fighter named René Ricatte. The reference said that on July 30, 1944 - the day after the Lancaster crash - one of Mr. Ricatte's men heard about the downed plane. This man reported that "part of the crew parachuted out and two of the members, arrested by the Germans, were shot on the spot." There were no details, no names, no sources. But the reference raised the possibility that the official reports were wrong, that Mr. Peabody and Mr. Doe were not killed in the crash but were possibly executed the next day, in violation of the Geneva Convention. But it was only a theory.

In 2015, the Peck brothers decided to throw some resources into unravelling the Peabody mystery. They approached Bishop's University and agreed to fund a program that would see a few undergrad students - Megan Whitworth, Spiro Trent and Mr. Summerfield, who was an infantryman in the Canadian army in Afghanistan in 2010 - search for evidence. "The least I could do was make him live beyond his 23 years," Jon says. "All we had was a notice that he had died. I just wanted to close the loop and honour him in some way."

At the same time, their research brought the two airmen back to life, uniting two families who had not known about one another. "This was an incredible pushing forward of the narrative," says Rick Doe, 62, an American atmospheric scientist who lives in Los Gatos, Calif., and who is Mr. Doe's nephew.

"When you don't have a grave, your mind goes all over the place."

There are only a few details known about the man who was piloting L7576 the night it crashed. They come from Summerfield's research and family notes from Mr. Peabody's first cousin, Robert Richardson, 66, a travel-guide author and publisher who lives in Victoria.

Mr. Peabody was born in 1920 in Cambridge, Mass. His father, Harold, worked for the Canada Life insurance company and the family moved to Montreal when he was only a few months old, then decamped again in 1926 to Sherbrooke.

Young Sherman was handsome - his photos depict him as steely and confident, and he wore his Royal Canadian Air Force uniform well. Jon Peck imagines him as a ladies' man.

He also loved sport. When he enrolled at Bishop's in the science program in 1937, he was on the track, hockey and golf teams, and became the junior and senior golf champion. In 1941, he dropped out of school to join the war effort, enrolling in the Commonwealth flight-training program in Windsor Mills, Que.

Somewhat more is known about fellow aviator Harry Doe, thanks to a remarkable treasure given to his nephew Rick in 2005, when Rick's father - Harry's older brother - died. It was a shoebox that contained the deceased flyer's diary, scrapbooks, original negatives from his camera, squadron photos, RCAF log books and, crucially, a few postwar letters from French villagers who said two men fitting the description of Mr.

Peabody and Mr. Doe were intercepted by the Germans.

"My father was reluctant to talk about the death of his brother," Rick tells me by phone. "Then this shoebox emerged right after my father's funeral. It had basically everything about my Uncle Harry's life.

That's when I decided that, yeah, there's a story here."

Harry Doe was born in Calgary in 1922, the son of a First World War pilot. He loved aircraft, built model planes and, after excelling as a boxer and football player in high school, enlisted in the RCAF at age 18.

At a flight school in Edmonton, he learned navigation. He was shipped to England in 1943; six months before D-Day, he was posted to the Chipping-Warden RAF training unit in the East Midlands.

Mr. Doe's RAF diary, which opens in January, 1944, is an exercise in succinct, unadorned writing. Still, his jottings give a glimpse into a soldier's life in wartime England, when the country was still being bombed by the Luftwaffe. What struck me in reading his one-line entries was the soldiers' determined efforts to replicate a normal life - booze, girls, dancing, poker, golf, theatre, writing letters home - between training and bombing missions.

"Flew yesterday with a terrific hangover," one entry reads. "Went to Savoy with Red Cross girls," another says.

At Chipping-Warden, he would meet three men who later joined his Lancaster combat crew: Mr. Peabody, Mr. Buckley and Ronald Louis (Lew) Fiddick, the Canadian bomb aimer from Cedar, B.C. Mr. Doe describes Mr. Peabody as a "good type" in his diary. By February, 1944, Mr. Doe, Mr.Peabody and Mr. Fiddick - perhaps united by their Canadian nationality - were flying together and living in the same hut.

In June, 1944, they were posted to the RAF's 622 Squadron, based in Mildenhall, just northeast of Cambridge, which operated the Lancasters. In June and July, they flew nine combat missions together. The last entry in Mr. Doe's diary - Friday, July 28 - is written in red ink in someone else's hand. It says, simply: "FAILED TO RETURN."

The final mission of L7576 began at 10 p.m.

on July 28. The aircraft was a first-generation Lancaster, but seemed to have luck built into its old aluminum bones and V-12 Rolls-Royce Merlin engines. It had flown an epic 98 missions. Lancasters rarely lasted that long. Of the 7,377 built (430 of them in Canada), some 45 per cent were lost. Statistically, a Lancaster crewman had only a 30 per cent chance of completing a full tour of 30 sorties.

The Lancaster was carrying five 1,000pound bombs and two 500-pound bombs.

The group's goal was to hit Stuttgart's railway yards. The mission records say L7576 and the other bombers ran into trouble in eastern France, when the German nightfighters - usually radar-equipped Junkers 88s or Messerschmitt 110s - attacked.

Mr. Summerfield was able to find the name of the German pilot who preyed on L7576. He was Walter Swoboda, who spotted the Lancaster as it flew over the northeast French region of Lorraine.

After the initial, unsuccessful attack, Mr.

Peabody employed the "corkscrew" defensive maneuver, flipping the Lancaster on its side and diving about 150 metres before ascending again. Mr. Swoboda apparently anticipated the tactic and blasted the plane as it lost speed on its way back up. (It would be Mr. Swoboda's only kill; he did not survive the war.) The Lancaster was now out of control and descending toward the Vosges mountains. It was about 1:30 a.m.

on July 29.

It is almost certain that the British tail gunner, Mr. Buckley, and the Canadian upper gunner, Mr. Proulx (who are both buried in Petitmont) were killed in Mr. Swoboda's attack. Mr. Fiddick, the Canadian bomb aimer, and the British flight engineer, G.J. Wishart, bailed out. In a 1946 letter to Harold Peabody, the pilot's father, a French civilian named Jean Michaut said he saw L7576 pass over his house in "a ball of fire," followed by the reverberations from "an enormous explosion."

As Pierre Vinot would recount to me, only three bodies were found at the wreckage site. Given the rugged terrain, it's impossible to imagine that Mr. Peabody and Mr. Doe, if they did not bail out, could have survived the impact. The plane was utterly destroyed. Walking in the woods with a retired Parisian named Patrick Buffet, the owner of the house closest to the crash site, whose sawmill made the coffins for the three men found in the wreckage, we found only small scraps of the plane.

Mr. Fiddick and Mr. Wishart survived the war. In a remarkable tale of survival and heroism, Mr. Fiddick evaded capture, made a rendezvous with French resistance fighters and participated in raids with British SAS commandos before being sent back to England in October, 1944. He died in 2016 at the age of 99 before the Peck brothers or Mr. Summerfield could see him. The crash information he gave to casualty investigators shortly after the war about the fates of Mr. Peabody and Mr. Doe was only partially helpful, Mr. Summerfield says. Mr. Fiddick reported that he didn't know if they had bailed out, and also that they had bailed out and were captured - apparently contradictory statements.

Mr. Wishart was badly wounded, was found by the Germans and spent the rest of the war as a prisoner. But what happened to Mr. Peabody and Mr. Doe?

About 300 metres south of the crash site, French civilians found several parachutes, Mr. Michaut said in his letter to Mr. Peabody's father. They also found open tins of food, more evidence that some or all of the missing crewmen had survived. The fathers of Mr. Peabody and Mr. Doe clung to reports from local civilians that two airmen were picked up by the Germans. "Both men were overcome with grief and were adamant their sons could be still be found," Mr. Summerfield says in his 70page report.

The RAF's Missing Research and Enquiry Service (MRES), set up in 1944 to trace the 42,000 airmen listed as missing, sent a twoman team to Petitmont in 1947 to research the crash of L7576. The investigation was rushed. The investigators could not verify Mr. Fiddick's report that two airmen were seen walking along a road after the crash.

They concluded that Mr. Peabody and Mr.

Doe "either drifted over the then German border during their parachute descent and were apprehended there, or were still in the aircraft when it exploded and were blown to pieces."

The parents' hopes that their sons were still alive was all but dashed in 1951, when the elder Mr. Peabody received a letter from RCAF wing commander Wilfred Gunn with bad news. Cdr. Gunn, citing the MRES report and a separate Canadian war crimes team report, wrote that "it must be regretfully accepted and officially recorded that your son and Flying Officer Doe perished in the crash and do not have 'known' graves."

Sixty-five years after the letter landed, Mr. Summerfield and the Bishop's University team started afresh. Their research would lead them to the Nazis' infamous Natzweiler-Struthof concentration camp, the only concentration and extermination camp on French soil. It was located near the French border, about 50 kilometres south of Strasbourg.

The Bishop's students determined that the MRES team, which had spent only one day on their probe, missed key witnesses, a few of whom had seen the parachutes not far from the crash site. And Mr. Fiddick's report that he had heard that Mr. Peabody and Mr. Doe were captured was entirely discounted.

Crucially, they unearthed a thorough report from the British army's War Crime Investigations Team (WCIT), whose men interviewed former Allied prisoners, German prison guards and Nazi war criminals who had operated in the Vosges mountains.

Their research, although only peripherally about the fates of Mr. Peabody and Mr. Doe, determined that three airmen were taken to Struthof, where they were executed after being placed in a nearby prisoner transit camp called Schirmeck-Vorbruck.

The identity of one of the three was known. He was Sergeant Fredrick Habgood, a British Lancaster crewman whose plane went down only minutes after Mr.

Peabody's and crashed not far away. A war crimes trial determined that Sgt. Habgood was taken to Struthof on July 31, 1944, where he was hanged and his body cremated. Circumstances - timing, geography and credible witness reports from camp prisoners and German officers and soldiers - strongly suggested the other two were Mr.

Peabody and Mr. Doe.

A guard at Schirmeck-Vorbruck told the WCIT investigators that he saw an airman resembling Mr. Peabody. The WCIT team interrogated Mr. Wishart, the British flight engineer who had bailed out of the Lancaster and was imprisoned by the Germans.

Mr. Wishart asked his German interrogator about the rest of his crew. "They were all incinerated," he was told, adding weight to the WCIT's theory that Mr. Peabody and Mr.

Doe were executed along with Sgt. Habgood and burned in Struthof's crematorium.

Mr. Summerfield found an unrelated deposition from the commander of the Schirmeck-Vorbruck transfer camp, who told a war crimes court that orders were given from above that captured airmen were to be killed, not treated as prisoners of war. The commander admitted sending three airmen to Struthof at the end of July and early August.

After examining all the evidence, especially the WCIT report and the criminal depositions from German camp commanders, Mr. Summerfield concluded that Mr. Peabody and Harry Mr. Doe were indeed taken to Struthof within a few days of the crash, and were killed and cremated.

The brothers Peck have accepted this conclusion and consider the Peabody mystery essentially solved.

On a grim, wet day in May, I am touring the Struthof concentration camp with Jon Peck. Today, it is a museum and a horrific, although largely unknown, monument to the Nazi industrial killing machine.

The camp is fairly small and is plastered on the side of a steep hill. It was used largely to house and kill political prisoners, such as members of the French and Norwegian resistance, and Italian partisans. Between 1941 and 1944, an estimated 22,000 of its 52,000 prisoners, some of them women, died. Many were worked or starved to death, others executed. A few of the barracks are still intact, as is the gallows and the enormous iron oven used to incinerate the bodies.

Below the building that houses the oven is a pit the size of a big swimming pool. It is here that the ashes of the cremated prisoners were scattered without ceremony. The remains of Mr. Peabody and Mr. Doe were almost certainly dumped into this pit.

Mr. Peck stares at the pit for some time, tearing up. "At least I have some form of closure," he says a few moments later.

The stories of Mr. Peabody and Mr. Doe do not end at Struthof. On July 13, Jon and Robert Peck are sponsoring an L7576 memorial flight using the Lancaster owned by the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum in Mount Hope, Ont. It is one of only two Lancasters still flying and will feature 622 Squadron livery on its tail. Two weeks later, on the 75th anniversary of the crash, the Doe and Peck families, along with the families of the four other crewmen and their French historian friends, will hold memorials in Petitmont and Saint-Sauveur.

Health permitting, Madelaine Schultz, who tended the graves of three of the Lancaster airmen for decades, will be there.

"All those beautiful soldiers who came from overseas, they deserve to be recognized," she says. "I can't forget them."

Associated Graphic

Madelaine Schultz, below, still remembers the night in 1944 when a Canadian pilot and navigator's Lancaster bomber was shot down. Pierre Vinot, above, took pictures of the crash site that would become vital clues about what happened to the pair.

PHOTOS BY ANNE ACKERMANN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

In Petitmont, France, a 'remembrance table' honours Canadian pilot Harold Sherman (Al) Peabody and his navigator, James Harrington (Harry) Doe.

During the war, Natzweiler-Struthof was the only Nazi concentration and extermination camp on French soil.

Today, the camp is a museum. The researchers' findings led them here in the search for Mr. Peabody's and Mr. Doe's ultimate fate.

Jon Peck surveys the barracks at Natzweiler-Struthof, called 'the bunker,' where captives were tortured and killed.

The ashes of people killed and cremated at the camp were thrown into this pit. It can be assumed this might be the spot where Mr. Peabody's and Mr. Doe's ashes were put, too.


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