Angela Johnston Villard of Monticello, P.E.I., is determined to attend her uncle’s “funeral” 74 years after his death.
Villard’s late relative, St. Peter’s Bay native Cyril Sutherland, along with fellow leading aircraftman Robert Gates, a native of Charlottetown, were among the 23 casualties of a Second World War plane crash in Germany on Sept. 24, 1944.
There were Canadian, British and Australian airmen and soldiers on board, and all were killed.
Erik Wieman, co-founder of a crash site research group, is investigating the crash of the C-47 Dakota KG653 that was shot down by a fighter pilot.
His application for a permit to excavate the site has been approved, but he needs to wait until the field will be harvested in August.
Wieman, a Dutch native whose grandfather fought the Nazis but married a German woman and moved to Germany in 1992, hopes to memorialize the crash site in 2020.
He has spent the past five months contacting family members of all 23 men who perished in the crash.
One of those Wieman contacted was Lloyd Gates, 93, of Charlottetown. In April, he informed him of the project and noted he was looking for pictures of all the crew, including ones of Gates’ brother Bob.
Wieman also asked for help in tracking Sutherland’s descendants.
A quick search of the P.E.I. phone book starting in Blooming Point connected Gates with a first cousin of Sutherland, which led him to Sutherland’s niece, Villard, who was quite familiar with her relative who made the ultimate sacrifice.
Connecting has resulted in a deep and personal connection between the pair. Both losing a loved one in the crash of a Dakota that was en route from England to Italy and ultimately to India to deliver troops building two new squadrons to help in the fight against Japan has proved to be a tight bond.
Gates notes he and his wife, Mary, have met with Villard and her husband, George, three times now “on account of my brother.’’
Villard credits Wieman with bringing the two couples together.
“We’re friends forever. We’re family now. We come in here, we’re just hugging. We’re so emotional.’’
-Angela Johnston Villard
“We’re friends forever,’’ she says.
“We’re family now. We come in here, we’re just hugging. We’re so emotional.’’
Villard says Wieman’s passionate project has helped her feel closer to her late uncle than ever before.
She was only three years old when Sutherland left for war. Sutherland, who died at age 37, was exempted from overseas post because of his age but volunteered to take the place of a married airman from New Brunswick,
“I remember his last visit home because he came in uniform, and I was scared and I wouldn’t go to him,’’ she recalls.
Sutherland came alive to Villard through stories told by friends and family of the fallen soldier. He was described as a very happy go-lucky man – a super-nice guy.
Still, Villard did not really feel an emotional tie to Sutherland because she did not really know him.
That has now changed.
“Through this thing here, I just find myself very emotional,’’ she says.
“It’s like Cyril has come alive, and through Mr. Wieman having found the field where the crash site is, he’s brought it alive to us and now we are kind of grieving.’’
Villard plans to attend the memorial, which she likens to a funeral, at the crash site in two years.
“It’s hard to explain,’’ she says of her emotions.
“It was always like so long ago that it didn’t mean so much to us, but now it has been brought to life.’’
Villard adds getting any personal effect of Sutherland unearthed in the excavation of the crash site would be “extremely meaningful.’’
Gates, who has visited his brother’s gravesite in the Rheinberg War Cemetery three times, does not anticipate being able to attend the memorial in 2020. He also has his doubts that after 74 years any of his brother’s personal belongings will be found.
But Gates, who received in early 2016 the Knight of the Legion Honour medal in recognition of his personal involvement in the liberation of France during the Second World War, is quick to call Wieman’s initiative “wonderful.’’
Wieman, meanwhile, is not only hopeful but confidant items of great sentimental value to loved ones will be dug up.
“I’m almost positively sure,’’ he says, noting he has found many coins and personal belongings at other crash sites he has investigated.
“Everything that we find will be registered at the archeological services in Speyer (a German town in Rhineland-Palatinate).’’
Wieman, who has already investigated 22 verified Second World War crash sites, plans to have this passion guide him the rest of his life.
Certainly, the feedback from his current efforts only fuel the fire with many voicing great interest in visiting the crash site.
“They are all, like the Sutherlands and Gates, very happy,’’ he says.
“They think it’s a great initiative. They never thought after 74 years, someone is taking care of this.’’