Boxtop 22 commemorative cairn: “A place of memory and healing”

News Article / November 8, 2016

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By Joanna Calder

“David. Marc. Monty. Paul. Richard. Tony. And the two outside – tend to them first!”

Twenty-five years after the fatal crash of a CC-130 Hercules from 435 Transport Squadron in Edmonton, which was conducting the Boxtop 22 resupply flight to Canadian Forces Station Alert, Nunavut, Captain (retired) Wilma de Groot, once again called the roll.

Every hour or two after the Hercules crashed 16 kilometres from Alert on October 30, 1991, as 12 of the 14 survivors huddled half-frozen in the shattered tail section of the transport aircraft, Captain de Groot, a physician, called out the names of her fellow survivors to ensure they were still awake and had not succumbed to the cold.

They endured more than 30 hours in a brutal storm on the northern tip of Ellesmere Island that brought high winds and temperatures of -20C to -30C with extreme wind chill – all in the 24-hour darkness of the Arctic winter. The first two overland rescue efforts were called back due to weather conditions and dangerous terrain and, although a search and rescue Hercules from 413 Squadron in Greenwood, Nova Scotia, arrived over the site after about eight hours, the search and rescue (SAR) technicians were unable to parachute in because of the high winds and lack of visibility due to cloud cover. When they finally risked the jump, almost all their equipment and medical supplies were whipped away by the wind and disappeared. But they made do with what they had, offering shelter, assistance and comfort to the survivors. Shortly thereafter, another group of SAR techs jumped in, followed by a third overland expedition, carrying supplies and equipment.

The survivors and six SAR techs were flown from the site to the station onboard a CH-135 Twin Huey helicopter that had been transported north onboard another Hercules. The remaining SAR techs, the overland rescuers and the bodies of the dead were brought out by American HH-160 Pave Hawk helicopters from Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska.

Four people died almost immediately from injuries sustained during the crash: Captain Judy Trépanier, Master Warrant Officer Tom Jardine, Warrant Officer Robert Grimsley and Master Corporal Roland Pitre. Captain John Couch, the Herc’s pilot, answered the roll call for several hours before finally succumbing to hypothermia – after doing everything in his power to help ensure the survival of the other men and women.

Captain de Groot called out the names one last time at Alert when all the survivors had been rescued and were gathered together in the station’s dining room, which had been turned into a makeshift medical facility. It was the first and last time all 13 were together; they were then flown south to medical facilities to begin the long process of healing.

She never thought she’d call those names again, but on October 30, 2016, seven survivors and their families, families of three who perished, as well as rescue personnel and a number of people who were in Alert on that terrible day, gathered at 8 Wing Trenton, Ontario, to mark the 25th anniversary of the crash and unveil a Boxtop 22 commemorative cairn.

At the end of the private luncheon before the ceremony, the survivors were asked to stand. “Call the roll, Wilma,” came a voice from one of the tables. Captain de Groot stood and, as she once again called the roll, one by one the survivors in attendance stood and answered her call with “Here!”

“The two outside” – Ms. Sue Hillier and Mr. Bob Thompson – could not be brought into the shelter of the crashed Hercules’ tail because their injuries were too extreme for them to be moved. The others built a shelter around them and, against all odds, they survived. Captain de Groot’s words to “tend to them first” echoed what she told the search and rescue technicians when they finally reached the survivors in the tail section.

“It was far more emotional than I expected it to be. Seeing the people stand up when I said their name was actually very, very emotional, and I didn’t expect that at all,” said Captain de Groot. “I was told by someone who was at Alert at that time that I did the roll call when we were in the dining room and they thought that we were delirious and didn’t know where we were. And no, it was a very deliberate [act] – like today. ‘We are now back in the same place together. Who’s still here?’”

The families of Master Warrant Officer Tom Jardine, Warrant Office Grimsley and Master Corporal Pitre attended the luncheon and ceremony.

Master Warrant Officer Tony Cobden – the last Boxtop 22 survivor still serving in the Canadian Armed Forces – Captain (retired) Wilma de Groot, Captain (retired) Richard Dumoulin, Captain (retired) David Meace (who held the rank of master corporal at the time of the crash), Master Seaman (retired) Douglas “Monty” Montgomery, Master Warrant Officer (retired) Marc Tremblay and Sergeant (retired) Paul West were also there.

Also surviving the crash were Mr. Robert Thomson, Ms. Susan Hillier, Lieutenant Joe Bales, Lieutenant Michael Moore, and Master Corporal Mario Ellefsen, and Private Bill Vance, who passed away in May 2002.

The commemorative cairn and plaques

 

CFS Alert
CFS Alert, located only 817 kilometres from the North Pole, is the most northerly, permanently inhabited location in the world. It began its operational role as a signals intelligence unit of the Canadian military in 1958. After the unification of the Canadian Armed Forces, most of the personnel at Alert were drawn from the Canadian Forces Communications Command, predecessor to the Information Management Group. Many of the passengers on Boxtop 22 – the 22nd flight of the second major resupply mission of 1991 – were communications researchers from Communication Command, involved in signals intelligence work. Today, although signals are still intercepted at Alert, the analysis work is carried out at CFS Leitrim. In 2009, command of CFS Alert was transferred from the Information Management Group to the Royal Canadian Air Force.

Earlier this year, a small contingent of Royal Canadian Air Force personnel, along with Master Warrant Officer Cobden, Master Seaman Montgomery, search and rescue technician Sergeant Ben House (who was part of the first group of SAR techs on the ground), and Lieutenant-Colonel (retired) Scott McLean, who was the commanding officer of CFS Alert in 1991 and led the station’s response to the crash, travelled to Alert along with the specially-designed Boxtop 22 commemorative cairn. The cairn was then slung under a CH-147F Chinook helicopter and transported to the crash site where it was unveiled and dedicated.

“I can’t begin to express adequately what it was like to travel to Alert . . . It was an emotional event for all of us,” said Lieutenant-General Mike Hood, commander of the Royal Canadian Air Force during the ceremony in Trenton. “It was for me. I was a young captain on 435 Squadron at the time of the crash. The crew were my friends. I’d flown with them, played with them and, for a great number of days, we had no idea what had happened . . .  

“The wreckage of the aircraft still lies, broken and twisted on the Arctic tundra. As we walked the ground [of the crash site] we were amazed that anyone could have survived the crash, let alone the horrific hours that followed. 

“There were many heroes that day.”

After being dedicated at the crash site, the cairn was taken to 8 Wing, from where all Boxtop resupply missions now originate, and placed on the grounds of the National Air Force Museum of Canada in front of the CC-130 Hercules on display there.

On the front of the granite cairn is a brass plaque that briefly describes the crash and its aftermath. On the reverse are the names of the five who died. Surmounting the square cairn is another piece of granite, carved and engraved to represent the tail of the crashed Hercules.

An identical plaque was placed on a Boxtop 22 cairn that was dedicated in 1993 at CFS Alert.

In addition, the workshop at CFS Alert produced engraved wooden replicas of the plaque. Lieutenant-General Mike Hood, commander of the Royal Canadian Air Force, gave the wooden plaques to family representatives of each of the three deceased members, as well as to the seven survivors during the luncheon in Trenton. Plaques were also created for those who were not in attendance and arrangements are being made for them to receive their plaques.

The commemorative ceremony

“Boxtop 22 is a shared history for the Royal Canadian Air Force and the communication research community,” said Major-General Greg Loos, chief of staff of the Information Management Group, during the ceremony. “I am heartened and proud to see so many from CFS Leitrim [near Ottawa], shoulder to shoulder with our RCAF brothers and sisters on parade today to share in this act of commemoration and remembrance.”

Four of the passengers were communications researchers – members of Communication Command, which is now known as the Information Management Group.

The simple ceremony, which was open to the public, included the playing of the last post and the two minutes of silence, as well as a flypast by a CC-130H Hercules, the same model as the Boxtop 22 Hercules.

Lieutenant-General Hood and Major-General Loos placed wreaths on behalf of the RCAF and the information management group. Families or representatives laid wreaths in memory of each of the deceased and, finally, the seven survivors stepped forward as a group to lay a wreath.

“For the Canadian public although not, I suspect, for you, Boxtop 22 has faded from memory in the 25 years since the crash. That’s why it’s so important for us to place this cairn here in Trenton,” said Lieutenant-General Hood.

“It will stay here as a permanent reminder of those terrible hours in Canada’s high Arctic and I hope it will be an enduring reminder to Canadians of those who did not return, those who survived and those who fought valiantly to bring the survivors home.

“I hope it will be a place of memory and healing for you and a way to ensure you or your loved ones will be forever remembered. “

Boxtop 22 aircrew and passengers

 The deceased

Captain John Couch, pilot, 435 Transport Squadron, Edmonton, Alberta

Captain Judy Trépanier, logistics officer, Canadian Forces Communication Command Headquarters, Ottawa, Ontario

Master Warrant Officer Tom Jardine, regional services manager CANEX, Canadian Forces Base Trenton, Ontario

Warrant Officer Robert Grimsley, supply technician, Canadian Forces Communication Command Headquarters

Master Corporal Roland Pitre, traffic technician and loadmaster, 435 Squadron

The survivors

Mr. Robert Thomson, CANEX manager, Canadian Forces Base Trenton

Ms. Susan Hillier, hairstylist, Canadian Forces Base Trenton

Captain Richard Dumoulin, logistics officer, Canadian Forces Communication Command Headquarters

Captain Wilma de Groot, doctor, Canadian Forces Base Trenton

Lieutenant Joe Bales, pilot, 435 Squadron

Lieutenant Michael Moore, navigator, 435 Squadron

Master Warrant Officer Marc Tremblay, supply technician, Canadian Forces Communication Command Headquarters

Sergeant Paul West, flight engineer, 435 Squadron

Master Corporal Tony Cobden, communications researcher, 770 Communication Research Squadron, Gander, Newfoundland

Master Corporal David Meace, radio technician, 1 Canadian Division Headquarters and Signal Squadron, Canadian Forces Base Kingston, Ontario

Master Corporal Mario Ellefsen, communications researcher, Canadian Forces Station Leitrim, Ottawa

Master Seaman Douglas “Monty” Montgomery, communications researcher, 771 Communications Research Squadron, Ottawa

Private Bill Vance, communications researcher, Canadian Forces Station Leitrim

 


 

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