The following story won the Neville Shanks Memorial Silver Award for Historical Writing, from the B.C.-Yukon Community Newspaper Association in 2006. It was originally published in the Coquitlam Now on Nov. 11, 2005.
Searching for Sidney: Closure for family comes in Holland
Geoff Peterson remembers when he first learned the name of RCAF Flying Officer Sidney Peterson. He was seven and playing in his grandfather’s house. He paused to look up at two black and white photographs on the wall.
“I remember asking my grandpa who these people were,” Peterson says, “and I remember that he explained that they were my dad’s brothers who gave their lives so we could be free.”
Peterson’s father, Roy, would also recount each Remembrance Day how he had looked up to his older brother, Sidney, and that the family never really knew what had happened — aside from the government letter that stated Sidney’s RAF Halifax bomber LV905 was shot down in Holland in May of 1944. Roy had travelled to the Commonwealth War Graves cemetery in Jonkerbos, in the Dutch city of Nijmegen, when he was 20, to pay his respects to his brother. The Netherlands’ front line town cemetery was where two bodies from Sidney’s seven-man crew were buried, after being moved in 1953 from a local cemetery.
This was all Peterson, a Coquitlam resident, knew about Sidney — until four years ago.
Peterson’s father was contacted by the daughter of one of the crew members, who in turn put him in contact with a former army sergeant and a website devoted to the crash of the LV905 – detailing not only crew members and witness accounts from the day the Halifax crashed, but outlining the grassroots effort by a local man to spur the powers that be into conducting a salvage operation for the plane and its crew.
The man, Anton van der Plujm, was 16 at the time of the crash. He was walking to work in the early morning, following the LV905’s path as it returned from a bombing raid. The Germans had roped him into clearing the wreckage from the road, which included the rear section of the Halifax; the plane broke in two when it hit a dike beside a creek running through a field. The front came to rest in the marshy field.
“The thing was that the plane crashed and, because of the dike system they have there, it sank,” Peterson says. “Within a day or two days, it was completely submerged.”
The plane’s fuselage may have been out of sight, but it wasn’t out of van der Plujm’s mind. He became a thorn in the side of the municipal council of Hank, insistent that the villagers owed the crew a debt of honour in recovering their remains and giving them a proper burial. A plaque was erected in 2001, but van der Plujm refused to be placated. He wrote a letter to the late Prince Bernhard, the former Dutch prince consort who was also a war hero, and shortly thereafter, a foundation charged with the task of recovering the Halifax LV905 was created.
Permission from Hank council had to be granted before the salvage operation could take place in the Orange Field, which was by then farmland plowed every year. The politicians expressed concerns over cost and whether it was appropriate to disturb the crew’s remains. An international letter-writing campaign began to pressure council members to vote in favour of excavating the Halifax, and with a slim 11-10 majority, the salvage operation was approved last year.
After a year of preparations, Peterson and his father and brother travelled to Hank in September, determined to be there as the machines turned over the first piles of earth.
“The operation meant a lot to the family and especially my dad,” Peterson says, “because my dad looked up to him (Sidney) as a kid … It was so shocking to find out that maybe there was a possibility that the remains of all the crew could be found.
“Closure for my dad is a big thing. All these years of knowing that partial remains may have been found, but not knowing how much or where, has been tough.”
Even before they had left Canadian soil, the Dutch were intent on showing the Petersons their trademark hospitality. When they checked in for their KLM flight, the airline staff had found out the reason behind the family’s trek and bumped them up to first-class seats. Arriving in Amsterdam, Peterson said they grabbed their bags and, even before checking into their hotel, drove straight to the crash site.
“We wanted to go there because it was the day before the dig was to officially open,” he says, “so we wanted to have a moment to ourselves before the crowds got there.”
The family woke up early the next day and travelled to the town of Hank, just outside the Orange Field. The entire town’s population was filing out of their homes and making their way to the crash site.
“We get to Hank, and nothing’s changed in 60 years. It’s an old little village, a beautiful little place,” Peterson says, “and when we pulled in, the difference we saw from the day before was there were hundreds of people on their little bicycles coming out of all the driveways, out of all the houses, and riding this mile and a half to the crash site. “It was a huge deal in their town, and all the people came out to see it.”
Villagers joined the Petersons at the field, where the memorial plaque had been erected. As they were waiting for the speeches to begin, members of a Scottish pipe band that had been competing at a Highland Games a few fields away approached the Petersons to say that Dutch pipers had heard about the dig to take place — and wanted to play in a procession to mark the occasion.
“Three of the pipe bands at the games wanted to get together as one band and walk as they were playing as a memorial to the crew,” he says. After the band played, the mayor of Hank gave a speech and a little ceremony finished, the Petersons were swarmed by Dutch people and the international press.
“There were people there from all sorts of other villages who just wanted to come and talk to us, the family, and thank us for our family’s contribution to their liberation,” he recalls. “They were very thankful. The hospitality the Dutch have for Canadians is amazing.”
While the superstar status he and his family enjoyed that day was incredible, Peterson says he was more overcome by physically being at the crash site.
“It’s kind of overwhelming,” he explains of his thoughts during the ceremony. “For never getting to meet someone like my uncle, and only knowing his photograph, to being a few feet from where he is buried – the place he was breathing for the last time – it was amazing.”
And with every pile of earth dug up and turned over, Peterson says he grew closer and closer to his uncle. A pocket watch made in Canada in 1941 was found among the debris – a requisite device carried by navigators in the day, as the plane’s instruments couldn’t be trusted during bombing raids, as the cabin pressure in elevation would distort the time. The arms of the pocket watch, which had been perfectly preserved in the soil, were frozen at the exact time of the crew’s death.
But the pocket watch wasn’t the only item recovered. Because the plane sank into a bed of clay, it and all the contents had been protected from air and subsequent oxidization. “They were pulling bullets out that were shiny, like brand new,” Peterson says, recalling how he thought he had grabbed a bullet in a mound of earth, but pulled out an entire round of ammunition on a belt. “The aluminum they were pulling out, it was like new. It was like a time capsule.”
The bodies of the crew, however, didn’t fare as well in the clay. So far, excavators have recovered only bone fragments in different areas. The families still don’t know whose remains have been found, or where or how much. Peterson says they anticipate having to do DNA testing to confirm exactly who the remains belonged to.
“The thing is that my other uncle, Laurie, was shot down in South Africa, and all they knew was that the plane was shot out of the sky and nothing was ever found,” Peterson says. “To find some information about one of my uncles is great, and finding his remains would be even better. We’ll see I guess.”
The Petersons intend to return to the crash site next year when the dig will be completed and all the DNA findings will be received. But for the 35-year-old man from Coquitlam, the experience so far has deepened his already profound respect for those who sacrificed their lives for freedom.
“The trip meant a lot to me, and my brother as well,” he says. “I’d say most people our age don’t really understand the meaning behind Remembrance Day, or sacrifice, or war. It’s tough to blame them, people my age were brought up not knowing any different.
“My dad is the youngest of five in his family, and I’m the youngest of five in my family – so that puts 60 years between what happened and the age I’m at now.
“I don’t think people my age understand what happened, because their families are a bit younger, and most people today don’t have first-hand experience with the war.”