Last Saturday a ceremony was held in the parking lot of the Red Deer Airport to dedicate a monument in honour of 44 members of various national air forces and one member of the Civil Air Search and Rescue Association (CASARA) who died while training at Central Alberta air bases during and since WWII.
Various dignitaries were on hand for the event including Red Deer County councillors and members of the military, among others.
The monument is located underneath the Harvard aircraft that is stationed in the parking lot at the Red Deer Airport.
The various groups raised $7,000 for the monument.
In 1941 air bases were established at Penhold and Bowden (now the federal prison) to train pilots for the war effort. Both bases were operated by the Royal Air Force and trained mainly British airmen until 1944. Following the war, a fly training case, using Harvard aircraft was established at Penhold (1951-1965) for NATO member countries.
The monument also commemorates a member of the CASARA who died while flying out of the Red Deer Airport. CASARA is a national voluntary civilian search and rescue organization funded by the Department of National Defence.
The creation of the monument and the dedication ceremony has been a collaborative effort by members of four local aviation groups – the Red Deer Flying Club/COPA92, CASARA, the Harvard Historical Society and 703 Wing Royal Canadian Air Force Association.
Jim Thoreson, president of the Red Deer Flying Club, said the monument has been in the works for about a year and a half and was inspired by a fellow pilot who lost his life in a training mission in 2008.
“CASARA works for the military and they have a large monument in Winnipeg at the headquarters and people killed in search and rescue can get their name on it. When our pilot got killed in 2008, Herluf Nielsen, I tried to get his name on it, however, the criteria for getting your name on there is that you have to be killed during actual search and rescue mission – not a training exercise,” said Thoreson. “He didn’t qualify to go on that monument and we were talking about it one day and someone said there’s been a lot of people killed here while they were training for the war and there is nothing here to commemorate them. We thought we would make something here at the airport because this was a training base and that got it all started.”
Nielsen was killed in 2008 while conducting a night training exercise. After the group finished up around 10 p.m., Nielsen left the Red Deer Airport and headed to Innisfail where he was going to leave his plane.
“He hit some weather and went down,” said Thoreson, who was one of the pilots working with him at the time of his death.
The Nielsen family was also on hand for the unveiling of the monument and Thoreson said they were honoured.
“They are quite pleased to see this going ahead and they were excited to take part in it.”
Thoreson added the unveiling of the monument is of significance to the Central Alberta community.
“I think people need to remember why we are walking around free. We had all of these pilots fighting the Nazis and then in the Cold War we had our people ready to battle as needed. From Herluf’s side of it, when we get someone lost or downed in a plane, someone has to go find them,” he said.
The land for the air base was purchased by the federal government in 1939 and they had started building runways and the government realized a war was coming so hangars were starting to be built as well in the 1940s. The base started out as a manning depot and later on when the government came into agreement with supporting the war, it turned into an air force base. At that time RAF took it over and it became known as No. 36 Service Flying Training School between 1941-1943.
In 1941, 1,400-plus pilots trained at the base in Penhold during WWII.
After the war, the air base became a storage facility. In 1956, it became a NATO training base which was then called No. 4 Flight Training School.
Gary Hillman, owner of Hillman Air, said given the base’s history, the importance of the monument is even greater.
“The significance of the event is to recognize the men who dedicated their lives to the peace of the countries during the war,” said Hillman. “They signed a blank cheque with their life basically to come over here and to take training so that they could go back and fight for the freedom of their countries. Some of them died while they were doing the training and that is who we are recognizing – those who came with the intention of training and who died while they were training. This is something that has been missed so we are trying to pick it up and do something for these men at this time.”
Meanwhile, for Thoreson it has been rewarding to see the monument come to fruition.
“It has been a long, hard task and it took a lot of research – we had to go through the archives to make sure we had all the names right and we didn’t want to miss anybody. We had a real great dedicated bunch of people working with us. It is great to see it all finished.”