Updated: Jan 21, 2019
This is the story of a local woman’s search for the place where her father died more than 60 years ago.
It begins with Donald Edward (Ted) West. He’s six feet tall, 170 pounds, and in great shape. He’s handsome, athletic, has a brilliant smile and fine social graces. Furthermore, he’s kind, reliable, and adventurous. He’s a strong leader who isn’t afraid to challenge authority.
He’s also an avid golfer, prominent at Edmonton’s Mayfair Golf and Country Club, where in 1939, at age 22, he and partner Bobby Proctor win the Eaton Cup. Later he will play with professionals Bobby Locke and Stan Leonard during their Prairie tour.
Though he is not a University of Alberta student, he lives on the school grounds — because his father is the bursar. Just before Christmas 1940, Ted and brother Robert enlist in the Royal Canadian Air Force. They head overseas. Robert is reported missing and later “presumed killed in action.”
A news report describes Ted (pictured at right) flying over Germany in his Halifax bomber and blasting Cologne and Ruhr. He calls it “the pilot’s pipe dream.” But on Aug. 15, 1942, he is shot down over Düsseldorf. He survives but becomes a prisoner of war.
He spends five months in shackles at Stalag VIII-B Lamsdorf before being moved to Stalag Luft III, where to pass the time, he and other prisoners build a makeshift golf course. They use hockey sticks and pipe lengths for club shafts and melted coffee and sardine cans for irons. They fashion balls from Red Cross elastics, sewn together with the leather tongues from their shoes. They find their ersatz balls will travel up to 150 feet.
West remains a prisoner for three years, until the camp is liberated in 1945. Upon returning home, he finds his golf game is surprisingly good.
Interviewed by an Edmonton Journal reporter about his experience, West is asked to contrast it with the treatment of German prisoners of war in Canada.
“I don’t begrudge them anything,” he says of the officers held at Wainwright, Alta. “If you are a prisoner it doesn’t matter if you are getting chicken every day. You’re still a prisoner. It’s your freedom that counts. Canadian or German, behind barbed wire the same things happen to your mind.”
In 1946, West opens a sporting goods store — Edmonton’s first — called the Sports Inn. “Everything for the outdoor man and woman,” the ads read (including the one seen here from the Edmonton Journal of April 27, 1946). However, he’s not really a salesman. He’s reputed to have traded a canoe for chickens.
West also becomes president of the South Side Athletic Association in 1950 after serving on the executive for three years.
At 29, he marries childhood sweetheart Catherine Macdonald, who shares his love of the outdoors, entrepreneurship, and golf. They have a son and daughter, Robert and Barbara Georgina, born in 1947 and 1949 respectively.
Ted misses flying. In the early ‘50s, he trains as a rescue pilot and moves the family to Sea Island, near Vancouver.
By 1955, he’s piloting a twin-rotor Piasecki H-21, the first RCAF search and rescue helicopter in western Canada. It’s equipped for Arctic rescue work and nicknamed the Flying Banana because of its unorthodox shape. It can take off vertically and fly sideways. It’s 86 feet long and carries up to a dozen people and a 3,500-pound payload.
Lethbridge Herald, Jan. 20, 1955
During a stop in Lethbridge, West admits the helicopter looks unusual, but adds “The only time it’s going to worry me is if I look around and see that bend isn’t there [in the fuselage] anymore.”
West’s flight crew includes co-pilot Kingsley C. (Casey) Lynas, crewmen Cpl. J. Eric Ericson and Cpl. John S. Stradecki, all stationed at Vancouver, plus Bob Chesney of Prospect Park, Penn., a fieldman for the Piasecki company.
Shortly after 11 a.m. on April 21, 1955, the helicopter is en route from Penticton to Castlegar on the second leg of a flight to Cold Lake, Alta., where it will be placed on standby for rescue operations.
Near the Santa Rosa Summit, between Rossland and Grand Forks, they run into heavy fog. The crew doesn’t realize how low they’re flying — until they see the tree tops.
Lynas realizes they’re going to crash but has no time to react. One large tree bears the brunt of the impact and is pulled up by its roots. The machine lands in or near Santa Rosa Creek and two more trees come down upon it. The helicopter is engulfed in flames.
Moments earlier, two Rossland highways department workers driving through the area hear a fizzing sound, as though an aircraft is swishing through the treetops.
“It sounded so low I thought it was going to come right through the truck,” says Helmer Hanson. He and colleague John Zatko drive five miles to the top of the summit, tooting their horn regularly, but can find no trace of a wreck. But once they descend to what is known as 20 mile post, they hear a man calling for help.
Hanson and Zatko leave their truck and trudge a quarter of a mile through the snow until they find Lynas. He escaped when the hatch flied open, then went back to rescue Stradecki, with flames licking at their feet.
Lynas has blood over his eye and is carrying Stradecki, who has a blood-soaked handkerchief tied around a head wound. Hanson asks if anyone else survived. “No, only us two,” Lynas answers. “The rest are up there.”
Front page of the Vancouver Province, April 22, 1955.
Lynas, 24, and Stradecki, 35, struggled four miles through the snow trying to reach the road. Hanson and Zatko help the injured men to their truck and start driving to Rossland — at the time the Santa Rosa is the only highway pass, but it’s notoriously difficult, with many switchbacks. Bus drivers call it The Hump.
Stradecki wants to go to sleep, but Hanson tells him to stay awake. Lynas writes the names and addresses of the crash victims in an address book.
After 12 miles they meet an RCMP patrol car sent to look for them after the helicopter was reported overdue at the Castlegar airport. Before its fate becomes known, the RCAF in Vancouver also dispatches a jet and Dakota transport with a jump crew to the area.
Cst. J.K. Strang of the Rossland detachment takes the two survivors the remaining eight miles to Mater Misercordiae Hospital. Lynas has minor injuries and is expected to be released within a few days, while Stradecki’s arm is fractured and he probably has broken ribs.
Two Grand Forks constables hike to the scene where they find charred wreckage covered with snow. The next day, a five-man RCAF rescue team struggles on snowshoes through waist-deep snow, while nine others stand by at Rossland. Squadron Leader D.K. Gain (or Game) of Vancouver heads the group, which also includes two RCMP constables and two BC Forest Service men.
They reach the crash site, but are not properly equipped to transport the victims’ remains. They spend the night in a canvas-topped lean-to, setting a brush fire to keep them warm.
Also visiting the site are photographer Art Stevens and Henry Stevenson of Nelson. Stevens takes a photo of the wreckage, seen below, that appears in the Nelson Daily News. (One victim, Eric Ericson, is an uncle to Evelyn Ramsden of Nelson.)
However, Howard McDonald of Trail, who is commissioned by The Vancouver Sun to photograph the scene has his film seized by RCMP, on orders of Inspector H.E. Bloxham. The film is returned the following morning. “You would think this was Russia,” McDonald grumbles. Bloxham replies that the pictures showed bodies and he would not allow them to be released until next-of-kin were notified.
The Department of Public Works brings in a bulldozer to plow a path as close to the site as possible.
The following day, the bodies are removed with great difficulty over steep terrain and brought to Trail, although the particulars of the operation are not reported. The remains of West, 37, and Ericson, 35, are flown to Vancouver, while Chesney’s body is sent to Philadelphia. A coroner’s inquest in Trail concludes the men died of third degree burns. Eric Ericson is buried at Mountain View Field of Honour in Vancouver and West at Westlawn Memorial Gardens in Edmonton.
West dies on his son’s birthday. His wife is at a birthday party when a lieutenant’s wife comes to tell her the grim news.
Some of the helicopter’s debris, including the fuselage, is recovered, although how and when this was accomplished isn’t clear.
Two changes result from the crash: Piasecki changes the location of its fuel tank so it is no longer immediately behind the pilot’s seat. And pilots undergo more training.
After the crash, the survivors’ wives keep in touch with Catherine West for about a year.
Co-pilot Casey Lynas spends a total of 21 years in the RCAF, including ten years flying helicopters before becoming a computer systems analyst in 1968 for the defence department in Ottawa. He is later a senior database analyst for BC Systems and BC Tel in Vancouver. He dies in Ancaster, Ont. on Jan. 14, 2009, survived by his wife, two daughters, brother, and granddaughter.
John Stradecki changes his name to John Strad and moves to the Sunshine Coast. He continues to work as a helicopter engineer and is involved in 1970 with a 41,000-mile circumnavigation of the Americas. He dies in Sechelt on Sept. 15, 2015, age 95, survived by his children.
Ted West’s children Georgie and Robert are five and eight respectively when their father is killed. They move back to Edmonton. The War Veterans pays for their university education and takes care of their mother. Georgie becomes a teacher and Robert a doctor.
Georgie gets to know her father by reading his military service reports. In her most distinctive memory of him, she’s four or five and they’re in their Sea Island home. Their dog Frisky is ill. Ted picks Georgie up and carries her upstairs.
In 1990, Georgie moves to Creston, where someone who went to school in Rossland at the time of the crash tells her he remembers the helicopter’s wreckage being removed. Everyone marveled as the truck brought the pieces out.
A few years later, at her daughter’s suggestion, Georgie checks the newspaper microfilm for stories about the crash. She has a notion she’d like to visit the site, and has a cross made to place there, but doesn’t consider how she might find it or how difficult it might be. For the time being, the cross sits in her garden.
In July 2017, Georgie receives a call from Marcel Lesaar, an author from Düsseldorf writing a book about men from all sides in World War II, called Luftangriff auf Düsseldorf und Neuss (Raid Against Düsseldorf and Neuss).
He is interested in her father because the same battle that resulted in him being taken prisoner had different outcomes for three other pilots: one was killed, one stayed in a farmhouse for the rest of the war, and another escaped to England.
Lesaar tracks Georgie down through a war memorials website. He asks about Ted, not realizing his fate. Lesaar digs into Ted’s war records and comes up with an approximate location of the crash site.
He contacts Sue Adrain at the Boundary Archives, who has a friend with the Ministry of Forests. The friend realizes that finding the spot deep in the woods will be tough and suggests the Grand Forks ATV Club might be able to help.
The club accepts the challenge. They can’t find anyone who has actually been to the site, but five members use accident reports, newspaper articles, and hearsay to narrow down the location. In October, armed with GPS devices and metal detectors, they head into the thick brush.
“With some hard work and a dash of good fortune,” member Mike DeGirolamo says, “we were successful on our first attempt.”
They let Georgie know and make plans to bring her and family members to the site. But as the route the ATV club was “long and rather dangerous,” they cut a better trail first.
On June 21, 2018, Georgie, her son Eden, and cousin Peter Manning are escorted down to Santa Rosa Creek. Her daughter Autumn, who is recovering from a serious car accident, comes along but waits at the top of the hill. Georgie’s brother Robert, who lives in Kingston, Ont., is unable to attend, but his son Jordan is there. Five members of the ATV club guide the way.
“I felt totally safe and protected hiking down with them,” Georgie recalls. “We started from a stand of western larch and descended at 17 per cent grade to a most beautiful place. The moss and devil’s club sparkled after the previous night’s rain. The greens were so green, the lighting crisp and clear.”
She catches a glint off of what turns out to be a series of metal circles — melted pieces of the helicopter, deeply embedded in the earth. Ferns and bushes have grown in and though the debris. Some larger pieces have weathered to the point where they look like abstract art.
“Three old growth cedars stand sentinel to the wreckage, one sheared off at its top,” Georgie says. “We stood in the midst of something bigger than feelings. There was not sorrow. There was patience and curiosity, assistance and care and above all there was love. Ted’s life is of eternal value. Here stands his legacy of kindness and love.”
A spot is carved on one of the cedars to mount the cross from her garden and hang a hickory golf club. Georgie reads a tribute, addressed directly to her father. You can see it in the video below.
“I didn’t want it to end,” Georgie says. “I expect and welcome others to visit Ted’s Hike and reflect on nature’s way. Truth, beauty, and goodness.”
A final postscript: in 1958, the Boundary Historical Society used a piece of the helicopter’s fuselage to house a time capsule. A hole was then drilled into a large heart-shaped rock to store the capsule, which was placed along Highway 3 at Rock Creek. It is due to be unearthed in 2058.
“I hope my grandson will be there when it is opened,” Georgie says.
Time capsule at Rock Creek.