In this photo from Killick Island in Botwood, the U.S. Navy vessel Apache is in the harbour with a contingent of military personnel exploring the wreckage of the flying boat Excalibur. Some of the team, including divers, are behind the stern of the Apache, as personnel take turns underneath the water’s surface. — Photo by Sue Hickey/The Advertiser
Oct. 3, 1942, was a day that, for a young Warren Lessing, did not end. And it never may, unless a U.S. team of military divers and support staff find remains belonging to his father, Capt. Warren Lessing, and other servicemen on board the flying boat Excalibur.
The commercial plane, carrying American servicemen, was going from New York to Ireland. It made a refueling stop at Botwood, but crashed in the harbour. Of the 37 passengers and crew, 11 were killed and others were seriously injured.
The junior Lessing, now 89 years old, and his daughter Sandra Kanakis have been following the recovery efforts since 2008, when an initial team from the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) arrived to map out the wreckage site and access the potential of a recovery mission.
Another JPAC team has been in Botwood since the middle of August, and will probably be there until the end of September.
“I think, especially, that the Canadian people and the people in Botwood have been so wonderful, so helpful, especially much more than our own government,” Lessing said in an interview from his home in Florida. “I really appreciate it, and the only reason why I haven’t been there this time is that that my wife had recent surgery.”
He has visited Botwood, however, since his father perished in the plane crash. He was there in 1947; on the train to the town, he met a man named Rufus Dominic.
“He took me to the site of the crash, and at least I could say a prayer there for my father,” he said.
Others have mentioned two servicemen who died in the crash and were not recovered, but Lessing said there were three that were never found, including his father.
The chances of the military team finding definite remains of those who died in the crash are challenging. But Lessing hopes there is a faint possibility of something belonging to his father is found, so his family can have true closure. Family members are hoping for actual human remains like small bone parts, but there is another item Lessing would love to see returned.
“He had a gold ring on with three diamonds in it, but that’s probably long gone,” he said.
Kanakis only knew her grandfather through stories, pictures and letters. He died before she was born.
“I’m excited about the recovery efforts,” she said. “My grandmother kept asking me, ‘when you grow up, I hope you find out what happened to him,’ because she received so many false reports. She got one saying he was found and buried and would be returned after the war. Seven years after that, she got another letter saying ‘we were mistaken, he was not found.’”
Until the day she died in 1997, Capt. Lessing’s wife never had a clue, she said.
“I promised her that my husband and I would find out what had happened, so we started doing research,” she said.
They got in touch with congressmen and senators, and wrote to various U.S. presidents.
“They’re finally doing something, got on the bandwagon,” she said. “I’m hoping they’ll find something. I wished I could be there myself, but my passport expired. I’m hoping to get down sometime next spring. I would like to be there, because I need a sense of peace this time.”