Reproduced with permission from The Beacon Supplement July 27, 1977.

St. Martin-in-the-Woods


Written by Bob Arklie taken from the Beacon, November 12, 1975

At first glance, St. Martin-in-the-Woods stood out with a stark and ominous reality against the somber background of the dull November foliage.  The trees now naked and empty of life allowed one beholding the sight to sense a special feeling of warmth and serenity radiated by St. Martin’s as a cold November south-wester rustled the towering birches which surround this unique spot in the Newfoundland wilderness.

Few of the younger generation in Gander have ever heard of the little cemetery located in the wilds of the south west Gander River watershed.  Fewer still have had the opportunity to visit the site, and that opportunity will have pretty well vanished within a few years as old woods roads that pass within three quarters of a mile of the site are rapidly deteriorating.  In a couple of years the roads will be impassable for even the toughest four-wheel drive vehicles.  St. Martin’s will remain but it too will gradually give way to the creeping forests that are constantly at work enclosing the site in a tangle of wild alder growth.

No doubt, many older residents of the town remember the excitement produced by the crash of a Sabena DC-4 some 29 years ago.  In 1946 commercial aviation spanning the North Atlantic was relatively new.  The continued development of commercial aviation had been disrupted during the years of the Second World War.  During the conflict, Gander became the focal point for military aircraft movement across the Atlantic and it was only logical that Gander would be destined to play a major role with commercial aviation following the conclusion of the war.

On the early morning of September 18, 1946, the DC-4 belonging to the Belgian Airline, Sabena, was winging its way across the North Atlantic towards its eventual destination in New York.  The Sabena flight was scheduled to touch down at Gander during the early morning hours for a routine refueling stop.  By 5:00 a.m. preparations had been completed and the ground crews sat around chatting in the early morning dampness awaiting the familiar sound of the huge aircraft’s piston engines.  They waited in vain as the sounds could not be heard.

The flight was an uneventful one during most of its Atlantic crossing, however, weather conditions near the Newfoundland coast were unsettled at the time.  A check of the records at the Gander Weather office reveals that the weather could be classed as dull and drizzly with a low ceiling.  The wind was blowing from the northeast at a fairly brisk pace and temperatures ranged in the mid 40’s.  These conditions were radioed to Captain Jack Ester and the crew of the DC-4 and they were informed by the Gander Tower Control to make preparations for an instrument approach.

The aircraft approached Gander on a dead reckoning course, however, it is believed the plane over flew the airport and started its descent on the southern side of the airfield rather than on the northern side.  The end result of this error proved to be fatal for 26 of the 44 persons on board as the giant DC-4, which was then one of the larges commercial aircraft in the world, crashed into a densely wooded area approximately 22 miles southwest of Gander.  The plane plowed through several hundred yards of heavy birch before coming to rest and bursting into flames.  The impact tore open the fuselage and several passengers were hurled into the trees.  Most of the 18 survivors were seriously injured, however, three came through the ordeal with hardly as much as a scratch.  It was due to their efforts that more of the injured were pulled from the wreckage before the flames had completely engulfed the aircraft.

It was several days later before rescue parties were able to arrive at the location of the crash and remove the survivors.  The first to arrive on the crash scene were two residents of Glenwood who were in the general vicinity caribou hunting.  Abbot Pelley and Bruce Shea tended to the needs of the survivors as best they could until help arrived.  It wasn’t until the following day that an advanced rescue party consisting of Roland Pinsent  (now living on Elizabeth Drive), and a medical doctor, remained with the survivors until all were evacuated to hospital at Gander.  It was because of the untiring efforts of Major Martin that the survivors name the small cemetery where the 26 victims of the crash were laid to rest, St. Martin’s-in-the-Woods.

Even though the crash scene was relatively close to Gander, the rescue effort mounted took on substantial proportions.  The site of the crash was inaccessible and the advance rescue party had to be flown by a PBY flying boat to Dead Wolf River in life rafts to a spot approximately one mile from the crash scene.  The remainder of the journey was made on foot through the dense underbrush.

The major rescue operation consisting of a team of 40 men from Glenwood and Gander assembled on Gander Lake and proceeded up the South West Gander River and followed Dead Wolf River until they reached the overland route to the crash scene that had been blazed by the advance rescue party.  The men remained on the scene for close to a week assisting in moving survivors to the hospital at Gander as well as performing the unhappy task of burying those who were victims of the crash – some 26 in number.

The decision to bury the victims near the site of the crash was made because of the risk involved in transporting the bodies to Gander.  A special aerial funeral service attended by Father P.J. McCarthy, the rev. Leonard Woolfrey and a Jewish Rabbi from New York was held.  The Committal Service was performed on board a United States Air force DC-3 that circled the crash site.  Recordings of the Committal Service were made at Gander later sent to bereaving relatives in Belgium who had requested that a proper burial ceremony take place. 

Roland Gillingham, who now lives at Clarke’s Head in Gander Bay was a member of the 40 man rescue party.  Mr. Gillingham said the plane was probably one of the richest to ever fly.  Many of the passengers on board were rich diamond merchants from Amsterdam who were on their way to New York for a diamond exhibition.  In keeping with this the plane carried a substantial load of diamonds.  This fact was later verified when a water bucket, two thirds filled with diamonds was removed from the scene.  In addition, Mr. Gillingham added there was a vast amount of money and jewelry scattered all around the crash scene.

The efforts of the rescue party were complicated by the inaccessibility of the crash scene.  Helicopters were assembled upon arrival at Gander and flown to an open clearing near the crash.  Survivors were transported by the helicopters to Caribou Lake some five miles away and placed on board PBY Flying Boats and flown to Gander.  This was necessary as the helicopters had a very limited range.  Incidentally, these helicopters were the first to have ever arrived in Newfoundland and their use in the rescue operation demonstrated their versatility under what must have been very adverse conditions.

The staff at Gander’s Sir Frederick Banting Memorial Hospital worked around the clock to tend to the needs of the injured, many of whom had received serious burns and multiple fractures.  Doctor James Paton, the only doctor available initially remained on his feet for 48 hours straight and was later awarded a citation by the Belgian government in recognition for his services above and beyond the call of duty.  The staff of the hospital was bolstered by many residents of the town who offered their services in a volunteer capacity.

Gander resident, Mrs. Isabel Rowsell, recounted how she assisted with the hospital phase of the rescue operations.  Mrs. Rowsell, a registered nurse, had moved to Gander six months earlier.  At the time she was not a member of the hospital’s staff, however, she, along with several other nurse in the town, volunteered to assist the hospital’s three regular nurses.  Two other nurses and an extra doctor arrived from St. John’s to assist in caring for the injured.

The efforts of the medical team at the Banting Memorial Hospital were of the highest order.  This was attested to the fact that only one of the 18 original survivors of the crash succumbed to his injuries.  A number of the injured were later transferred to hospitals on the mainland for more specialized treatment.tail section

Meanwhile the crash had attracted widespread attention across the North American continent.  At that time it was the largest commercial airliner crash in history and teams of journalists and reporters were flown to Gander to provide a first-hand account.  The first live radio broadcasts to emanate from Newfoundland to the mainland took place as reporters filed direct radio reports to their respective networks.  Such a radio effort wasn’t repeated again until Newfoundland became a Canadian province 2 ½ years later.

Twenty-nine years have passed since that eventful foggy morning in 1946.  In that time Gander has witnessed a number of fatal air crashes, however, none can approach the Sabena crash in terms of drama as well as the hardships that had to be overcome.  The scene remains pretty much as it was following the crash.  Pieces of airplane wreckage are strewn about the area and the remaining fuselage of the DC-4 still continues to defy the elements.  The forest of birch and alder is gradually entwining the wreckage yet the shining aluminum skin of the DC-4 remains in a remarkable state of preservation.

The crash scene is now dominated by the small cemetery which still contains 24 of the 26 victims.  Two of the bodies were later removed and transported to Europe for reburial.  The little cemetery has been maintained over the years by Roland Gillingham who as mentioned earlier, was a member of the original 40 man rescue party and he has vivid recollections of an event which he referred to as being the most dramatic of his entire life. 

cemetaryMr. Gillingham visits St. Martin-In-The-Woods at least once a year, usually in the fall.  His visit on Saturday past was typical of the many he has made in the past.  Much of the two hour stay was spent trimming grass and removing fallen forest debris from the small cemetery.  In addition to maintaining the cemetery, Mr. Gillingham also removes each year’s growth of alder from the small trail leading from an old and little used Bowater’s woods road.  He plans to return next summer to repaint the protective picket fence he erected years ago.  Some of the grave markings are also in need of repair and Mr. Gillingham will look after this task as well come next summer.

But what will eventually happen to this interesting spot in the wilderness which brings back vivid memories to so many residents of Gander who lived here 29 years ago?  The caretaker is now 62 years of age and the stamina of his legs isn’t what it used to be.  No doubt Mr. Gillingham will continue to perform what must be considered an unusual activity for as long as he is able, however, his advancing years coupled with the increasing inaccessibility of the area will eventually place St. Martin’s-In-The-Woods solely in the hands of Mother Nature alone.  NO matter what may come to pass, St. Martin’s will always be a quiet and serene place that was disrupted by a chaotic event some 29 years ago.  The telltale evidence of this very fact will continue to remain even though it may eventually be hidden from the eyes of man.

Researched by Carol Walsh


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