Remembering Wegner Point
Forty five years ago, 26 paratroopers disembarked from their aircraft anticipating a smooth landing on the sandy Mattawa Plains.
When the three Buffalo transports took off from Bonnechere Airfield, the conditions were favourable for an early evening drop. That drastically changed when the men began exiting the planes at around 8:30 p.m.
Staring down at the dark, perilous Ottawa River, most knew they were overshooting the drop zone. The wind sheer that caught them off guard propelled 22 of them into the frigid waters off Wegner Point with some landing as far as 1,000 feet offshore.
Entangled in their parachutes and weighed down by equipment, most struggled to escape being dragged to the bottom. Some family members watched anxiously from the cliffs above. When rescuers finished pulling what men they could from the water, seven were still missing.
The night of May 8, 1968 still remembers fresh in the memories of those who lived it. Retired colonel Joe Aitchison was one of the lucky ones. He was on the second pass waiting to exit when the pilots got the word to 'stop drop.'
"It's something I will never forget for as long as I live," the former paratrooper told a ceremony commemorating the worst training accident in Petawawa history Sunday. "It was a very difficult day and those that followed were very difficult days."
Family, friends and former comrades gathered at a memorial cairn above Wegner Point to reflect on that catastrophic evening over four decades ago. Ray Clowes and Dave Jannisen, both survivors of the drop, read out the names of the seven who drowned: Master Warrant Officer Reginald Riddell, Warrant Officer Michael McDonnell, Cpl. Hugh Fields, Cpl. Bob Knight, Cpl. Dennis Clements, Cpl. Jim Misner and Cpl. Bruce Chiswell. The men had served in the First Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment and the 2nd Signals Squadron.
For Aitchison, who today serves as the RCR's Colonel of the Regiment, it was a sombre time as it took days to locate the bodies of the victims. When searchers did find them, some were still in their parachute harnesses. Most of them were less than 50 yards from shore. The next day, the colonel was asked to identify the body of 41-year-old McDonnell.
"As the old saying goes, 'Fair winds and following seas, have a good one, jumper.' Unfortunately, there were seven men who didn't," concluded the colonel.
The winds gusted as serving members of the 1st and 3rd Battalions, Royal Canadian Regiment, and 2 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group (2CMBG) Headquarters and Signals Squadron formed up alongside Airborne veterans. Then Padre Wayne Sollows offered a prayer for those jumpers who died doing their duty.
"We gather to remember those who trained to defend our great nation but in doing so had their lives taken from them in peace," said Sollows. "Lives of young men who were not only soldiers but all of them sons and friends, some of them husbands, fathers and uncles."
Then with headdresses removed, trumpeter Glen Wagner played "The Last Post." After two minutes of silence, Warrant Officer Scott Pollon performed a solemn lament on the pipes.
Mayor Bob Sweet said it was important to reflect on the loss of seven young soldiers so tragically killed 45 years ago. Alluding to the casualties inflicted on the base from the recent Afghanistan mission, the mayor said the community has always mourned with the military during their times of great sadness.
"When tragedies happen on the base, we feel as you do," said Sweet. "I have never served in a uniform but I am eternally grateful to those who do."
The current generation of signallers and jumpers, in the form of members of 2CMBG Headquarters and Signals Squadron and 'Mike Company', 3 RCR, were also given a chance to pay tribute to their predecessors.
"We lost members of our unit back in 1968," said Maj. Neil Marshall, commanding officer of 2CMBG Headquarters and Signals Squadron. "It's very important we keep their memories alive. It's important we show the community we still care."
This ceremony is held each May by the Canadian Airborne Regiment Association. Airborne veteran Dennis Stow, who was on the ground as a drop zone controller that night, said the association would continue to stage this memorial to their seven fallen brothers.
Sean Chase is a Daily Observer multimedia journalist