Petawawa's darkest hour 50 years later
Submitted photo A photo of 2 Airborne Signals with many of the paratroopers who made that ill-fated May 1968 drop on the Ottawa River. Four of the victims of the disaster are in this photo: Cpl. Bob Knight (third from left middle row), Cpl. Bob Fields (sixth from right middle row), Cpl. Jim Misner (far right middle row), and Cpl. Dennis Clements (third from right back row). Three other jumpers from 1st Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment perished in Petawawa's worst training accident.
It's been 50 years since the worst military training accident in Canadian history claimed seven paratroopers in the cold waters of the Ottawa River.
An annual memorial service to honour the memory of the seven jumpers will be held on Sunday, May 13 at Garrison Petawawa. The ceremony will begin at 11 a.m. at the Wegner Point memorial cairn located adjacent to the 427 Special Operations Aviation Squadron heliport off Passchendaele Road.
“This was an unprecedented loss of life,” says Dennis Stow, a retired soldier who was a drop zone controller on the night of May 8, 1968 when 22 paratroopers landed in the Ottawa River off just off the point. “We remember Nov. 11, D-Day and the Battle of the Atlantic but this was on home soil and it was the worst training accident we've had in Canada.”
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 died that evening.
The men had served in the 1st Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment and the 2nd Signals Squadron. In honour of the fallen, veterans from the Airborne Regiment Association of Canada, the Canadian Airborne Forces Association and the NATO Veterans Association will participate.
The ceremony will also be supported by 2 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group (2CMBG) Headquarters and Signals Squadron. This year, family members of the fallen soldiers will include Stephen Fields, son of Cpl. Fields, and the four daughters of Cpl. Knight, Sue Price, Patty Beek, Chrissy Knight and Cathy Storey.
“This is an important anniversary for those of us who served with them and those families left behind,” added Stow. “Many who were children at the time have few memories, if any, of their fathers.”
The airborne soldiers were participating in an exercise called “New Shakedown” that evening. They were dispatched from three Buffalo transport aircraft at a height of 1,200 feet. All 26 were blown off course ending up three miles from their original drop zone on the Mattawa Plains. Only four paratroopers landed safely on the ground. The rest ended up in the river just as the sun was going down. One of them was Cpl. Misner, a native of Brantford, Ontario. Stow said he still has fond memories of his friend.
“Jim had a real spring in his step,” said Stow. “He always wanted to be a jumper.”
Cpl. Misner managed to discard his parachute, rifle and helmet but drowned trying to swim for shore. His body was recovered days later some 75 yards from shore. After the disaster, a board of inquiry recommended moving the base's drop zone was moved to Duke Plain west of Highway 17. Paratroopers were also equipped with life vests as part of their equipment when jumping near water.
“We've lost other in jumps but never this many,” added Stow.
As the survivors and their comrades climb in age, Stow said it is getting increasingly difficult to hold the annual memorial but he hopes future generations will take it up. As an example, he knows that three survivors will not be making the ceremony due to ill-health.
“As time roll on it's going to get smaller and smaller but we don't want to forget these seven soldiers,” he said.
A reception will be held at the Reichwald Warrant Officers and Sergeants Mess after the service.