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A tragic night off Wegner Point remembered

By Sean Chase, The Daily Observer


GARRISON PETAWAWA – Fifty years ago, Petawawa suffered its greatest loss when seven paratroopers landed in the bitterly cold Ottawa River and drowned.

In one of the largest commemorations to the disaster, more than 200 people gathered to reflect on that tramautic night when a wind sheer blew 26 airborne soldiers off their intended course and dropped them in waters as cold as 42 degrees fahrenheit. Family, friends, former comrades and survivors of the ill-fated parachute drop laid wreaths in front of a memorial cairn built on a bluff overlooking Wegner Point, the scene of the tragedy on May 8, 1968.

That evening, the military was conducting Exercise New Shakedown. Three Buffalo transport aircraft took off from Bonnechere Airfield at Round Lake and flew 50 kilometres to Petawawa where members of 1st Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment and 2nd Signals Squadron were scheduled to jump onto the Mattawa Plains. Petawawa councillor Treena Lemay still clearly remembers that day. Just 21 at the time, she made lunch for her husband-to-be, Gilbert, and his friend, Cpl. Jim Misener. For the 24-year-old Misener, she baked a chocolate cake, his favourite. Gilbert informed her that they were scheduled to jump in a few hours.

“The guys were going to try for a possible jump since it had been so windy that day. They weren't sure if it would be called off or not,” Lemay recounted. “It wasn't and they proceeded to do the jump.”

At 8:30 p.m., the green light signal was given to dispatch the men from the aircraft at a height of 1,200 feet. Twenty six were blown off course ending up about six kilometres from their original drop zone. Only four paratroopers landed safely on the ground. The rest landed in the Ottawa River. Some splashed down as far away as 900 metres off Wegner Point, while others were as close as 70 metres.

Many had prepared for a water landing because they heard 36-year-old Master Warrant Officer Reginald Riddell shout out instructions as they descended. Once they hit the surface, the paratroopers struggled to release their harnesses and rifles. The lone safety boat deployed for the drop began fishing men from the water but it was a difficult task as the darkness and fog rolled in.

So many either couldn't swim or succumbed to hypothermia. Other were entangled in their parachutes and weighed down by equipment. When rescuers finished pulling what soldiers they could from the river seven were still missing. Cpl. Misener and Master Warrant Officer Riddell were among those unaccounted for. Gilbert Lemay, who passed away in 2013, did make it onto shore. He later walked from his unit lines to the base main gate to get a ride still wearing his wet boots.

“He called and said there's been a terrible accident,” Lemay, a nursing student working at the hospital that evening. “Indeed there had been and as we know, the worst training accident in peacetime in Canadian military history.”

In the days that followed, search parties recovered the bodies of seven missing paratroopers. Following the playing of the Last Post and the lament by a piper, a section of soldiers fired off a volley for each of the seven fallen: Warrant Officer Michael McDonnell, 41, Cpl. Hugh Fields, 35, Cpl. Bob Knight, 27, Cpl. Dennis Clements, 27, Cpl. Bruce Chiswell, 30, Master Warrant Officer Reg Riddell and Cpl. Jim Misener. In the years since, Lemay said she struggled to understand how such a calamity could befall these men.

“I believe that a very positive way to remember these seven paratroopers is that they lived and proudly served their regiments and our country,” she said.

A board of inquiry concluded that wind sheer was to blame. It recommended paratroopers be equipped with life vests when jumping near water. The base's drop zone was moved to the Duke Plain west of Highway 17.

“Starting on that day, on that horrible and tragic accident, the Army learned and we changed the way that we do things,” said Honourary Colonel Father Mark Sargant, a retired Airborne padre. “There isn't a person here with a set of wings on, or those that love them, that didn't benefit from that moment and who were not physically and uniquely touched by what we learned in that accident. We are the legacy. We are the answer to the loss.”

Co-ordinated by Dennis Stow, who was a drop zone controller on the night of the accident, the ceremony included personnel from Garrison Petawawa, veterans from the Airborne Regiment Association of Canada, the Canadian Airborne Forces Association and the NATO Veterans Association. 

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