Second World War pilots honoured with help from Governor General

A memorial to a Charlotte County air force training base and the air crew who died there opened Friday with a little help from Canada's Governor General.

Gov. Gen. Mary Simon helped unveil a memorial to the Pennfield Ridge Air Station Friday in front of a crowd of more than 125 people, including veterans, dignitaries and school children from nearby Fundy Shores School. Simon was on hand to recognize the 70 trainees, including pilots and other air crew, who died at the site during training accidents as well as to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Royal Canadian Air Force.

"For a century, members of the RCAF have demonstrated dedication, professionalism and commitment to our country," Simon told the crowd. "As commander-in-chief, I’m proud to learn your stories and share them with Canadians."

The memorial is owned by a not-for profit called the 250 (Saint John) Wing, RCAFA Inc., which is chaired by Harold E. Wright and comprised of volunteers from the 250 (Saint John) Wing of the RCAF Association and the Turnbull (N.B.) Chapter of the Canadian Aviation Historical Society. The land is a one-acre plot donated by Dartmouth-based Acadian Seaplants, Ltd., and was the site of a RCAF training station that operated from 1941 to 1945 as part of the British Commonwealth Air Training Program.

The memorial features three tablets, adorned with the names of 70 trainees from Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand who died while at the base. A service was held at the St. George Rural Cemetery in memorial for the 11 trainees buried there.

"Memorials like this one allow community members and visitors to learn more about the role played by the RCAF in shaping our nation's history," Lt.-Gov. Brenda Murphy told the crowd. "We will forever honour those who served here. Their contributions are a part of our collective heritage, and we pledge to remember them."

It comes on the final day of the Governor General's four-day trip to New Brunswick, the first since her appointment to the role in 2023. Simon was front and centre throughout the ceremony, and also helped the students plant oak trees sourced from Vimy, France, then spoke to veterans and dignitaries for a short time afterwards.

One of those was 99-year-old Herb McGee, a Saint Andrews-born retired Air Force veteran who served at Pennfield Station. He said after the Earl of Athlone and Viscount Alexander of Tunis signed his army commissions, Simon was his third governor general he'd interacted with.

"She's very comfortable to talk to and she was very interested in what I had to say," McGee told Brunswick News. "So, I've been in contact with three different governor-generals."

Also present was Cmdr. Mark Tapsell, defence advisor for the New Zealand High Commission, who spoke to the importance of the air training program to the war effort, saying there were 131,000 graduates who served in different roles. He said there were also 856 trainees who died in crashes or accidents throughout the program.

"We had airmen from Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain and Canada and from the U.S. all coming to these areas to train," Tapsell told Brunswick News. "Without Canada enabling this, who knows what could have happened? It was a huge, huge undertaking."

Tapsell said the New Brunswick "countryside is beautiful," saying Canada is like New Zealand but larger, while his country is like this one, but "squashed." He said that in a time of global insecurity and climate change, "it's really important ... that we work together for the common good."

David Loveridge, area director of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, told Brunswick News he appreciated that it was a volunteer effort that came to fruition.

"All across Canada there are memorials to the war dead and to our veterans. A lot of them are put together by the community," he said. "This is a perfect location, it's right at a historic site from a training perspective, it's right on the highway, couldn't get a better location."

Wright, who also received one of 100 RCAF centennial coins for his contribution to air force awareness, said it was "mind-numbing" to see the great turnout and "humbling" to have the Governor General in attendance.

"It was awful hard not to tear up a few times. I'm just glad that these 70 individuals that paid their supreme sacrifice are continued to be remembered, and in this case, on the site, in a very meaningful way," he said.

MLA Andrea Anderson-Mason, who emceed the ceremony, said the event meant "so much to me" as her father and also her son were both servicemen. She also called it "a great way to end my political career," as the legislature session came to a close and she is not re-offering in the coming election.

Eastern Charlotte Mayor John Craig said Simon was "the highest-ranking person I've had to speak to" and that it's a "huge honour" to have her there.

"You saw all these young people here today, we have to never forget that's the reason why we're here," he said. "This monument will be here forever, and the children that were here, it's their job to carry that on and tell people about this."

Andrew Bates, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Telegraph-Journal