AYLESFORD - For more than seven decades, relatives of Second World War Leading Aircraftman Hollis Eugene Howard yearned for closure.
“Every one of us growing up knew the story, knew that he was missing, knew that he had never been found,” recalls his nephew, Eric Howard.
The sparse details surrounding the days following the November 1940 plane crash that resulted in Hollis Howard being declared missing in a wooded area near the Quebec-Maine border in left many nagging questions unanswered.
“Growing up, the question was: did he make it out of the woods alive?,” says Eric Howard, a resident of Cochrane, Alta.
Avid aviation archaeologist Pete Noddin has made a hobby out of unearthing the history behind military aircraft accidents in the State of Maine, including the crash that led Hollis Howard to his turf.
In an article titled “The Depot Lake Bomber Mystery Solved: The Incredible Story of RCAF Digby 749,” Noddin said the aircraft was en route to Montreal in an attempt to find safer landing conditions after experiencing dangerous winds and low visibility in the Maritime provinces.
“At the time that the decision to fly to Montreal was made, 749 had approximately eight hours of fuel aboard, enough to fly the long route around Maine and arrive with nearly an hour of fuel remaining,” wrote Noddin.
But the situation only went from bad to worse for the six men aboard Digby 749, a Douglas B-18 Bolo bomber aircraft.
“The aircraft’s radio compass was also non-functional and poor radio communications had plagued Leading Aircraftman Hollis E. Howard, wireless operator, throughout the flight,” said Noggin.
Lost in the elements
The crew was forced to abandon the aircraft, dropping into the snow-covered Quebec wilderness in frigid weather and complete darkness.
Noddin was particularly interested in Howard’s location, wanting to know if the airman ultimately succumbed to exposure in Maine or Quebec.
“Ground teams tracked him for several days and located at least two shelters that he had constructed, but additional snowfall caused the trail to go cold,” wrote Noddin.
“There is an oral history that a small team of Maine Game Wardens exchanged distant pistol shot signals with someone assumed to be Howard on the evening of (Nov. 21, 1940), but were ordered out of the woods by a superior due to the start of a severe snowstorm.”
Eric Howard vividly remembers visiting his grandparents, Roland and Florence Howard, at their home in Aylesford and admiring the photograph of his uniformed father and uncle that was proudly displayed above their dining room table.
“It’s always bothered me that he was never found. I did some research back in the `80s with the military and the RCMP because there was some information saying there had been investigations and searches, but nobody had any files or information [on Hollis],” he said.
“I had given up.”
The turning point
His luck started to change in 2013.
“I wanted to get my Dad's and my uncle's medals mounted for display in my home. I ordered Hollis' military file. In the middle of all his personnel documents, training records, etc. was a memo about a body of an airman, in uniform, found in the area where Hollis went missing, in May 1944,” he said.
“The body was not identified because it was skeletal remains and the skull had been moved by animals and could not be found.”
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) and Directorate of History and Heritage (DHH) agreed to investigate and, in 2015, the Howard family had confirmation that Hollis Howard was buried in the historic Mount Hermon Cemetery in Quebec City.
No longer an unidentified member of the Royal Canadian Air Force, Hollis Howard received a new military headstone and several of his relatives attended a re-dedication ceremony at his gravesite on Sept. 22.
“For me, personally, it was good closure. I was honoured to be there,” said Eric Howard.
“It was chilling and thrilling to realize that we had been able to unravel this mystery.”
In speaking at his uncle’s service, Eric Howard thanked all involved in the investigations that ultimately unraveled a mystery that plagued his family near 75 years.
“His loss had a huge impact on my grandparents and their only remaining child, my dad, for the rest of their lives. Hollis was never far from their thoughts,” he said.
“I am sure they are very happy that Hollis is no longer lost in the Quebec woods, and that, when he was found in 1944, although not identified, he was buried with military honors in this beautiful setting in Mount Hermon, and that… he is officially identified with this headstone to mark his final resting place.”
Key points in the Hollis Howard story:
- July 8, 1919: Hollis Howard is born in Waterville to Florence and Roland Howard of Aylesford, Kings County.
- July 1938: Hollis Howard enlists in the Air Force.
- October 1939: He is posted in the NO. 10 Bomber Reconnaissance North Atlantic Squadron in Dartmouth.
- Nov. 17, 1940: The six-member 10 Bomber Reconnaissance Squadron is separated after being forced to parachute after the 1930s Digby 749 bomber aircraft. Hollis Howard is among the missing.
- Nov. 23, 1940: The crash site is discovered near Little East Lake in Maine, close to the Maine-Quebec border.
- Nov. 29, 1940: Research would later determine that Hollis Howard succumbed to exposure to harsh winter elements on this date.
- December 1940: The search for three missing Digby 749 crewmembers ends. The bodies of two men who shared a parachute were found the following spring. Two crew members had been rescued from the bitter cold following the jump, and the pilot, Flying Officer J.H.U. Leblanc, successfully landed close to a logging cabin.
- May 1944: A fisherman finds the remains of Leading Aircraftman Hollis Howard near a stream in a forest close to SaintPamphile, Quebec, but the soldier is not identified.
- July 9, 2013: Eric Howard reviews Hollis Howard’s military file and finds a memo referencing the body found in 1944. This prompts him to make further inquiries.
- Oct. 2, 2015: Eric Howard receives an email indicating that a soldier laid to rest at Mount Hermon Cemetery in Quebec City is identified as Hollis Howard.
- Sept. 22, 2017: A rededication ceremony is held at Mount Hermon Cemetery to formally acknowledge Hollis Howard’s final resting place.