24-year-old pilot finally gets a headstone – The London Free Press
More than 75 years after his death, Flight Sgt. Dana Anthony Nelson finally has a proper headstone.
Nelson, a pilot with the Royal Canadian Air Force, was at the controls during an ill-fated training exercise near London in 1943. Three of the five-man crew died, Nelson included, after the plane ran out of fuel and crashed into the water near Port Bruce.
More than two months later, a body washed up near Tyrconnell, south of Dutton. It was buried at the nearby Fairview Cemetery with a headstone marked, simply, “an airman of the R.C.A.F — unidentified.”
The headstone stayed that way for more than 75 years.
A picture of the old Royal Canadian Air Force headstone at Fairview Cemetery in Dutton. It was replaced earlier this year. (Submitted Photo/Postmedia News)
A fellow veteran, Pte. James Waucaush, was buried nearby in 1946. His son, Fred, would often stop by to spend time at the old graveyard, south enough from Dutton to be entirely surrounded by farmland. Years later Fred Waucaush said he took a casual interest in the anonymous, R.C.A.F headstone.
“I wondered who this man was,” Waucaush said. “Who was his family, his mom and dad, siblings? Did they wonder what happened to him? Did they ever look for him?”
When Waucaush returned earlier this summer he noticed a difference. Someone had replaced the old headstone with a new one.
The new headstone read “R137915 Flight Sergeant D. A. Nelson, pilot.”
As of 2018, there are fewer than two dozen anonymous war graves in Canada from the Second World War.
Until this year one of them belonged to Flight Sgt. Dana Anthony Nelson.
The graves are looked after by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, an international organization based in the United Kingdom. Among other roles the organization commemorates headstones from the First World War and Second World War. That includes the headstones of unidentified veterans.
The organization commissioned Nelson’s new headstone this year, after his body was identified in August 2017 with help from the federal Library and Archives Canada.
“It was process of elimination,” said Dominique Boulais, with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. “All the others that were in that plane ended up being identified. He was the only remaining person never identified out of that crew.”
An Avro Anson, not unlike the one that crashed into Lake Erie during a training exercise in 1943. The twin-engine plane was a common sight in Canada during the Second World War. (Submitted Photo/Library and Archives Canada)
The crash was an accident.
On May 14, 1943, Flight Sgt. Nelson and another instructor took three students — two navigators and a bombardier — on a training exercise. They departed in an Avro Anson from RCAF Station Crumlin, a section of the now-London International Airport used by the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War.
Toward the end of the flight Nelson said he was feeling unwell. Minutes later Nelson fell unconscious, leaving the plane in the hands of three students and the other instructor. None of them knew how to pilot the plane. In an act of heroism, 20-year-old Kenneth Spooner, from Smith Falls, kept the plane steady as the other three conscious men parachuted out.
One, the other instructor, died in the descent.
Leading aircraftman Spooner died when the plane, out of gas, descended into the lake. Months later Spooner was awarded the prestigious George Cross, only one step down from the Victoria Cross, for his bravery during that training exercise May 14.
Nelson’s body was recovered more than two months later and buried in an anonymous grave south of Dutton. In Mosherville, Nova Scotia, Nelson’s family erected a headstone for their son.
He was 24.
In 1992 acclaimed Canadian author Ted Barris published Behind The Glory, about instructors in Canada fueling the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. During the Second World War the expensive Canada-wide initiative turned out nearly 250,000 pilots, navigators, and air personnel for Allied forces in Europe.
The instructors were called cowards for staying at home while other pilots fought overseas. In reality, those instructors — including Flight Sgt. Dana Anthony Nelson — were often top of their class and considered too proficient to send into combat. Many of them desperately wanted to leave Canada to fight, but were forced to stay at home.
Few, if any, were recognized for their efforts after the war.
Airmen work inside an Avro Anson during the Second World War. The man in the bottom left is likely an instructor. (Library and Archives Canada)
“As many of a thousand airmen were killed in training during the war, in Canada,” Barris said. “These young guys who took airmen up to train put their life into (the students’) hands every time they did.”
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission spent months tracking down and notifying Nelson’s family members after his grave was identified. No one filled out the final verification form. Later this year there will be a small ceremony with the Royal Canadian Air Force on a date yet to be decided.
Earlier this summer the headstone was replaced. Fred Waucaush noticed it when he returned to visit his father’s resting place in June.
“I’m glad (Nelson) can finally rest in peace,” Waucaush said.