The wind was fierce and the waves were surging on Josephine Vibert’s wedding day, 70 years ago in Longue-Pointe-de-Mingan, a small fishing village on Quebec’s North Shore.
In 1942, the village became the site of an emergency airstrip on the U.S. military’s so-called “Crimson Route,” a strategic air corridor to Europe through Maine and Newfoundland.
Late in the afternoon on Nov. 2, 1942, not long before the wedding reception, Ms. Vibert and most of the village stopped to watch a U.S. Army seaplane taxi from the harbour.
But the plane – a PBY Catalina – struggled to clear the water. Ms. Vibert recalls the towering waves of the Gulf lashing at the cockpit during its second take-off attempt.
“I counted five waves, but there may have been more,” she says from her home, still in Longue-Pointe-de-Mingan. “After the last one, water started entering their plane.”
The town’s fishermen braved the frothing waters to find four crew members clinging to the fuselage.
Just moments after the survivors were hauled aboard the local fishing boats, the plane, along with the five remaining crew members, slipped beneath waves, never to be seen again.
That is until 2009, when divers from Parks Canada found the barnacled, upside-down fuselage of the Catalina some 40 metres below the surface.
“We worked from shore until we hit the plane,” said Marc-André Bernier, the chief underwater archeologist for Parks Canada.
“When we actually saw that the fuselage was in one piece, we immediately stopped operations and contacted the American authorities.”
With the prospect of the remains of American soldiers inside, Canadian officials contacted a joint civilian-military unit in the United States that specializes in the identification of citizens lost in war.
Earlier this month the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) dispatched a 50-person team to investigate the site. They arrived on a 78-metre salvage ship, the USNS Grapple. Their 30-day mission is close to wrapping up.
Divers have already found what appear to be the remains of the missing airmen, which will be sent to a DNA lab for identification.
But they have also found a trove of artifacts so perfectly preserved they might have been taken from a time warp.
From the floor of the Gulf, divers managed to find a Listerine bottle intact, complete with air bubbles and something resembling its original scent.
They also discovered film negatives, aviator glasses and, perhaps most remarkably, paper believed to be from the crew’s log.
Mr. Bernier says a number of conditions combined to keep so many of the objects in good condition, including near-freezing waters and a depth that allows for little oxygen and light to reach the wreckage.
“To find, intact, a plane from the Second World War underwater is already something remarkable,” he told reporters who visited the Grapple last week.
“It’s an oasis, an underwater receptacle because lots of organisms have attached themselves to the plane.”
He added that finding the personal artifacts of the airmen was “like diving back into time.”
For the moment, there are no plans to raise the fuselage itself. JPAC’s mandate is limited to recovering items associated with the individual airmen who went down with the plane.
“To be able to do this and bring some closure to families is pretty rewarding,” said Stefan Claesson, a forensic archaeologist aboard the Grapple.
“As long as we find one remain it’s a success for us. And in this case we have a significant number of remains to bring back home, so that’s very exciting.”
The salvage mission off the coast of Longue-Pointe-de-Mingan has created a stir among the village’s older residents – some of whom, like Ms. Vibert, still vividly remember that November day in 1942.
Up until then, Ms. Vibert says, the war had been a largely positive experience for the residents of Longue-Pointe-de-Mingan.
“Everyone had a job, everyone was happy,” she said during a phone interview with The Canadian Press. “We only had one paved road then, and the American soldiers would parade down it.”
Since the Grapple arrived in early July, she has kept a close eye on its movements from the shore.
Two of her brothers disappeared during a plane trip over Gulf waters during the 1950s, their bodies never found. Because of that, she says she understands the desire to bring closure to the families of the missing airmen.
“Every night I drive down to the shore and I give them [the Grapple’s crew] a little signal with the lights of my car,” she said.