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After 73 years, closure for families of airmen lost in Muskoka

Peter Abraham, right, places at rose on the casket of his uncle, Flight Lieutenant Peter Campbell, at the funeral for him and Leading Aircraftsman Theodore Bates at Woodlawn Memorial Park in Guelph, Ont., on Sept. 17, 2013. The two airmen were lost over Lake Muskoka in 1940.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

A trumpet roared for two airmen who were finally laid to rest 73 years after they disappeared during a search-and-rescue mission over Lake Muskoka.

Under clear skies in Woodlawn Memorial Park's veterans' section in Guelph, Ont., on Tuesday morning, family members of the Flight Lieutenant Peter Campbell and Leading Aircraftsman Theodore Bates were able to provide a proper burial for the men they feared would never come home.

"My brother was my hero," said Tom Bates, LAC Bates's younger brother. "He taught me how to build model airplanes and play various sports. He was clever and talented, and I idolized him."

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He recalled going on his first airplane ride with his brother in 1939.

"He taught me a lot of things that I've used through life. He loved to fly. Especially when he was in the air force, he used to [fly] over our house, and it just scared the heaven daylights out of my mother."

It was 12 days before Christmas in 1940 when LAC Bates, 27, and Lt. Campbell, 24, boarded the aircraft Nomad 3521 from Camp Borden in an attempt to locate their counterpart, Leading Aircraftsman Clayton Peder Hopton, who had gone missing during training.

Nomad 3521 was one of about 13 aircraft designated to search for LAC Hopton. LAC Bates, an athletic aircraftsman who had received his Pilot's Wings a month prior, and Lt. Campbell, a British flying instructor, had decided to touch down at Muskoka Airport to refuel shortly before noon. On the way, their plane collided midair with Nomad 3512, killing the four airmen from both planes.

The bodies of two men and the wreckage of Nomad 3512 were found during searches in the winter and spring of 1941, but the whereabouts of LAC Mr. Bates, Lt. Campbell and Nomad 3521 remained a mystery.

Among those haunted by the disappearance of Nomad 3521 were Muskoka-area residents Matt Fairbrass and Al Bacon, who established the Lost Airmen of Muskoka Project in search of servicemen whose bodies were never recovered during the Second World War.

"I started looking for artifacts for the Norwegian museum in Muskoka," Mr. Fairbrass said. "I figured with all this activity during the war, we would be able to find a wing or a propeller for the museum. We kept hearing rumours about planes that had [disappeared] into the lake. Out of nowhere, Tom Bates calls me and says: 'I think you're looking for my brother's airplane.'"

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Mr. Fairbrass and Mr. Bacon dedicated their spare time to searching for the airmen and wreckage. Mr. Fairbrass located the general area of the aircraft in 2007 using a side-scan sonar and later contacted the Ontario Provincial Police.

The OPP Underwater Search and Recovery Unit began diving in the area in July, 2010. Roughly 90 feet below the surface, divers discovered a cigarette box belonging to Lt. Campbell and a ring that belonged to LAC Bates. Divers were then able to retrieve the remains of the airmen.

"We're very fortunate to take part in this," OPP Sergeant Rocky Bolger said. "And the most important thing is that we have been able to provide closure for the families. Locating the plane was difficult, and there are certain procedures we have to follow to preserve the evidence."

News of the recovery that began in 2010 was kept private to maintain the integrity of the site, said Laurel Clegg, casualty identification co-ordinator for the Department of National Defence.

Along with family members, servicemen also gathered at Tuesday's ceremony. "In the air force, whenever we lose a flier, it's important that we do pay our last respects," said Colonel Simon Sukstorf. "It's a very emotional day."

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