While I have no evidence to suggest otherwise, I suspect an April 27, 1944 afternoon of working on his 100 hectare Canaan, Kings County farm started off uneventful for my grandfather on my father’s side. Harry Sylvester Corcoran will be referred to as Grampy throughout this story, as that’s how I remember him. He passed away in 1992.
Other than some scattered clouds, outdoor conditions seemed decent for Grampy, 44 years old at the time, to use his workhorses to harrow a field a kilometre away from his English Mountain Road home.
Overseas, World War II raged on and, locally, it wasn’t uncommon for military aircraft out of the Greenwood airforce base, about 55 kilometres away, to utilize Nova Scotia skies to practice manoeuvres.
As Grampy worked the field, overhead, 12 Hurricane fighter planes flying in three section formations attempted to climb to 20,000 feet as part of a training exercise.
It was at this point that Grampy became a witness and a brief footnote in local military history.
My curiosity about the incident and family chats about what happened that day prompted me to obtain accounts from a media source, a narrative from a local history book and records from the National Archives of Canada. The documents include witness testimony, police statements and an accident report.
I’ve learned that Grampy heard what sounded like an explosion in the sky.
Looking upward, he saw the break-up of wreckage or as a newspaper account described it, “two flaming planes burst through the clouds” with some of the debris appearing to plummet to the field he was on.
Grampy fled “but stopped in time to see what remained of one plane coming down in a swamp …”
He told the military: “Various pieces of the aircraft were on fire as it fell to the ground, and would have caused a tremendous conflagration had it been harvest season. It rained about one hour after the crashes.”
What remained of the plane piloted by Flight Officer Reginald Maurice Brooks, 24, crashed down on Grampy’s land. The collision claimed the life of the New Brunswick airman in addition to the pilot of the other plane, Sgt. Kenneth George Fuge Harvey, 20. Little detail of Harvey’s residence is made clear in the records although his funeral was held in Middleton.
Much of the wreckage of Harvey’s aircraft rained down on a neighbour’s property. Neither plane were outfitted with artillery or explosives.
Grampy retreated home with his horses and, after authorities got wind of the incident, Grampy, along with other local farmers and woodsmen, began searching for survivors. The 1994 book The Pioneers of Canaan said my uncles, Leo and Charlie Corcoran were among the help.
The pilots’ bodies were discovered in mud-laden swamp, between 15 and 800 metres from the fuselages of their respective planes. Debris scattered over a three-kilometre radius and for about a week a neighbour’s property was a tent city for a military investigation and, for airman, a period of mourning.
The investigation into the accident showed it was, indeed, an accident.
Brooks and Harvey were aboard planes in separate sections as their formations participated in an authorized height-climbing exercise. “While in cloud” they collided. The military investigation revealed that “with vision temporarily obscured” Harvey’s plane overshot a lead and “had turned almost 180 degrees before impact …” with Brooks’ aircraft. Both planes caught fire.
Findings in a military report indicate there were no written instructions in effect at the unit regulating formation cloud flying.
A pilot flying his Hurricane in the same formation as Harvey reported his own windscreen iced up, completely obscuring his forward view at 10,000 feet.
“In view of this fact it is possible that [Harvey’s plane] experienced the same trouble,” an investigation document concluded.
A chapter subtitled “War over Canaan” in The Pioneers of Canaan states that air accidents weren’t uncommon in the area in the 1940s.
A few miles north of the 1944 incident, a military pilot perished when his Greenwood-based plane crashed in the fall of 1942. One pilot parachuted to safety but another died when two Hurricane planes lost control and crashed in August 1944.
“There has been speculation through the years as to why there were so many plane crashes in such a small area,” according to the book. “Wind velocity and the high elevation have been suggested. Whatever the reason, the Canaan residents felt the war was right on their doorsteps.”