In the annals of both sports and Canadian aviation, much has been written about the crash of Trans-Canada Airlines Flight 810, on Dec. 9, 1956.
The plane was a North Star, built by Canadair, and it carried 59 passengers and three crew members. It took off from Vancouver, bound for Calgary, with later stops in Regina, Winnipeg and Toronto.
But the flight ended abruptly when icing and turbulence caused the plane to crash into Mount Slesse near Cranbrook, BC.
The crash site was so remote that search teams were not able to reach it until the following spring. The wreckage of the aircraft was left on the mountainside as a memorial to the 62 people who died that day.
At the time, it was the worst aviation disaster in Canadian history, and only three crashes since then have taken a greater toll of lives than Flight 810.
The world of sports remembers the crash because the dead were five football players who were returning home from the East-West all star game in Vancouver.
Four of them played for the Saskatchewan Roughriders, including Gordon Sturtridge who was born and raised in Winnipeg and was travelling on the doomed flight with his wife Mildred.
The other player who died was Calvin Jones of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. 1956 had been his rookie season in Canadian football, after a brilliant career at the University of Iowa, where quarterback Kenny Ploen was one of his teammates.
Jones could have returned to Winnipeg on earlier flight, with Blue Bomber teammate Bud Grant, but he overslept and ended up on Flight 810 instead.
Another player who had a ticket on Flight 810 was legendary Edmonton Eskimo fullback Normie Kwong who would eventually serve as Lieutenant Governor of Alberta. He decided to stay an extra day in Vancouver to spend time with a young cheerleader named Mary who would become his wife, and the mother of their four children.
Less well known are the others who died on Flight 810. Their names can be found on a memorial cairn which was erected down the mountain on Slesse Road.
As we observe Remembrance Day, it is timely to recall the life of Major Philip Gower of the Queen’s Own Rifles who died that day at the age of 41, leaving behind his wife Anne and their four children. He was born in Regina in 1915, but much of his upbringing was spent in Manitoba’s Interlake near Teulon.
When war broke out in 1939, Philip joined the Royal Winnipeg Rifles and was with them with the rank of Captain on June 6, 1944 when they came ashore on Juno Beach in Normandy.
Gower was cited for bravery on D-Day, and later received the Military Medal from King George VI. He also spent time as a prisoner of war in Germany.
Gower later was promoted to Major and served with the Canadian Army in the Korean conflict. After that war ended in 1953, he was part of a multinational force that helped supervise the truce in the demilitarized zone between north and south.
His son, Philip Gower who now lives in Los Angeles, recalls that the family was living in Calgary when their father bought a ticket on Flight 810. He had done some early Christmas shopping, and was bearing gifts for his children as he boarded the plane in Vancouver that morning.
The younger Mr. Gower also recalls that his mother later had some difficulty collecting her widow’s pension from Ottawa, possibly related to the five months that elapsed before the crash site was reached on Mount Slesse. Mrs. Gower was helped in this matter by another Manitoba military figure, Major Cliff Chadderton, who served as CEO of the War Amputations of Canada.
Chadderton had lost a leg while serving with the Royal Canadian Artillery in Holland in 1944, and after the war he became the leading advocate on all issues involving Canada’s veterans for many years.
As a broadcast journalist, I came to regard Cliff Chadderton as a prime source and a go to guy on stories relating to veterans.
Once I discovered that we had both graduated from Kelvin High School in Winnipeg, Cliff and I became true friends until he died two years ago at the age of 93. Mrs. Anne Gower died at the Hunter Memorial Hospital in Teulon on October 19, 2000 at the age of 84, 44 years after the death of her husband on Mount Slesse.
While researching the story of Major Philip Gower, I was reminded once more how frequently our lives intersect with others, especially in Winnipeg it seems.
My father, Andrew Currie, was a football Hall of Famer, and had many personal connections with the five players who died aboard Flight 810.
As I looked at the photo of the memorial that stands on Slesse Road, I spotted the name Harald Cleven. I suddenly remembered that his son Jeff Cleven, who recently passed away in Ontario, was a classmate of mine at St. John’s College at the University of Manitoba.
Courtesy of Senior Scope