July 27, 2012

The Crimson Route: Recovery and reminiscence

By PETER BLACK, Canadian Dispatch

---- — The Crimson Route probably doesn’t mean much to many people these days.

Yet, for a time early in World War II, the plan to build a network of airfields in eastern North America was seen as a primary line of defense of the continent against a Nazi juggernaut threatening to topple Great Britain.

The project is likely still in the living memory of the families of five American servicemen who died in the icy waters off Longue Pointe de Mingan on the St. Lawrence River on Nov. 2, 1942.

On that windy evening, a U.S. Navy Catalina flying boat with nine crew aboard hit some heavy waves trying to take off. Water flooded into the damaged cockpit, and the plane sank after about 30 minutes.

People in the village watching from shore rushed to the rescue and saved four crewmen who had been clinging to the sinking Catalina. The five others were trapped in the plane and taken down to the bottom of the river.

And there the downed airplane and its doomed crew stayed lost — except to local legend —until three years ago when an archaeological team from the federal parks service doing a survey in the area came across the wreckage and confirmed its identity.

This summer, an operation is under way to recover the five bodies and whatever personal effects may be still intact. It’s a mission of the Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Accounting Command, based in Hawaii. It is also, apparently, only the second such operation in Canada. The first, started in 2008, was to recover bodies of three U.S. servicemen who were lost in a Sikorsky flying boat crash off Botwood Harbour, Newfoundland, in October 1942.

The identity of one of the five Longue Pointe victims is known publicly. According to a report in his hometown paper, the captain of the Catalina was Jack Zimmerman of Freemont, Ohio, who, prior to the war, was a commercial pilot who earned some fame as the first to land a scheduled flight at the new LaGuardia Airport in New York City.

Zimmerman had flown in military officials from the big base at Presque Ile, Maine, to Longue Pointe to check on progress in building the strip. Military planners figured Longue Pointe had strategic importance for the Crimson Route as an intermediary or emergency stop for aircraft bound for Newfoundland and then onward to England and Europe.

The base — code-named Tweed Field — was built to accommodate a contingent of 155 soldiers and 32 officers. This influx of Americans into a remote corner of the north shore of the St. Lawrence obviously had an impact on the tiny fishing village with a population of about 300.

The strip is still in use today and is clearly visible on Internet maps. What’s more, some 10 witnesses to the crash and rescue effort are still living in the village. They were invited recently to meet the JPAC crew as it readied to begin what is expected to be a month’s worth of diving in tricky river conditions.

Those witnesses would probably also recall how the St. Lawrence River had become a front of World War II as of the spring of 1942. Indeed, the first attack of a Nazi U-boat in the river happened only a few miles from Longue Pointe.

The Nazis continued the submarine rampage in the St. Lawrence for the next two years, sinking 24 ships — four in one day in September, 1942 — and killing 300 people. The last victim of a Nazi sub attack was the Canadian navy ship Shawinigan, which was sunk off Newfoundland in November 1944, with 91 sailors lost.

When the Allies got the upper hand in the Battle of the Atlantic in 1943, the Crimson Route became pretty much unnecessary. But given the urgency with which bases like Longue Pointe were built, it’s clear Allied planners had considered them a crucial part of the war effort.

And that’s probably comforting to the families of the Americans who made the ultimate sacrifice in the cold waters of the St. Lawrence.

Peter Black is a radio broadcaster and writer based in Quebec City. He has worked on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, in Montreal as a newspaper reporter and editor, and as a translator and freelance writer. He can be reached at