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Man visits uncle's final resting place

Tuesday, 06 November 2007

On Feb. 20, 1945, Wells Gibb Mendenhall took off with his crew at 10:13 p.m. in his Halifax VII RG-455 plane.

By Garrett Simmons Taber Times


Mendenhall, an upper gunner, was part of 432 squadron, and was in one of the 112 Halifaxes ordered to attack an oil refinery at Monheim, Germany. On that mission, Mendenhall and two other members of his crew were killed, and four others were claimed as prisoners of war. As a result of that fateful evening, Thom Evanson of Taber would grow up without his uncle Gibb, as Evanson was born five years after his uncle's plane was shot down. It wasn't until later on in his adult life, however, Evanson became more and more curious about his uncle, and wanted to know exactly what happened to him. "Probably after I got married, I just asked people what happened to him, and no one really knew. They just knew he got shot down over Germany but that was about it." Evanson wanted to get to know his uncle better, and undertook a research project, which ended up as a 142-page book, to uncover any information he could find. He wrote to the Canadian government to obtain his uncle's war record, and even tracked down Mendenhall's Royal Canadian Air Force crew members. Burke McIntosh, who survived the plane crash that claimed Mendenhall, was eventually tracked down by Evanson. "He had my uncle's pilot log record book. Burke and him were really good friends," said Evanson, who added McIntosh gave him some insight into what kind of guy Evanson's uncle was. "He (Mendenhall) was just a solid guy. He didn't get excited very easily and he was a very good gunner." Using the information from McIntosh that was found in the log book, Evanson turned to the Internet to match up information to find out exactly what plane Mendenhall was flying in that night, what bombs they were using and what their target was. Frank Daley, another member of the crew, was then contacted by Evanson last year. "He said their plane was shot by a night gunner, which started the plane on fire," said Evanson, who added it is his best guess his uncle was shot while he was in the plane. Evanson then learned where exactly his uncle's plane had crashed. It had landed in a backyard in Oberaussem, Germany, in the yard of Elizabeth Bruggen. Bruggen kept a diary, which a German man, Hans Griese, later came across. Griese become interested in the story about the crash, and began an investigation of his own to find out any information he could about the plane and its crew members. A third man, John Anton, from Saskatoon, was also doing research on the crash, and came upon a website, originating in Oberaussem, that Griese and his group had put together. Anton and Griese eventually got together via e-mail and in turn, Anton contacted a member of the Mendenhall family, who then contacted Evanson. On Feb. 10 of this year, Evanson and Griese finally connected through e-mail, and Evanson was amazed to learn the scope of the work being done in Germany to learn more about the fallen Halifax. The Oberaussem group excavated fragments of the plane from the yard, and e-mailed photos of the artifacts to Evanson. Soon after, Griese invited Evanson to Germany. It was decided a memorial service would be held for the fallen crew members, in Germany, on Oct. 23, Mendenhall's birthday. Evanson, along with other family members, made the trip to the small German town for the ceremony. A Catholic priest and a Protestant minister spoke at the event, where a placque honouring the fallen Canadians was unveiled, in the backyard where their plane crashed. It was a touching moment for Evanson. "Hans spoke about how it all happened and how they want the relationship between our two countries to be peaceful. I spoke, and said I appreciated the work they had done. What Hans had done was like reaching across the ocean and bridging the gap." A radio station and two newspapers covered the event, one which Evanson added was a very important event for the community. That importance was also stressed by how well the Canadian visitors were treated. "For the one week we were in Germany, they just treated us like royalty over there," said Evanson, who actually stayed in the Bruggen's house during the trip. "I said, 'it feels like a dream' but I knew it wasn't a dream, because I was standing right where he crashed." Evanson also visited his uncle's gravesite at the Rheinberg War Cemetery, to cap off the trip, one which helped change some of his perceptions about the German people. "The thing that it did for me is as I grew up, I had this vision of what Germans were like. I knew how my dad felt about them and to go over there and see things for myself, I realized they were just as scared of the war as we were. They were part of the war by no choice of their own." Evanson also learned a lot more about the war, from the perspective of the Germans. He was given a tour of the city of Cologne, of which 80 per cent was bombed during WWII. "Those were real people killed, just like my uncle. It just gave me a whole new perspective - another side of the story." The whole experience was a valuable one for Evanson, who was able to finally finish the history book on his uncle, thanks to the help from his new friends in Germany. The completed history book, which includes Mendenhall's flying log book, photos and much, much more, has since been given out to hundreds of family members. For Evanson, the book is a permanent reminder for all his family as to the sacrifice his uncle made for them. "That's one of the reasons I did it. I wanted them to know what my uncle went through, and to keep that history alive so we don't have to go through something like that again, and appreciate what my uncle did. Because of him, I have freedom. I was able to marry and have a family. He never had that opportunity."