Friday, January 25, 2013

Plans and Profiles: Lisa Daly Researching WWII Airplane Crash Sites in Newfoundland

Lisa Daly exploring the inside of an 
A-20 Havoc recovered outside 
of Goose Bay, Labrador. 
Photo property of Lisa M. Daly
Lisa Daly is a PhD student in Archaeology at Memorial University of Newfoundland, here in St.John's.  In this edition of Plans and Profiles, I asked her about her ongoing PhD research into WWII related sites in Newfoundland and Labrador and early 20th century aviation disasters in the Province.  Her research has taken her on a very personal journey and led to many surprising discoveries and meetings along the way.

Plans and Profiles #3. Lisa Daly, World War II Aviation Archaeology in Newfoundland and Labrador

1. Tell me a little bit about your project. 

Maryanne Baird surveying the RCAF Canso site 
in Gander, NL. Photo by Lisa M. Daly.
My PhD project centers on World War II in Gander, Newfoundland and Labrador. I am looking at airplane crash sites in the area, researching the accidents and inventorying what remains in the archaeological record. As well, I am also looking at how the sites were created, including the initial crash, subsequent rescue/recovery of the site, and later site use up to the present day (as trail markers, tourism attractions, sources of scrap material, potential restoration projects, etc.). I am also looking at some of the Former Town Site of Gander. In 2011, I lead a team who excavated some of the Globe Theatre, the theatre on the Canadian side of the airbase, mostly to look at the interactions of the different countries (Canadian, American, British and of course, Newfoundland) on the airbase.

Coke bottle fragment recovered from the 
Globe Theatre in Gander, NL. 
Photo by Courtney Merner.
Beyond my thesis work, I have also been working in other areas of early aviation in Newfoundland and Labrador. I assisted in the recovery of an A-20A Havoc from outside Goose Bay, and am currently working on the research of a 1946 American Overseas Airlines (AOA) civilian crash near Stephenville; at the time it was the largest civilian aviation disaster in the world. The site was rediscovered (it had been lost for a few decades), recorded, and now research and video work is being done in the hopes of releasing a documentary about the event in the next year or two. Similarly, I have assisted in the research of the Hindenburg over Newfoundland, mostly by finding and contacting individuals around the island who remember seeing the dirigible or have photographs. Dr. Michael Deal just released a paper featuring some of this and I hope to release a short documentary about the Hindenburg's Newfoundland connection featuring this research. The paper is "Airships over Newfoundland" in the Canadian Aviation Historical Society Journal, volume 50, number 1.

At the Globe Theatre, we excavated so much Coke bottle glass that we decided to stop and take a Coke break. From left to right: Dr. Mike Deal, Kathleen Ellwood, Chelsee Arbour, Lisa Daly and Shannon Green. Photo by Shannon K. Green.

2. How did you become interested in this particular problem?

Uncovering silver aircrew wings
 from the B-24 Liberator site, 
in Gander, NL. Photo by Lisa M. Daly
It stated in 2007. I had just earned my MSc in Forensic and Biological Anthropology from Bournemouth University, UK, and was looking for archaeological work for the summer. I applied for a few positions, but Dr. Deal's project sounded the most interesting. He was going to be excavating a WWII crash site just outside of Gander, and most relevant to my Master's work, there were still three individuals listed as MIA on the site. The site was a B-24 aircraft that had crashed on 14 Feb 1945, killing all 10 men on board. I thought it would be a great opportunity to use my physical anthropology knowledge in the field. We did find one fragment of human remains, and the proper US authorities have been informed, but what really captured my passion was finding personal effects on the last day of the dig. A historian who was visiting the site, Darrell Hillier, pointed out a button as he was walking through the site. I dug around the button and found it was attached to a jacket. Along with the jacket were other personal items such as more buttons, pins, zippers, chains, and most powerful, a couple of house keys. That really made the site interesting, the idea that these keys would have been used when this individual went home again. A couple of months later myself, Dr. Deal and a number of volunteers returned to the site and excavated that area. It was determined that this was where their luggage had landed so we were finding clothing, elements from kit bags, and even a set of silver navigator's wings. After researching the site, a name and picture could be put to those wings. As part of this project, I also had the opportunity to meet the pilot's son. He visited St. John's and Gander in 2009. After his visit to Gander, he thanked the archaeological team because almost 65 years after his father died he felt that he finally had closure and understood what happened. 

Uncovering a house key at the B-24 Liberator site in Gander, NL. Photo by Lisa M. Daly

3. Has your project changed since you originally began working on it? How?

Breaking for lunch. The ground was so wet that the only 
place to sit was on the RCAF Lodestar, in Gander, NL. 
From left to right: Eric Guiry and Kathleen Ellwood. 
Photo by Lisa M. Daly.
My project has changed a little. Initially, the focus was not going to be just on the crash sites. There were plans for excavation work around the runway and the Former Town of Gander. But, there were problems with a lot of that plan as Gander is still an active airport, making around the runway and the American side of the base off limits, and there are a number of environmental hazards and continuous testing for ground contamination in that area. I had a number of grand plans for excavation, including some of the dump and the remains from a hangar fire that occurred in 1943, but these areas were deemed off limits. At this time, I was also realizing just how much information the crash sites could give, and how much documentation was available, so the crash sites became a much larger part of the project.

4. What's the one question about your research that you never want to hear again?

Volunteer Missy Cousins uncovering aircraft 
fragments at the RCAF Canso site. 
Don't worry, she has permission. 
Photo by Lisa M. Daly.
"I'm going hiking this weekend, can you tell me where that site you went to is, I'd love to see it."

I'm not the best hiker in the world, but I don't like to share the exact location of sites if I don't think people are really prepared for them. The best preserved sites are in the most remote locations and a number of precautions need to be taken. There might be unexploded ordinance on these sites, you may need military permission to access them, you may have to cross a kilometer or more of bog, scale a cliff face covered in rubble, or it might be contaminated by fuel or other hazardous materials and none of them have clear trails. I wouldn't want someone who is not used to bushwhacking to attempt these sites, or who is not adequately prepared for the hazards to be injured. In these cases I do try to encourage people to visit more accessible sites, such as the B-17 on the trails in the Thomas Howe Demonstration Forest in Gander, or the B-36 crash in Burgoyne's Cove, near Clarenville, that features a steep, but well maintained trail to access the site.

The memorial and some of the wreckage at Burgoyne's Cove; note Random Island in the distance. This is an accessible site that is actually located in Nut Cove, but generally called the Burgoyne's Cove crash. For more information and directions on how to visit this site, check out Photo by Lisa M. Daly. 

5. What advice do you have for students considering archaeology?

Lisa inside a section of a Ferry Command 
Ventura that crashed between Gander 
and Benton, NL. This section of fuselage 
had been cut away from the rest of the 
aircraft and transported it about 200 
metres from the main crash site. 
Photo by Michael Deal.
Talk to and volunteer with an archaeologist. There is certainly some adventure that goes along with archaeology, if adventure includes falling in bogs, and lots of sweat and dirt. It's not always easy to know what goes in to archaeology unless you do it, from research to lab work to field work. I have known people who have acquired their archaeology degree only to find they detest field work! Certainly take the first year class, see if there is an area that interests you, but also use the resources available to see if it's a good match. Whenever I teach the first year course, I ask MUNArch, the archaeology society, to give a talk. They are a great resource for anyone and will offer students information on volunteer opportunities, both in the lab and the field, and their mixers are a great way to chat with archaeologists. The best way to pick an archaeologist's brain is to offer to buy them a drink, then question away!

6. Why did you choose Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN)?

Newfoundland 50 cent coin recovered from
 the Globe Theatre in Gander, NL. 
Photo by Lisa M. Daly.
I'm from St. John's, so MUN was the obvious place for me to go for my undergrad. When I was offered a chance to apply to MUN to do a graduate project based in Newfoundland I jumped at the chance. I have always loved my province (I have been working as a tour guide since 2002), and studying in the UK just enhanced that love. Added to that, between the QEII Library, the Center for Newfoundland Studies, the AC Hunter Library, the Gander Public Library and the Provincial Archives, most of my documentary research could be done at home. The bit I needed from the National Archives of Canada could be accessed through inter-library loan.

The best part about choosing MUN is just how much more of the province I have seen because of this work. I have seen some beautiful sights in Gander, reconnected with some of my family on the West Coast, and had the privilege of working on a project in Labrador. I stayed in Goose Bay for 10 days and loved every moment of it. I can't wait to go back.

7. How do you unwind when you need to get away from your research?

Lisa visiting a Cold War crash site, an RB-45C, near
 Goose Bay, Labrador. Photo by David Hebbard.
By always staying busy. I love to be doing something all of the time. So if I'm not actively working on my PhD or one of my aviation side projects, then I am learning how to ballroom dance, or bowling in a league, or playing board games and D&D with friends, or selling comic books, or making new cosplay outfits (usually videogame or steampunk related), or working as a tour guide, or reading for pleasure and for my monthly book club. And with all that, sometimes it's nice to just sit on the couch with my cats, pour up a glass of whiskey and play some video games with my boyfriend.

Actually, I don't think I know how to unwind. I drove across the island this past summer to go to my cousin's wedding in Stephenville, camp in Gros Morne and visit L'Anse aux Meadows, and what did I do but collect stories and images of the Hindenburg and conduct a brief archaeological survey of crash high on a cliff face, sparking another large project!

8. If your thesis had a soundtrack, what would be on it?

Pepsi bottle fragment recovered from the
Globe Theatre in Gander, NL.
Photo by Courtney Merner.
 The Andrews Sisters. I love jazz and big band, and The Andrews Sisters have to be my favourite. I'm actually designing a dieselpunk cosplay outfit based on their typical USO outfits. Besides that, it's usually rock and roll (even more so since learning how to jive) and classic rock. Sometimes I feel bad for my assistants and volunteers for having to listen to "old" music, and other times I feel even worse for them because I like to sing along! I'm always happy when they sing along with me.

Movie film recovered from the Globe Theatre site in Gander, NL. Photo by Lisa M. Daly

9. What books or websites would you recommend if people want to learn more about your area of interest in general? Or your project in particular?

There are some wonderful resources out there about different aspects of Newfoundland's aviation history. Thinking mainly of the WWII era, I would suggest Ocean Bridge by Carl A. Christie or Pathfinder by Donald C.T. Bennett, both about the origins and history of RAF Ferry Command. RCAF and USAAF histories are a little harder to find, and much more technical (and dry) in their writings, but the best is probably W.A.B. Douglas' The Creation of a National Air Force, in particular the Ferry Command appendix in Vol. II. Base Colonies of the Western Hemisphere, 1940-1967 by Steven High is a great look at the interactions between the American forces setting up bases and the locals and has a very interesting chapter on Newfoundland. For Newfoundland and the war, check out Peace of the Continent by Malcolm MacLeod, or for more personal stories, Best of Aviation by Frank Tibbo or A Friendly Invasion (parts I and II) by John N. Cardoulis.

For my project in particular, well, I guess your best resource would be I try to keep it updated with my most recent publications, presentations and interviews. For information on one of my side projects, The Telegram did an article called "The Forgotten Crash" about the work being done in Stephenville.

A dinner tray recorded on the 1946 AOA civilian crash near Stephenville, NL. Photo by Shannon K. Green.

If you would like to see your research, or that of a friend, student, or colleague, profiled here, please get in touch with me at:

Photo Credits: As listed in the photo captions.


  1. What is described as a B-24 "house key" may actually be for the Bomber itself. Refer to the bottom of this page:

  2. Have you been to the site of the dec 12 1985 crash? If so.. Has anything been found?


Related Posts with Thumbnails