NL GenWeb

Historical Information

West Coast Region - Bay St. George District

The Downed Airman and His Rescuers

The following was originally written by Don Morris, in a column he wrote called Vignettes of the west.

The young Tom Gillis or the Giant bearded fellow referred to was my Grandfather Thomas Jennings Gillis.
Transcribed by Steve Gillis with permission granted by the Western Star

The downed airman and his rescuers

Uncountable are the stories of more than nature which came out of the cauldron of human conflict that was the Second World War. This is one of them and its location is western Newfoundland. The people involved included an Alabama airman and some fisherman from the Hamlets of St. Fintans and the Highlands.

The source of this story is a dispatch from England in 1944. Said the communiqué:

When a serviceman with the Newfoundland "flash" on his shoulder visits a RCAF Typhoon Fighter-Bomber Airfield in Southern England, a stocky pleasant pilot will approach him in the mess and ask in an Alabama drawl, "Can I buy you a drink, friend".

He is Flying Officer Autrey L. (Pete) Henderson, and it is his way of backing up his oft-expressed opinion…. " Newfoundlanders are the finest people on the face of the Earth. "

This admiration is based on F-O Henderson’s big toe—part of it missing. He laconically observes" If it hadn’t been for some Newfoundland fishermen, I guest all of me would be missing".

While ferrying a Tiger Moth training aircraft to a RCAF training station in Newfoundland (exact date omitted from the dispatch) Henderson was forced down by an iced Carburetor. He crashed landed in desolate country near Cape Anguille on the West Coast of Newfoundland. The aviator existed for eight days and nights under the trees his landing had broken off, while around him raged the worst blizzard in recent Newfoundland history.

The flying officer had five matches, was without food, and clad only in battle dress. He spent most of his miserable sojourn sleeping. But it is nothing but fitful sleep. " I vowed if I ever got out of there that I’d never complain about hot weather again --- or anything else for that matter," the southerner recalls.

Searched for nine days

Searching aircraft located Henderson on the Eighth day, after the blizzard abated, and directed an organized group of ground searchers to his location by dropping maps to them. A total of 19 men had kept up the search through out the blizzard and the giant bearded fisherman who finally broke through the bush to come face to face with the downed airman had started out nine days previously with only a few slices of bread in his pocket. So far afield went the search that most of the men were engaged in bringing up supplies for advanced searchers

Wanted to carry him

Henderson later recalled: " When I came face to face with that fisherman when he came up to me, I said " My God, your face is the most welcome sight I’ll ever see in this world." He was a great big bearded fellow, the flying officer remembered, " and he was as gentle as a kitten." The airman added: " This fellow even wanted to carry me on his back. But I told him I wouldn’t hear of it. I said I’d rather walk, or stay and freeze to death."

Deep snow was a great hindrance and the blizzard started up again. These conditions combined to delay the rescuers in getting the airman to the town of Stephenville. The tortuous trek to the community took nine days.

Snowbound in Cottage

For three days Henderson and his rescuers were snowbound in what the airman described as" a tiny cottage" where the pilot said, he learned to start eating again. In the "cottage" the fisherman ministered to the aviator’s frozen feet. Part of his Big toe was later amputated. Henderson recalled that it was during this vicious snowstorm with extremely high winds that the Newfoundland express train was reported blown from it’s narrow-gauge track between Corner Brook and Port Aux Basque.

That dispatch from England in 1944 said: "Flying officer Henderson’s conversation with a visiting Newfoundlander generally ends with: " By the way, next time you write back home, would you ask your folks to pass along my very best regards to young Tom Gillis and Uncle Tom Gillis and Howard MacPherson, and to Mr. And Mrs. Joe MacInnis near St. Fintans and the Highlands. It was young Tom Gillis who was the first of the searchers to locate Henderson, an it was Uncle Tom Gillis who, hale and harty at 69, organized and participated in the search which brought Flying Officer Henderson back from the frozen wilderness to civilization; probably back from the jaws of death."

© 2001 Stephen Gillis and NL GenWeb