On a September afternoon in 1997, a group of men set to work exhuming a grave. Knee-deep in the mud of a Belgian bog, they sifted through the remains of downed World War Two-era bomber, trying to uncover the story of the plane and its lost crew.

Karl Kjarsgaard headed the operation. As director of Halifax 57 Canada, an aircraft recovery group focused on Handley Page Halifaxes, he often receives tips about their location, whether that be in English fields, the Irish Sea, or in this case, six metres under the mud.

The recovery of the plane, a Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) bomber stamped with the serial number LW682 at the time of its manufacture, had been a salvage operation. The crew knew they weren’t going to find a whole plane, but were still optimistic that some parts would be in useable condition. It was the second project that Halifax 57, the Canadian branch of an English group, had ever accomplished. They had pulled another downed Halifax from a lake in Norway just two years earlier and were looking for parts to contribute to its rebuilding. So when Kjarsgaard was approached by the family members of three of the plane’s Canadian crew, asking him to bring them to the surface, he readily accepted.

The plane had been reduced to scrap metal after it had crashed in 1943, but the team crowded around it as it was released from decades deep in the earth were still hopeful their efforts hadn’t been entirely for naught.

Not much of it was left and what was wouldn’t be enough to significantly contribute to the rebuild.

Despite the condition of the plane, LW682 held a remarkable number of still-intact personal effects, such as parts of uniform tunics and watch casings. One of the nearby town’s residents, who had recovered an axe from the crash site as a boy, approached the recovery team to return it.

The group adhered to the old adage that had been the mantra of Second World War aircrews— “We press on regardless.” The focus shifted entirely on recovering the remains of the crew members. Back in Canada, three families waited to hear whether the long-MIA men could become war dead, receive a proper burial and finally have their stories come to a close.

Kjarsgaard always makes sure to call before he digs—before he secures permission from foreign governments, he has it from the families. With permission from their descendents, the men’s bodies were recovered and given a proper military burial by the Belgian government.

“We dug up the entire airplane and we found the three guys inside,” Kjarsgaard says. “It’s one thing to have a guy missing in action. It’s another thing where someone says to you, ‘My uncle’s buried here.’ So we gave them back.”

When aircrew are no longer around to tell their stories, it falls on the objects they used, their planes included, to serve as reminders of their time in combat. This motivates groups like Halifax 57 to dig through the wreckage. “It gives you a goal, pulling that stuff up,” says Scott Knox, an engineer with Halifax 57. “The prime objective here is, not only are you digging up an aircraft, but you are dusting off these stories that may not have ever been told.”

Canada has approximately 50,000 remaining World War Two veterans—as they die, their first-hand-accounts are being lost. Those lost during the war were never able to share their stories. Many who returned to Canada are unwilling to relive their wartime experiences as a result of “combat fatigue” (the common term for post-traumatic stress disorder at the time).

Bomber Command, the RCAF group in control of English and Canadian bombing operations, had some of the highest casualty rates of the war. Of the 120,000 enlisted airmen, 55,573 were killed, including more than 10,000 Canadians. It becomes the work of museums to keep what stories have been shared alive—either via first-hand accounts or through the physical artifacts of combat.

But another group of dedicated individuals—some former air force members, others the children of veterans—have taken it upon themselves to preserve the history of the “bomber boys” via the grandest gesture possible: recovering the aircraft they flew in.

Halifax 57 is one such group, focused on unearthing the bombing aircraft heavily used by Canadians during the war and educating the public about them.

Every part of the Halifax bomber has a manufacturing serial number with the prefix 57—the group includes the number in its title because it represents its goal of unifying all of the aircraft’s pieces.

Seventy per cent of all Canadian aircrew who saw combat did so in the belly of a Halifax. The Halifax’s “underdog” status as a bomber when compared to the Avro Lancaster, a larger aircraft with a greater bomb-carrying capacity, is apparent from its lack of presence in museums. There are five restored Lancasters across Canada, including one of two in flying condition at the Warplane Heritage Museum in Hamilton, Ont. Another four are currently being restored by other museums across the country.

There is a single restored Halifax in Canada in Trenton, Ont., and one in Yorkshire, U.K., not far from the town of Halifax that the plane is named for. A final Halifax sits in London’s RAF Museum in the condition it was found in, a waterlogged skeleton. None of the 6,178 built during wartime were brought back to Canada for posterity. When Canadian airmen returned home, their Halifaxes remained in Europe, either sold for parts or scrap metal or in the grasp of whatever Norwegian lake or plot of English countryside they’d crashed into. Groups such as Halifax 57 aim to find these aircraft, make them whole again and give them a home in Canada.

It’s what keeps one small group of Halifax 57 volunteers from a town in southern Alberta motivated during their largest project to date.

With the Norway recovery in 1995 and the subsequent one in Belgium, Halifax 57 has established itself as a significant Halifax recovery group—Kjarsgaard’s passion is renowned in aircraft restoration circles.

Brushing aside the guts-and-glory narrative of bringing a bomber home, the costs of this type of work are high. Labour-intensive and highly expensive, the most successful operations are privately funded. Vintage Wings of Canada, an Ottawa-based restoration facility founded by former Cognos CEO Michael Potter, is one such organization. It has a 2,100 square metre hangar and dedicated staff involved in the maintenance of over 20 restored aircraft, many in flying condition. For groups like Halifax 57, however, funding comes largely from government grants, fundraising and, when all else fails, members’ pockets—regardless of passion, when the money runs out, the work stops.

Kjarsgaard’s most recent tip, in 2016, was about a downed plane discovered in shallow water just off the coast of Sweden. The wreck of a Halifax with the call sign HR871 sat undisturbed in 20 metres of brackish water since 1943. In 2012, a team of Swedish divers backed by Lund University stumbled upon part of the wreck jutting out of the sand. Since then, Kjarsgaard and his group have been calling up government officials in Canada and Sweden to secure permission to dive. After unsuccessful summer dive seasons both years prior, the dive to finally pull the plane from the sea was set for early May 2018. As weather has continued to impede progress, the team is hopeful they will be able to dive before September.

At the moment, the focus is on trying to drum up interest and funding—in volunteer restoration groups, the two are synonymous.

The small towns that lie scattered along Alberta highways seem identical, each with a gas station, a few nestled homes and the parabolic roof of a Ukrainian-Orthodox church or the rare remaining grain elevator looming above it all. As such, almost every town in the province with a population in the double or triple digits has a shtick, a roadside attraction to differentiate itself.

There’s the giant pierogi in largely Ukrainian Glendon, the duck celebrating the Mallard breeding grounds that ring the village of Andrew, the replica Starship Enterprise in aptly-named Vulcan. In 2,000-strong Nanton, an hour-and-a-half south of Calgary, the first thing that greets visitors is an airplane. It’s been successful attracting attention, in a sense—the museum sitting behind it lured a former Air Canada pilot back to the prairies from Ottawa after a near 30-year absence in order to join its board of directors. Karl Kjarsgaard wants to put Nanton on the map. It’s the first stop in his Canada-wide mission to put restored Halifax bombers in aviation museums.

Harsh December winds whistle through the Bomber Command Museum’s aircraft hangar as Kjarsgaard sits in the cluttered library attached to it. He pauses one of his many passionate spiels about all things “Hallie” to spin what appears to be a poker chip carousel.

Closer inspection reveals that, like every wall in the library and beyond, each of the 200 chips pictures an aircraft.

“I’m very proud to say that I’ve kept it for over 50 years—I learned everything there is to know about significant airplanes in here,” he says of the wheel.

Growing up in Moose Jaw, Sask., in the 1960s, Kjarsgaard was crazy about airplanes. So when Jell-O unveiled a series of collectible tokens depicting aircraft of significance, almost two dozen of them Canadian planes, he increased his consumption of the gelatinous dessert tenfold. “I was bugging my parents to buy Jell-O all the time,” recalls Kjarsgaard with a chuckle. “I think I maybe started to jiggle at some point.”

From the age of 12 until well into his 30s, the Jell-O wheel was scripture. Kjarsgaard now has a love-hate relationship with it. “I got suckered into believing that these were the most important airplanes to me as a Canadian,” he says.

In his 30s, Kjarsgaard set out to interview veterans about their time in Bomber Command as part of an independent research project.  An unfamiliar aircraft kept cropping up in their stories—many of the former RCAF airmen insisted they had flown in Halifax bombers. Yet the black chips on his wheel, the 25 most important bombers according to a panel assembled by the company, didn’t include it among their ranks. “When you’re a combat guy and an airplane gets you to hell and back, you start to have a good feeling about it,” Kjarsgaard says. “The guys I talked to always felt good about their Halifaxes.”

Now in his 60s, Kjarsgaard has become a Halifax advocate, working to establish the reputation of the Halifax and ensure it isn’t forgotten. “I always say the maple leaf, the hockey stick and the Halifax bomber are the three symbols of Canada and her excellence in the world,” he says. His ardent belief in aircraft’s significance stems from its heavy Canadian use during the war.

Before the time of the “old boys’ network” of aircraft restoration enthusiasts as Karl Kjarsgaard puts it, finding Hallies proved difficult. In the late 1980s, his curiosity piqued from hearing so many stories of veterans flying in the plane, Kjarsgaard flew to England to see one. The only restoration project was being worked on at the time by the original Halifax 57 group in Yorkshire. The English group offered the rumour of a downed plane located in a lake in Norway, should Kjarsgaard ever want a project of his own. From that point forward, he made it his mission to procure a Halifax for Canada—to do so, Kjarsgaard first founded the Canadian version of Halifax 57. “I didn’t act on it immediately, but several years down the road when I was truly ready and I started looking, that’s when I went to Norway,” he says. “That was when I was a rookie and I didn’t know anything about underwater recovery or how complicated it was and how much time it would take to organize an expedition. But the end result is 1995. That’s when we found that Halifax in the lake.”

The National Air Force Museum in Trenton, Ont., is unusually busy for mid-spring. A gaggle of schoolchildren race across the giant cement tiles in the atrium, their shrieks reverberating across the large open space. In the midst of it all, in his own little pocket of solitude, Bill Tytula sits on a motor scooter surveying his work, the only restored Halifax in Canada. A man in his 70s, recognizing him, pauses to say hello. “You know, Bill, they say you riveted the entire plane by yourself,” he says with a chuckle before departing. He’s not wrong—as project manager of its restoration, Tytula committed a decade of his life to putting it back together.

After 10 years (about 350,000 largely unpaid man-hours) of restoration work, a Halifax bearing call sign NA337 is an imposing figure in an already enormous building. Tytula recalls the first time he saw the building filled to capacity. “The day of the presentation ceremony to the museum, we had about 800 people in here,” Tytula says. “I’ve never got so many hugs from old fellas before.” The plane was recovered from Lake Mjøsa in Norway and brought to Canada, bringing Tytula, a former lieutenant-colonel and aircraft restorer, out of a restless retirement.

Made up largely of retired air force members, the Trenton restoration team of 200 volunteers worked on various parts of the deconstructed plane wherever they could find space, including private homes and unoccupied buildings at the air force base. “When we started this we didn’t even have a screwdriver,” recalls Tytula. “I mean, the nosepiece was being restored in my garage.” At one point, the partially-reconstructed aircraft sat in an unused Sears warehouse until a more appropriate space became available.

Tytula had previously worked for Field Aviation, an international aerospace company, to restore some of the museum’s other aircraft. He had always tried to hire former air force members onto the projects. But this time, the labour wouldn’t be paid; it was volunteer work, something to keep idle hands busy. “When Field Aviation finished our restoration contract with the museum, we ended up with retired guys with nothing to do,” says Tytula. “We ended up golfing, fishing—we were tired of it. And then, the Halifax came along.”

To Tytula, the aircraft’s real strength was bringing people together to continue working with their shared passion. “When you’re old and 88 like I am, you have connections to everything and the whole world is connected,” says Tytula. “My motivation was mostly people, it wasn’t really for the airplane.”

At the time it seemed as though everyone he met had some kind of Halifax connection. “I mean, I had heart surgery right after the restoration was over and my surgeon was the son of a Halifax pilot. My cardiologist was the daughter of a Halifax navigator. I got treated real well,” he recalls with a smile. Once the project had gained momentum, the team had more money from donations and government grants than they knew what to do with. The group had successfully applied for funding from the Ministries of Canadian Heritage and Veterans Affairs. The rest of the $2 million raised came largely from veterans.

Airmen returning from the war were able to attain post-secondary education as a result of the Veterans Charter, a series of acts providing them with business loans, grants and access to civil employment. The bulk of donated funds the recovery team was able to raise came from former Halifax crewmen who had gone on to have successful postwar careers as a result.

Ray Janes, the former head of Johnson & Johnson’s operations in Peterborough, Ont., had been a Hallie navigator. Awarded a million dollars worth of the company’s shares following his retirement, he gave the project the value of half of them.

A 2006 article in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix quoting Tytula elicited a letter from former Hallie pilot Reginald Harrison. As a boy, Tytula had walked almost seven kilometres through the Harrison family’s field on his way to school in rural Saskatchewan, but that wasn’t their only connection. “Your comments in the paper about lying in the field watching airplanes brought back some vivid memories for me…” it read. The remainder of the letter was the story of his wartime experience. That the plane was able to pull stories from people was a wonder, Tytula says. It motivated him to start leaving forms at the museum’s entrance for former crewmen to fill out about their service. By 2005, he had collected more than 800 stories in laminated sleeves, some with photos, some filled out by family members of crew.

“The project was a lot of fun, mostly because of all of the friends and contacts that I had,” Tytula says. “But it could never happen again. This work is all about knowing people who were in the Halifaxes. But they’re all dying.”

“If you need any stories on aircraft, I’ve got it all, any type of aircraft. It’s all of I’ve done for 70 years,” Tytula says. “It’s our job to listen to and to tell these stories. If not us, then who else?”

After weeks of rigorous training, Royal Air Force aircrew gathered in a large hall and set to work picking crewmates. English Flight Sergeant John Alwyn “PeeWee” Phillips recalled in an interview with England’s Imperial War Museum that he found it peculiar such an important step was being handled so informally. The crews, made up entirely of volunteers, were required to fly 30 operations before they could return to civilian life. Finding six men to pull you through them based on a quick conversation alone seemed unorthodox.

But even when the crew, a mix of two English and four Canadian men, was assembled, it was not yet complete. A few weeks later, they met the final member—Halifax HR871.

“A marvellous aircraft, and huge. I was a bit short in the legs in those days. I always had to have an extra cushion to fly,” Phillips recalled in the recorded interview. “The Canadians called me ‘PeeWee’ and that was my name given to me by my crew. I’ve been ‘PeeWee’ ever since.”

Months later, in July of 1943, Phillips’ 20,000 kg, four-engine bomber was plummeting toward the earth. On return from a raid on Cologne, the tail of their Handley Page Halifax had been taken out by German machine gun fire and the plane careened wildly through the sky as Phillips and his crew tried to calm it.

Tying a rope around the joystick column, Phillips managed to land the aircraft at a nearby airfield by relying on the strength of three of his crewmates to ease the tension and level the plane out by pulling when he said pull. After such a close call, the crew was briefly put on leave. But within a month, they were back in harm’s way.

It was a week after Operation Gomorrah, an allied attack on Hamburg in 1943 that created a firestorm so large it destroyed most of the city. There was a great storm that night and most of the bombers sent out had turned back or been lost. Phillips’ plane was caught in the thick of it.

Phillips, the only surviving member of his crew, is now 96. He says he suffers from nightmares whenever he talks about his combat time in the Second World War.

John Alwyn Phillips recalls the night of the crash. (Source: Imperial War Museum)

“That’s my father there,” Halifax restorer Scott Knox says proudly. He points up at a weathered photo of three young men tucked into the corner of a framed poster in his Ottawa shop. The poster is an illustration of the Battle of Britain memorial plane, one of two flying Avro Lancasters in the world—it’s also the plane his father flew in the war.

It’s clear which of them he is related to—the young man on the right has the same broad nose and hooded eyes as his son. “This is my dad’s plane,” Knox says. “A couple of years ago the Bomber Command Memorial Museum repainted it as my dad’s airplane. Can you imagine? These mission markings represent the week of operations that my dad flew it, in early in January of 1944,” he says, gesturing at the rows of bombs painted on the plane’s nose. “It captures not only the aircraft, but the moment in time when he flew it.”

The workshop is a two-level storage unit Knox uses for personal projects such as fixing up his son’s prized go-kart. His neighbours in the compound use theirs to store collector cars or as warehouses for their small businesses. Knox is using his to build an airplane. Called RebuildShop by members of Halifax 57, it is a place where Knox honours his father’s wartime involvement.

Knox has worked with Halifax 57 since the Norwegian recovery in 1995. As a mechanical engineering technologist, he designed the lifting mechanism to pull the plane from the lake.

After a career building embassies abroad for foreign affairs, Knox now primarily does consulting work in Ottawa. He’s manufacturing a brand-new centre section in preparation for whatever Kjarsgaard and the team of Swedish divers are able to uncover.

“Each of us has kind of a role in this,” Knox says. “I’m developing my skill set here as a restorer of sorts. I’m a bit late in life to be learning new trades, but that’s okay. To me, this is a labour of love. I’ve been wanting to do this since I was a child, so it’s great fun.”

Above the beginnings of a wing section mounted on a wheeled cart, pictures of Halifaxes line the wall. “The construction techniques, the technology available at the time—it’s very elegantly designed, yet purposeful,” Knox says. “Lancasters and Halifaxes are this mix of beauty and terror at the same time.” While Knox comes in as much as he can during the week, the remaining members of the shop’s crew—two aeronautical engineering students and a school board trustee with a passion for planes—can only work weekends. At the moment, it’s just him and the Halifax.

The shop is narrow enough that everything needs to be built in sections that are sent to Nanton upon completion to rebuild the original plane. Knox compares the work to the cottage industries used in wartime to manufacture the planes, when each section was built by a different company then brought together by Handley Page for final assembly. “That’s kind of the beauty of it. I would love a big facility, but we don’t need one,” he says. “The workshop will fit almost every part. Like these parts for the centre section are broken into sections. They’re all manageable within a space like this. More or less.”

Knox’s restoration work goes beyond the physical plane. He has been reaching out to veterans in the Ottawa Valley to try to get them to open up about their wartime involvement. “Some people are not keen,” he acknowledges. “A lot of times, they’ve parked their stories. They’ve managed to push them off into a dark corner somewhere and they don’t want to shed light into it.” Knox’s father kept a lot of his time overseas to himself. Knox wasn’t aware he had won a Distinguished Flying Cross, a medal celebrating his heroism as a pilot during operations over Berlin, until after his father’s death. “Sometimes, it’s easier to talk to a third party, you don’t want to talk to your own kids or family. It’s emotional I suppose,” he says. “And maybe it wasn’t the right time, perhaps.” It’s motivated him to be that third party. During a bus trip organized to bring veterans to see the recently-completed NA337 in Trenton, he passed around a piece of poster paper for some of the men to sign and struck up conversations with them. “A story would pop out, and in a few cases these gentlemen said, ‘You know, this is the first time I’ve ever talked about this!’” Knox recalls. “It seemed to be the right time for a lot of these guys. I felt so privileged to be able to hear this, something they hadn’t even told their own sons or daughters.”

While the recovery of LW682 in Belgium didn’t turn up useable parts, there was an abundance of scrap aluminum to be dealt with. With help from the Canadian government, Kjarsgaard had it brought back to Canada, melted into ingots and shipped overseas, where it now forms the structure of the Bomber Command Memorial in London’s glass ceiling. Knox and his sisters travelled there for the unveiling in 2012. “I had just been involved in that recovery, and during the ceremony my dad’s airplane flies over dropping poppies,” Knox recalls. “What a way to come full circle.”

There is no shortage of passion behind the recovery of HR871. An online fundraising page set up by Kjarsgaard in 2016 has seen a steady stream of well-wishers and donations, largely from the children of Bomber Command veterans. Lieutenant-general Michael Hood, Commander of the RCAF, has given the project his blessing and has been following it closely, even travelling to Sweden see the aircraft’s Merlin engines, recovered in 2016. Canadian media attention comes intermittently as the project moves forward, although it’s being thoroughly covered by English-language Swedish news sites.

But unlike the outpouring of resources that the Norwegian recovery saw, progress in Sweden has been largely stop-and-go, entirely contingent upon donations. The most recent setback came from the Ministries of Canadian Heritage and Veterans Affairs, which in 2017 denied Kjarsgaard’s application for just over $100,000 in funding. Bad weather has forced what appeared to be fruitful diving seasons to come to an early close. Since the substantial recovery of three engines in 2016, bad weather has made it impossible to haul up any more parts.

The Sweden project has come a long way. When work started on the parts coming in, the then-Halifax 57 chief engineer was working in a tent in his front yard. “Right now, it’s a collection of parts and some great ideas,” Knox says. “Once you’ve got traction, like finishing a wing section, you can go out and say, ‘Well, look what we’ve done with limited resources.’ Hopefully, that blossoms into more funding.” There is a cautious optimism about the upcoming summer dive season. Speaking from a hotel in Falsterbo, Sweden, Kjarsgaard is eagerly awaiting what could be the team’s first excavation dive in two years. “This could be the beginning of the treasure hunt,” he says. “This plane is a big jigsaw puzzle. We have some parts, but there could still be so much more under the sand.”

Pulling these planes and their stories from the depths is what motivates Halifax 57 and other groups like it. “With this work, you are piecing together the history of these men,” says Knox. “And as you unearth the pieces, you go, ‘My god, what a story. What an amazing story.’ And it would have been lost forever if not uncovered. Now you can resurrect it.”