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The Mystery of the Grand Valley Ring

From CTV news

Tom Kennedy, CTV London Bureau Chief
Date: Sun. May. 30 2004 8:26 PM ET

Late in the evening of May 22, 1944 in occupied France, a 16-year-old boy named Roger Cornevan heard nearby German anti-aircraft guns open fire. He ran to the window of his bedroom over his father's barbershop in the town square and saw an aircraft engulfed in flames, falling out of control, narrowly missing the enormous spires of the medieval S?es cathedral. It then disappeared out of sight. Moments later, Roger heard the sound of an enormous explosion.

At dawn the next morning, he took his bicycle and rode out of the town in the direction of the crash. Along a small country lane, he came face to face with a German sentry who ordered him to go away. Roger turned back but then worked his way around the sentry and came to the edge of a wood. He went in on foot, finally finding the site of the downed bomber. It was burned away to almost nothing, as were the bodies. For the rest of his life, Roger Cornevan would be marked by what he saw.

There was another person at the site. He was Georges Buvron, a French gendarme whom the Germans had ordered to comb through the wreckage. He picked up bits and pieces of the aircrew's possessions including a ring that had been bent and burned almost beyond recognition. Most of the possessions went into a box back at the police station. The ring went into the back of a drawer in the policeman's home and eventually, was forgotten.

Nobody in S?es knew it at the time but the bomber was Canadian, the crew made up of six young men from various parts of the country. Only five bodies were ever found. They were put into a mass grave, burial records identifying them only as "aviateurs inconnus" (unknown aviators). Back in Canada, the families of the airmen received the dreaded telegrams that stated simply, their sons were missing in action.

At the end of the war, there were literally millions of bodies scattered about a devastated continent. The job of finding them and identifying them began. A team did visit S?es, they identified the "aviateurs inconnus," exhumed the bodies and placed them with other Canadian war dead in the cemetery in nearby Bretteville. For some reason, what they did not do was inform anyone else, including the families back in Canada who correctly assumed their sons were dead but who continued to live without knowing what had happened. It would be 60 years before they would learn the truth.

And that is how this tragic but utterly usual war-time story would have ended, except for two things; the ring lying in the back of a drawer in the policeman's home, and the insatiable curiosity of young Roger Cornevan, the son of the barber, who 60 years later would tell CTV News, "I found it wrong that we didn't know who it was who died for France."

Returning the ring

Decades later, a series of events would occur that would unravel the mystery. In 1967, Georges Buvron died. He was the French gendarme who'd investigated the crash. More than a decade later, his wife would pass on to her son a box of her late husband's possessions, including a blackened and bent ring. The young Georges Buvron, named after his father, had no idea of its origins but sent it to a Parisian jeweler for repair. It came back in pristine shape, engravings now clear, "Grand Valley" on the front of the ring and inside, the initials, WGH. Mr. Buvron had never heard of Grand Valley but he thought that in all likelihood, the ring had a connection to the war. His curiosity would have to endure another decade.

In 1998, the now retired Roger Cornevan returned to the area of his birth and became committed to discovering the largely forgotten details of what he'd seen as a boy. After a series of letters to the British Ministry of Defence, he learned that there had been a Whitley bomber that went missing that May night of 1944. It had been on a pre D-day mission to drop information leaflets over France, warning civilians to stay away from railway junctions, from communication centres, from any buildings or facilities that could become the target of pre-invasion bombing.

Eventually, Mr. Cornevan was able to uncover the names of the six Canadian crewmembers on board. They were pilot David Webster Goodwin of British Columbia, navigator Joseph Hong of Ontario, air bomber Charles Beverly Wyckoff of Ontario, air gunner Joseph Gaston Jacques of Quebec, air gunner John Hopper of Ontario and air gunner Wilfred Gordon Harris. From Grand Valley, Ontario.

Mr. Cornevan called the local newspaper that then published an article about an old mystery that had been resolved. It printed the names of the crew members who'd died 60 years earlier.

Then, there occurred a coincidence that can only be described as uncanny and serendipitous. In a Parisian suburb, the son of the French gendarme who had found the ring read the newspaper article and the names of the six young Canadians. His wife, Yvette Buvron described his reaction, "He just sat there for about 15 minutes, staring at the article. Then he shouted to me to go get the ring."

The Burvon couple looked again at "Grand Valley" engraved on the ring, and the initials WGF. They looked again at the list of those killed, particularly the name of Wilfred Gordon Harris from Grand Valley, Ontario. Mr. Buvron described it as a moment of stunning revelation.

He later told CTV News, "I knew then that the ring had left from Canada, that it belonged to a Canadian. It was in my family's possession for 60 years but when we found its true owner, it was normal to give it back." His wife added, "The families of the crew members suffered greatly knowing that they lost a son. And it's normal to think that a ring that belonged to a son killed in the war now belongs to them."

But first, they had to track down the families.

Amateur genealogy

In the meantime, Roger Cornevan had made contact with a woman in Picton, Ontario. He describes Shirley Stone as an amateur genealogist. Finding her, he said, was a moment of "pure luck." He and Ms. Stone struck up an internet friendship, sharing a determination to find the families.

Last year, they succeeded. Ms. Stone began making the calls to relatives of six young Canadians who had disappeared 60 years earlier. In November, the call went to the home of Jim Harris in Barrie, Ontario. He now acknowledges that after so many years, he never imagined he would ever know what happened to his big brother. His mourning for Gord ended when he was a boy, he said, but the sense of loss never went away. Neither did the wish to know, how Gord died and where he was buried.

"You always hope that he was just missing," Mr. Harris said, "And as far as the family is concerned, he didn't really turn up again until 2004."

"I can remember as a boy Gord climbing on to the roof to get closer to the airplanes," Mr. Harris recalled. "He always wanted to fly. He started to train as a pilot but had trouble with one of his ears. So they put him in the gunnery program."

When the young air gunner Gord Harris went off to war, the town of Grand Valley presented him, as it did with all its young servicemen, with an engraved gold ring. Who could have imagined its fate, and that of the young man who was wearing it on his finger when he died in France. He was 22.

"I want that ring back," said Mr. Harris.

He will get his wish. Next year, the town of S?es will unveil its own monument to the young Canadians who died. Mr. Harris is invited, as are all relatives of the crewmembers. He wants to visit his brother's grave, he wants to see the spot where his brother died, and he wants to meet Roger Cornevan who witnessed his brother's last moments. He does not know that Mr. Cornevan is just as anxious to meet him.

The last flight of a Whitley bomber 60 years ago marked the lives of families who faced unbearable loss. It marked too the life of a young man in France who became an old man determined to discover who it was who died. All hope to meet sometime next year.

But already, for everyone involved in this war story, knowing is solace. The people of S?es now can put names to those who died while dropping information leaflets over their town. And six Canadian families no longer have to deal with the nagging question, what happened.

Instead, there are answers. There's also a graveyard in France that they, and future generations can visit. And an aging Jim Harris now can reflect upon the older brother he says he adored, "All of a sudden, Gord is back," he said. "He's buried over there. But he's back."

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