The Moonlight Mermaid Surfaces in Germany: crash site found by archaeologists

By Heather-Anne Wakeling

 Stewart Millen Bonter, “I would like to keep the name Bonter a name synonymous with everything that stands for fairness — a name that stands out in whatever community you are in for good and Godliness. I have tried not to disgrace it.” Excerpt from Bonter’s letter January 1945. Photo courtesy Marmora Historical Society, Bonter family archives. Letter excerpt courtesy of Anne Philpot.

Stewart Millen Bonter, “I would like to keep the name Bonter a name synonymous with everything that stands for fairness — a name that stands out in whatever community you are in for good and Godliness. I have tried not to disgrace it.” Excerpt from Bonter’s letter January 1945. Photo courtesy Marmora Historical Society, Bonter family archives. Letter excerpt courtesy of Anne Philpot.

In the 1930’s-40’s, parents the world over saw their youth leave for war while collective memories of the Great War still haunted their dreams. Again years passed — surviving soldiers began to lower their rifles, fighter aircraft ceased to bomb, medical aprons remained clean, well almost. Civilians surfaced from shelters and Armistices were signed. 

People found ways to return to daily life although multitudes never knew what really transpired to end their loved ones’ lives. Bodies were claimed either by European clay, or swallowed in oceanic water. Blunt letters were received; empty caskets were buried, forced shut with splinters of grief and enigmatic mystery. With tongues now silent, the living turned their hearts toward rearing other children.

Marmora’s son, Stewart Millen Bonter really didn’t have to go.

Bonter, according to Gerald Belanger’s research, published in the Marmora Herald, was an educated man. A hometown son, born on September 24, 1918, he went to the Beaver Creek Public School, No. 5Marmora Public School and then to the Marmora Continuation School, finishing his education in shop and drafting at the Galt Vocational School. By the time the war was in earnest, Bonter was working at his father’s Bonter Marble Quarry in Marmora. Like those of his generation, he felt it was his duty to serve.

 The crew of the  Moonlight Mermaid , Stewart Millen Bonter, seen first from the left, “chose flying not because I particularly liked it — I was never one for making models or idolizing flying aces — but because it was a bit dangerous … I would have to join a branch to prove my courage first of all to myself, secondly to others.” Excerpt from Bonter’s letter January 1945. Photo courtesy Marmora Historical Society, Bonter family archives. Letter excerpt courtesy of Anne Philpot.

The crew of the Moonlight Mermaid, Stewart Millen Bonter, seen first from the left, “chose flying not because I particularly liked it — I was never one for making models or idolizing flying aces — but because it was a bit dangerous … I would have to join a branch to prove my courage first of all to myself, secondly to others.” Excerpt from Bonter’s letter January 1945. Photo courtesy Marmora Historical Society, Bonter family archives. Letter excerpt courtesy of Anne Philpot.

Bonter’s 1939 application for WWII service with the Canadian Armed Forces at Borden was initially turned down. He could have continued to honourably support the Canadian forces as a tool setter and production foreman in the large munition case department at the Canadian Defense Industries at Brownsburg, Que. because, in reality, the Bonter family had already given enough. His brother, Eldon was in active service with the Canadian army stationed in England. But Stewart was not content, so after three years he re-enlisted. In November, 1942 he was accepted for basic training in Quebec, after which he returned to Ontario to successfully complete his aviation training at Oshawa’s Elementary Flying Training School No. 2. Bonter had no way of knowing that his graduation on Oct. 2, 1943, would secure his destiny in the ultimate sacrifice.  It was reported that while piloting the Moonlight Mermaid NP689, the Halifax Bomber MK VII was shot down by German artillery fire sometime between September/October 1944 and April 1945.

 This quiet country mill located in the Stindermühle Valley belies the fact that the surrounding fields hold fragments of artifacts from intense air-to-land battles. Photo by Sven Polkläser.

This quiet country mill located in the Stindermühle Valley belies the fact that the surrounding fields hold fragments of artifacts from intense air-to-land battles. Photo by Sven Polkläser.

An account of the crash is cited on the Marmora Historical Society’s website as, “The pilot Stewart Millen Bonter, the Flight Engineer Douglas Colquohoun and the Mid/Upper gunner Darwin Cameron Lawton all died in the crash. Flight Officer H. Vachon, Flight Officer A. Hinchcliffe and Wireless Operator Eiler Villey Anderson survived the crash and became captive.  The Rear Gunner Thomas Delmer Scott had already jumped over Hagen shortly after receiving the flak hit. Scott was captured on 17 March, but not transferred to the Wehrmacht, but admitted in the Court prison in Hagen. On the morning of April 3, 1945, Scott, along with 11 Hungarian “volunteers” of the Wehrmacht, was shot by the Gestapo in the woods near Hagen in a bomb crater.” 

It would take more than 70 years to solve the mystery of the Moonlight Mermaid’s crash.

 The efforts of Sven Polkläser, one of the volunteer archeologists in the  Office for the Preservation of Land Monuments,  give closure for descendants of deceased WWII veterans. Photo by Stefan Sackebier.

The efforts of Sven Polkläser, one of the volunteer archeologists in the Office for the Preservation of Land Monuments, give closure for descendants of deceased WWII veterans. Photo by Stefan Sackebier.

For Beverly Meyer, Bonter’s niece, the news of finding her uncle’s crash site was revealed in a letter she received from Sven Polkläser. An IT professional by day, Polkläser’s passion is archaeology, and as an amateur detectorist, he is one of the German volunteers with the Office for the Preservation of Land Monuments, an organization where those with an interest in aircraft archaeology as a field of WWII research have been methodically piecing together war-based fragments of tragedy unearthed from what are now considered historical crash sites. To Beverly’s astonishment, they had been doing serious detective work, stringing together snippets of information concerning her uncle’s and the other crewmen’s combat experience to document what happened on the day that sealed members of this crew’s fate. 

 “The Bomber Command sent in the late afternoon hours of March 15, 1945 in total 500 aircraft on their way to Germany, around to attack Hagen and the oil refinery in Misburg at Hanover. A total of 267 aircraft, including 134 Lancaster, 122 Halifax and 11 Mosquitos had Hagen as their destination. To this attack unit belonged the bomber “ Moonlight Mermaid ,” type Halifax B MKVII with the serial number NP689 and the Identifier QO-M of the 6 Bomber Group, RCAF 432 Squadron. “ Moonlight Mermaid ” took off 17:07 clock (18:07 clock MEZ) from the East Moor airfield. Between 20:30 and 20:45 clock the bombers threw about 1,000 tons of bombs on Hagen. “ Moonlight Mermaid ” crashed shortly before the goal, from 4800m altitude.” Excerpt and photo courtesy of the Marmora Historical Society.

“The Bomber Command sent in the late afternoon hours of March 15, 1945 in total 500 aircraft on their way to Germany, around to attack Hagen and the oil refinery in Misburg at Hanover. A total of 267 aircraft, including 134 Lancaster, 122 Halifax and 11 Mosquitos had Hagen as their destination. To this attack unit belonged the bomber “Moonlight Mermaid,” type Halifax B MKVII with the serial number NP689 and the Identifier QO-M of the 6 Bomber Group, RCAF 432 Squadron. “Moonlight Mermaid” took off 17:07 clock (18:07 clock MEZ) from the East Moor airfield. Between 20:30 and 20:45 clock the bombers threw about 1,000 tons of bombs on Hagen. “Moonlight Mermaid” crashed shortly before the goal, from 4800m altitude.” Excerpt and photo courtesy of the Marmora Historical Society.

It is an ironic fact of life that a truth comes to light once being uncovered from deep within another darkened story. Through a colleague in June 2017, Polkläser became aware that an American B-17 crash near the Stindermühle (near Erkrath) had been corroborated by various witnesses. Further research led them to believe that this bomber “Smokey Stover” had been piloted by an American Albert I. Pierce and that it had crashed in a field on Nov. 2, 1944. Polkläser, hoping to find fragments of the “Smokey Stover”, was somewhat surprised that “during a first inspection of the crash site on the pasture in the Stinderbach Valley in July 2017, without a detector and without excavation, a socket was found on the surface of a place not overgrown with grass, which provided surprising information. The English crown is embossed on the front, below AM (=Air Ministry) and ref. no 5C/587, and “Made in England” is written on the back.” Polkläser knew that this artifact clearly belonged to an English plane and therefore could not be the site of the “Smokey Stover.” He said that his heart was beating “up to my neck,” when further inspection offered a 147 gallon fuel gauge. For him, it was like finding gold.  

 An aerial artifact that held important clues, a 147 gallon fuel gauge. Photo by Sven Polkläser.

An aerial artifact that held important clues, a 147 gallon fuel gauge. Photo by Sven Polkläser.

With these artifacts Polkläser was able to trace the aerial history of the Moonlight Mermaid NP689 and found that it had flown 83 missions, and was one of the longest surviving bombers, having flown 42 night, and 41 day attacks. And, as fate would have it, it was not German artillery fire, but an incendiary bomb, dropped from a high-flying bomber from their squadron that had caused the NP-689 crash. 

Although initially tragic, Meyer said, “We were so excited when we received that letter, and then to keep on, he sent pictures of the field where the plane crash was discovered. We never had that before. We knew that the plane went down, but that’s all. The finding of the crash site was a whole new thing.” 

 This farmer’s field in the Stinberbach Valley is the crash site of the  Moonlight Mermaid . Photo by Peter Schulenberg.

This farmer’s field in the Stinberbach Valley is the crash site of the Moonlight Mermaid. Photo by Peter Schulenberg.

Being too young to know what to ask, combined with the reluctance of her parents to talk about the war all Meyer ever knew was that “my Uncle Stewart was famous, being a pilot. His brother, Eldon also went into the army and served in England, but fortunately was not exposed to the same extent of combat as his brother was. Stewart died so young, as so many did.” She added, “My Uncle Stewart did come back once, and we have a picture of him holding both me and my sister.” 

 Bonter pictured here with Marion Vincent Barron. Photo courtesy Bonter family archives.

Bonter pictured here with Marion Vincent Barron. Photo courtesy Bonter family archives.

Officer H. Vachon, one of the three survivors, had worked with her uncle at the quarry and they knew each other very well. It was fate that they were both on the same plane. Meyer recounted that Vachon did pay a visit to her grandparents and parents and spoke to them about what had happened. Although she does not remember the actual details of that visit, she remembers seeing her elders in full grief, especially her father. His tears made quite an impression on her as a young girl. “And then after his visit, my parent’s didn’t want to speak further on the subject. That was the generation, it was their way.”

Polkläser would like people to know that by finding and compiling the history of these events, and reaching out to the relatives of deceased veterans, he hopes to bring our cultures closer. He says, “Only if you know your past, you can plan your future. With my historical research I would like to create a piece of German commemorative culture. In my opinion, there are many parallels between today’s world politics and those before the two World Wars. If we succeed in depicting the horror of the bomb and war on both sides through individual fates, the human aspects will become visible and thus more tangible.”

Today, Beverly lives with her husband Arthur on the property of one of the five marble quarries her grandfather owned. For their family, Polkläser’s contact has allowed them to come full circle with the knowledge of the crash, its cause and honour the final resting place of their aviator descendant, who Beverly says, “sure was a handsome, clever looking man who died far too soon. The good thing about this is that many members of our family have gone to the final grave site, and we all marvel at how beautiful it is there and how well it is looked after. Since we have a niece, Lois Whelan-Priestman now living in Holland, these visits have become a family event and through Sven, we have closure to the family stories of Stewart’s death. He was talked about, but we never really knew.” 

 After being exhumed and relocated three times, Bonter finally rests in the Reichswald Military cemetery near Kleve. “Somehow I always imagined I should fear death. … Now I have not the slightest fear. … I have never learned to hate the enemy. I fail to see any glory in wars. I have seen too many of my friends, some the best types of fellows you could find anywhere in this world, killed.” Excerpt from Bonter’s letter January 1945. Photo courtesy Marmora Historical Society, Bonter family archives. Letter excerpt courtesy of Anne Philpot.

After being exhumed and relocated three times, Bonter finally rests in the Reichswald Military cemetery near Kleve. “Somehow I always imagined I should fear death. … Now I have not the slightest fear. … I have never learned to hate the enemy. I fail to see any glory in wars. I have seen too many of my friends, some the best types of fellows you could find anywhere in this world, killed.” Excerpt from Bonter’s letter January 1945. Photo courtesy Marmora Historical Society, Bonter family archives. Letter excerpt courtesy of Anne Philpot.

Three generations have been born who never knew Stewart, but because of Polkläser and his colleagues they have a tangible connection to their ancestor. 

“It’s important in our lives that Stewart and Eldon went through all of that,” Beverly adds. For a moment there is quiet on the line, and then she says, “They did it for us.”

May we be worthy.