An Alberta family had the experience of a lifetime the other day when they salvaged a Second World War relic from the cold waters of Watson Lake.
But in bringing the wrecked B26 Marauder bomber to the surface, John Jasman, his wife Cindy, their son Matt and John’s brother Brian also raised controversy and legal troubles.
The recovery was the culmination of a long effort that began in l989 with Brian developing an interest in the 133 lend-lease airplanes that were lost en route to Russia.
Brian and John’s father was a bush pilot; he’d done some flying in the Watson Lake area and had sparked the boys’ interest with stories about the many wrecks rumoured to be in this part of the country.
Thirteen B26 aircraft came up here after Pearl Harbour and five crashed on the way.
Brian’s research efforts led to the family finding one of the aircraft last summer in Watson Lake.
He has copies of the original crash report, dated January 16, 1942: “Undershot on landing due to inexperience with snow-blanketed terrain,” it says.
One crew member broke his arm, but nobody died in the crash. The shattered aircraft sank close to shore.
But the wreck was discovered last summer by the Jasmans, using a side scanner, in the middle of the lake 21 metres below the surface. They reckon the plane moved gradually, the winter ice slowly shifting the hulk to its eventual resting place.
The Jasmans went back to Alberta and began planning for the summer of 2009 when they would salvage the aircraft.
They’d notified the Yukon government about their discovery and, much to their surprise, were met with indifference.
This year, when they told the government about their plan to recover the bomber, they got a response: it came under the Heritage Act and they couldn’t touch it.
This was news to them. They had letters from the federal government saying there would be no issue regarding their proposed salvage.
They’d sent copies of those letters to the Canadian Coast Guard Receiver, telling them they’d found a B26 Marauder bomber and even supplying the serial number.
The Receiver had responded by saying they had no role in the matter because the US Air Force was the owner and had given the Jasmans permission to salvage.
A salvage lawyer contacted by the Jasmans said the issue comes under the Maritime Act.
“Go for it,” said the lawyer. “If you have any problems, contact me.”
So they started planning.
Brian is a truck driver from Calgary. John and Cindy have a land-development business in Westlock, north of Edmonton. There was a lot to keep them busy as they prepared for their return to the Yukon to recover the old bomber.
They have a dive boat, a quad, a camper and a crew-cab truck. There is diving gear and a large tank used to float the wreck to the surface.
“Those three are the divers” Cindy motions to the three male members of the family. “I’m the cook.”
Thirteen-year-old Matt, who finished his diver’s course in time to get in on the trip (his sixteen-year-old brother Andy had to stay home to write exams), shows off his new, state-of-the-art dry suit and the quilted underwear necessary to keep him comfortable in the frigid waters.
Not only has he played an active part in the recovery as a diver, but he is also skilfully documenting the adventure, taking photos and making short films—recording every step of this family’s effort to recover a piece of history.
When they succeeded in getting the wreck ashore, the local interest was immediate and evidenced by many people coming down to look and take pictures.
The Jasmans were glad to share their excitement and young Matt was a great spokesperson.
“We let Matt do most of the talking to people who came to see it; he knows as much as we do, and he loves to talk about it,” says Cindy with a smile.
“Everyone has been really nice,” she continues. “Just excited and happy to see the aircraft, take photos, and learn more about it. No one has expressed any negative feelings towards us for having salvaged it.”
“The Marauder Society in the States has been in touch, too,” says John.
And they are really pumped about it. They’ve been warning us about people taking pieces from the wreck and are concerned, but no one from town that came out here to see it showed any interest in grabbing bits.”
The local consensus seems to be that the Jasmans have gone to all the trouble of finding the wreck and recovering it, so they should determine what happens next.
So the arrival of the RCMP was a bit of a shock.
First, two RCMP members wanted to see a permit. After being shown the letters, they left.
The next police officer to arrive confiscated the wreck and issued the Jasmans an “appearance notice,” which states that under the Historic Resources Act, section 62, they have failed to obtain an historic documents permit.
They have been charged with excavating illegally.
The wreck was not excavated, said Brian, who doesn’t understand the reason behind the notice.
Before they began this project, their understanding was the Yukon government does not govern water bodies, the Canadian Coast Guard does, and they had already checked in with them, says Brian.
Sitting around their camp Thursday night, the whole family is clearly upset by what has happened.
Their biggest concern is for the safety of the salvaged aircraft.
“It needs to be covered with a tarp, and it should be hosed out,” says Brian. “The officer assured us this would be done, and that it would be safe in the forestry compound here at the airport. He said it was a secured area.
“We drove in the forestry compound yard at 5 p.m. and took photos and no one approached us to see what we were doing there. The dash panel is already missing.”
“It’s been vandalized,” says Cindy. “It’s so frustrating and sad to see it treated carelessly. It is an important part of the history of Watson Lake.
“We didn’t get anything from the police other than the appearance notice,” says John.
They contacted the salvage lawyer.
Meanwhile, they worry about what will be pilfered from the find next.
The aircraft should be properly displayed in a museum, preferably one in the Yukon, they all say.
“I would love to be working with the Yukon government on this,” says John. “That would be the ideal scenario.”
Is there money to be made with this find?
“A finder’s fee and a salvage fee would be appropriate,” says Brian. “That’s the usual thing.”
The Jasmans are clearly not a hugely financed operation; they are not staying in a hotel, or down at the lake in a posh motor home. Their equipment is not new; it is serviceable and looks well-maintained.
They have not been secretive about their search, buying supplies locally and gladly sharing information about their find.
The passion for what they are doing is evident, and shared.
“It’s a great family time,” Cindy says, “in a beautiful place. To be involved in the salvage operation together has made it even more interesting and fun.”
Now a lot of the fun is gone.
Instead, they are waiting to hear from a salvage lawyer.
Tor Forsberg is a freelance writer
who lives in Watson Lake.