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W/O. ‘Bill’ Herbert William Richards R/150920 RCAF

Born 29th September 1921 Athabasca, Alberta Canada. Died 16th October 1991 Jasper Alberta, Canada.

See here for the full story of his last trip in a Lancaster July 1944

As recorded by Bill Richards earlier in life:

My father, Charles Todd Richards, was born in 1891 in Joliet, Illinois and died in Athabasca, Alberta on 24th April 1984.

He attended Joliet Township High School and while there, studied surveying and drafting. After he finished school, he worked for a year for his uncle as a draftsman, drawing plans for steel bridges and buildings.

The wage was $3 per day.

Back row: Jim (1956), Joan (1958), oldest Lois (1951) and Don (1953) Front: Alma and Bill on 40th Wedding Anniversary (pre-illnesses)

During the summer of 1911, the smell of snuff, spit in boxes of sawdust in the sweltering summer heat, became too much for him and he struck out for Athabasca to visit his brother Warren and uncle, David Keir.

He journeyed by rail to Edmonton and by stagecoach from there to Athabasca.

His intention was to return to Illinois within the year, to marry but before he returned. his fiancée’s family was stricken by a flu epidemic and she died. Dad filed for a homestead in 1911 on the SW 03 67 22 W4.

He said, “I took a look at that river and thought, “Gee, wouldn’t that make a dandy pasture fence. Right from here to the North Pole.”’ And it was. There was an awful lot of peavine in there.

My mother, Elizabeth Angela Vilsmeyer, was born on 17th January 1900 at Farribault, Minnesota and died on the 9th February 1983 in Athabasca. She arrived in Colinton with her parents in 1913, travelling from Edmonton by stagecoach. Her father was a cigar maker by trade but had been forced to give it up because of poor health. His family homesteaded west of Colinton and later moved to Athabasca where her father ran a restaurant in the Athabasca Hotel. She and Dad were married March 2, 1919 and they raised a family of nine children.

The eldest was Stanley, born in 1920. He married Pat Stirling and they raised a son and two daughters. Stan was a merchant and teacher in Athabasca, serving for some years on Town Council. He died in 1970.

I, (Bill) was born in 1921 and left Athabasca in 1948. I married Alma Sypos and have a family of two sons and two daughters. Presently, I am retired from my job as an engine man for CN and live in Jasper.

Left: Gathering of some of the family in 1963. Bill is central, brother Stan to his right. Youngest daughter Joan is in front of Bill, Wife Alma stands directly behind Bill

Allen, born in 1923, married Doreen Hewitt and has a family of three sons and two daughters. He farms north of the river. Agnes, born in 1925, became a teacher and married Lawrence Lines. With their family of five boys, they farmed east of town. Agnes passed away in October of 1986.

Bob was born in 1927, married Vi Adamkewicz and raised three sons. He is a building contractor in Athabasca.

In 1929, Helen was born. She married Bill Stecik, has two sons and farms near High Prairie.

Jim, born in 1931, farmed for many years with our father on the home place. He married Joy Lawrence and they have retired to British Columbia.

Grace was born in 1933. She married Carl Stychin and taught for many years in and around Athabasca. They have one son. She is now married to Peter Baranyk and lives on Pender Island, B.C.

In 1940, Don was born. Don married Patricia Nimco and is a professor at the University of Alberta. They have one son and one daughter and live in St. Albert. Altogether there are twenty-five grand-children and numerous great-grandchildren.

Dad’s original house on the homestead was a two-room log structure.

Before he married, this was replaced by a two-storey, four-room frame house. It was added to in the late ’40s.

The cooking was done on a heavy McClary Cookstove, bought by mail order from Eaton’s.

In winter, a big round heater stove was lugged in. Both stoves were fired by dry poplar wood which we cut in winter, sawed up, split and dried. Occasionally, a load of coal was purchased to keep a fire going overnight in the heater.

Lamps were run on coal oil. In the ’30s, a gasoline lamp was purchased. It had two mantles and threw a lot more light. Also in the ’30s, a log bunkhouse was built in the corner of the yard for the boys to sleep in, as the house was getting to be too small. It was heated by an airtight heater and for light, an Aladdin lamp was used, burning coal oil. The farm was wired for electricity in the ’50s.

The first well was dug near the log house. Later a well was bored closer to the new house, a pump installed and the old well filled in. When the new well was found to be unable to supply enough for a big herd of cattle, another was dug about a quarter mile west and the cattle were driven up the road every day where we pumped water by hand for about an hour. After power was put in, a well was bored close to the house and an electric pump installed to supply the house. A bathroom was installed.

There was a Westinghouse radio in the house in the late ’20s. It used so many batteries that it was retired in the Great Depression. In about 1938, Stan brought a small radio from the States. It used a power pack which cost quite a bit less. It also used a two-volt cell and the six-volt battery from the car was used, one cell at a time. In about 1963 the first television, black and white, was purchased. About the time Mother and Dad moved into the nursing home, a colour TV was bought.

A team and buggy were used to travel when there was a light load and a wagon for heavy loads. In the winter, a one-horse cutter or a bobsleigh was used. In 1927, a Model T Ford touring car was bought for $750. That was used only in the summer. In 1933 the car was tied up because it cost too much to run. The engine was taken out to supply power for some stationary farm machinery. The back wheels and axle were removed to become part of a Bennett Buggy, pulled by two horses. It was named after R. B. Bennett, the Prime Minister who was accused of being hard on the farmers and others during the Depression.

In the ’40s an Essex 1928 Sedan was picked up, followed by a 1929 Model A Ford Sedan. Then a half ton Chev truck in 1950.

Early travellers going north had to ford the river. The ford was above Muskeg Creek, about where Louis Patry had his dairy. There are still signs of a trail up onto level ground on the north side. That was the start of the Peace River Trail which angled northwest from there. It appears that the first ferry was about across from the present campgrounds or a little upriver from that. The cable supporting the ferry could not be lifted high enough for steamboats to pass under, so it was slacked off to rest on the bottom of the river and then tightened up after the boat had passed. The trail ran up the riverbank and then followed along the top of the bank north, past where the golf club buildings are and then climbed up off the flat ground and headed northwest to meet up with the Peace River Trail.

There was a pack-trail north along the flat, straight north, missing all the existing roads for about three miles. Mr. Gorman and his neighbours cut a road into town. They had to detour a bit to be able to get through two coulées. About a mile and a half from town was Gauthier’s Coulée, named after a man who built a large log house on the top of the hill. Another two miles north was Payne’s Coulée, named for Ralph Payne, who homesteaded there.

By 1926, the land was owned by George McCullough. Further north was Big Coulée, north of Gorman’s homestead.

I have been told that the road through each of these was laid out by Martin Hein and that there was a minimum of dirt moved to make a passable crossing. The second ferry was installed farther upstream, inline with Skinner Street and a better climb of the hill was made. It doubled back to climb west-ward and followed the top of the hill to connect with the Peace River Trail. In spring and fall, the ferry could not be used and for many years a little boat was rowed back and forth until the ice made it impossible.

Dad used to help Tom Barnett.

In the 1930s, a cage arrived and stairs were built up through the inside of the towers to platforms where passengers were to get in. This arrangement was changed after Mother came down with rheumatic fever and had to be taken across the river on a stretcher. It was just about impossible to get her there. The stairs were too steep, the platform too small and the stretcher couldn’t fit right into the cage, so she was moved across the river hanging out of the open door. On the other side, the stretcher was lowered down onto the roof of an equipment shed, then down onto the ground. A change was made shortly after to put wide stairs up the outside of the tower and a bigger platform on each side so that loading could be done from either end of the cage.

Fair Haven School was built by Roger Davidson in the early ’20s. The district was big enough to get the required twelve students. Some of the early teachers’ names that I remember: There was a Mr. Wolfe in the early years. Mrs. Gorman was teaching about 1925. Up to 1926 we had winter holidays. That year the change was made to summer holidays, so we started March lst and went through to June 30th of the next year and did two years’ work. Mr. McTavish taught us during those terms. He was followed by Mrs. Brown who left in the spring of her term which was finished by Mrs. Cornell. Dick Weldon was next term, followed by A. J. Swanberg and then Clara McKinley. Miss McKinley had forty-eight students in grades from one to ten. This was about 1936. Later came Alfred Gorman and Alice Donahue.

There were two telegraph lines across the river. The first followed the Peace River Trail, crossed the Athabasca River at Slave Lake, ran along the south side of Lesser Slave Lake and on past Dawson Creek. The other line followed the road north to Deep Creek and then along the west bank of the river, crossing at Calling River and north to McMurray. A telephone line went in with phones at least three miles apart. Each one became a toll office; Richards, Gorman, Gislason, and MacIntosh at Calling Lake. There was a charge of 10¢ a call for local calls with long distance extra. The messages had to be delivered, or people brought to the phone, for which we received 10¢ a mile for the trip. We only had to go a certain distance, I believe three miles for the round trip, but those trips usually occurred in the most horrible weather. There were very few homesteaders north of the river in 1913 or so. When I came into the world in 1921, every quarter of land had been occupied, a shack or house built, well dug, land fenced and perhaps a small garden planted.

After WWI, a lot of land was taken up with war veterans under the Soldier Settlement Board, similar to the V.L.A. after WWII. About three quarters of the homesteaders had abandoned or sold their land and departed. All that was left after a few years was a couple of dimples in the ground from their cellar and filled-in well and a clump of rhubarb. The names stayed with the quarters – such as Gauthier, Crowley, Worley, McCauley. These were around Dad’s land. One of his quarters was the Middleditch homestead.

Right: Wedding of Bill and Alma 1950.

Nineteen twenty-nine was the year of the big boom and bust of the economy. There had been a depression after WWI, but the world had recovered. The next was not so easily overcome. The price of wheat had been rising steadily. When the price rose to $1.63 a bushel, Dad, who had a carload in storage in Vancouver, gave notice to sell at $1.65. It never reached $1.65 and the grain later sold for 25¢. A beef animal weighing 1600 lbs went for $15.

Some people shipped cattle or hogs and it didn’t even pay the freight. That is, they got a bill for freight instead of a cheque for their animal. At first it didn’t look too bad, as people had weathered depressions before and they thought that it wouldn’t last more than a year. But this time it was worldwide. The land got beaten by farmers trying to get more crops to make up for the low prices. Then came the drought.

In about 1933, there was no rain and there were great dust storms that carried from the prairies to as far as Chicago. A field that had been raising 30+ bushel crops would grow maybe 15 bushels at most, if any. By 1933 people were in a desperate state. Most had quit running their cars. They patched their clothes. A form of direct relief came out: a person could apply to the RCMP and get a voucher for food. Later indirect relief came out so that road work could be obtained. It was possible to work to pay off taxes. Some work was for cash.

Left: Postwar Promotion to Pilot Officer Richards.

About 1936, it started to rain when the grain was in the field, ready to be threshed. It didn’t quit until freeze-up and then it turned to snow. The bundles were frozen solidly into the ground. Then came the rabbits, millions of them. We could kill a hundred a night by lantern light around the yard using clubs and the next night there were just as many more. They ate at the grain in the fields and later ate the bark off bushes. We pulled as much of the grain out of the ground as we could so that we were harvesting about three quarters poor grade grain and one quarter ice.

The rabbits were gone by next spring as a disease hit them and there were none to be seen for several years and then only the occasional one.

In 1936, it became evident that there would be another war and the shipyards opened in Britain. One family was deported by their own request so that the husband could go back to his old job building ships for the British Navy. Other plants started opening for defence work and work began very gradually.

By the early ’40s, a man would earn maybe $2 per day and be happy to have a job. North of the river was classed as UD, that is Under Development. It was governed from Edmonton. There was a road boss, a weed inspector, a timber inspector and a game warden. The road boss had the use of one horse-drawn grader and would have someone manning it with his own horse to work off taxes. If dirt or gravel had to be moved, we supplied a team and bare wagon and would be supplied with a gravel box.

The weed inspector came around and looked for noxious weeds and would make note if we were making any attempt to control them. I only remember one person who was taken to court for failure to control weeds on his land.

RCAF Service:

I enlisted in the RCAF and reported to No. 3 Manning Depot in Edmonton on 5th of March, 1942. After Basic Training we took precision drill instead of going for Guard Duty at some training school. We then went to I.T.S. at the University in Edmonton. Then late in September, ‘42, we were posted to Elementary Flying School in High River flying de Havilland Tiger Moths. I washed out as a pilot and went to the Re-selection Centre in Trenton, Ontario, where I was reclassified as a Navigator and posted to No. 7 AOS at Portage La Prairie where we trained on Avro Ansons, starting on Jan 1, 1943 and graduated 4th of May.

In June, I went overseas on the Louis Pasteur, a converted luxury liner built for high speed runs from Marseilles to Rio de Janeiro.

It held about 6000 troops and went like hell. It went away south and spent one day going north before we could see the coast of Ireland.

We disembarked at Liverpool and went to Bournemouth by train.

We were there for quite a bit of time. As there had just been a bad raid before we arrived, there was a campaign to get us out of the city so we got some leave, spent time with the Army, Navy and RAF Regiment at Dover, Folkstone and Newcastle. In August, we were posted to No. 5 AOS at Jurby, Isle of Man for familiarisation flights on Avro Ansons, mostly into the Midlands at night and some daylight trips over water.

We were then posted to 14 OTU at Market Harborough, Leicestershire flying Vickers Wellingtons. We were there from August 1943 to January 7th, 1944 when we were posted to a holding unit at Scampton, north of Lincoln. The field was out of service as runways were being constructed. It was classed as Aircrew Conversion Unit but we didn’t learn much there.

In March we went to Swinderby south west of Lincoln to 1660 Heavy Conversion Unit flying Short Stirlings and left in April to go to No. 5 Lancaster Finishing School at RAF Syerston, training on Lancasters.

In June we went to 57 Squadron at East Kirkby, Lincolnshire, just outside of Boston, Lincolnshire.

We bombed Saumur in France, railway yard and bridge, Ferme D’Urville Radar Site, Coastal Defences at Maisy, Caen Bridges, Foret De Cerise Petrol/Ammo Dump, the Oil Refinery at Wasseling in the Ruhr, Pommeréval (France) Rocket Site. We were then assigned St. Leu d’Esserant, Rocket Dump. The markers were out so we missed and came back four nights later on what was to be our last trip.

We were based at East Kirkby in Lincolnshire.

On July 4/5th, 19944, we had done our last trip to a target in France named St. Leu d’Esserant.

Our bombs were right on the markers but the markers were out a bit so that all the damage had been to a piece of railroad track on the Paris-Brussels line.There was a 4 day stand-down at the full moon which gave the enemy time to get really set for us.

On the 7th, we were again briefed for St.Leu d’Esserant.

Starting before we were called, I got a feeling that we weren’t coming back, so I shook hands with all the people I knew and said goodbye.

Our trip went ok to the French Coast except for one engine getting rev problems; that is it would speed up and then slow down instead of keeping up a uniform speed.

When we crossed the coast, there were a number of planes burning on the ground ahead of us. I logged 22 of them before getting to the target and the skipper said not to bother logging any more as there was so little chance of us making it. We made it back to within six miles of the coast when we had a contact dead astern on a piece of equipment (H2S) which showed anything below. The skipper took evasive action and the contact went off the screen. We then got hit once in the bottom of the machine and it started to burn.

Right: His PoW papers.

I then bailed out. Just after the ‘chute opened, I was passed by an Me 109 going in the direction of our aircraft, then all was quiet except for the creaking of the ‘chute. At about 1000 ft. there was ground noise sounding like movement of air through the leaves on the trees. I passed over a burning plane and landed on the next hill with quite a bump. In fact, I think I was out for an instant and had a swollen ankle which bothered me for some time. I managed to limp a couple of miles, being delayed by having to avoid a group of people who were blasting holes in the side of the valley as if making tank obstacles.

After getting by them, I had clear going through pine trees. There were buildings to the west of me and noises coming from there as if children were playing. Crossing a highway, I approached through pine trees toward what appeared to be the back of a small settlement. It didn’t look right so I was easing my way back toward thicker trees when I was called by a person who had come out of a small building out behind. He was in work clothes so there was a chance he was friendly. I tried to ask for water but my High school French wasn’t up to it so I motioned as if drinking and he said “Ja, wasser”. Over the top of a wall I could then see a person wearing an overturned pot with a bayonet up beside it as he was on sentry duty. So I was a POW and it was almost a relief, knowing that there was no more worrying about capture and someone else was responsible for my security.

H.W. (Bill) Richards.

Above: Bill and Alma’s grave.

His own story ends here due to his illness. The family have added the following information:

After suffering a series of debilitating strokes, he passed on and is interred in Jasper, Alberta Non-denominational Cemetery.

Bill married his bride Alma in the town of Athabasca in 1950. He predeceased Alma and is buried alongside her there. He left two sons, two daughters and several grandchildren.

Post Active Service, he was commissioned as a Pilot Officer in the RCAF and he took part in the infamous prisoner forced-march across Germany. He suffered greatly as they all did from starvation, freezing and harsh conditions.

Above: Bill climbing down from his last run as a CN Engine Driver.

Settling in Jasper, Alberta, Canada, Bill was employed for a number of years as an engineer (train driver) with 36 years service until his eventual retirement in 1984.

Due to the deprivations of life as a prisoner of war, Bill was always cognizant of the value of good food so abhorred waste and went so far as to bring home to his own table to feed many who lacked a decent meal. Bill supported eyesight programs overseas in India and many benefitted from his donations.

On subsequent visits to the Nanton Area of Alberta, Bill would find time to visit the local air museum and spend some quiet time in intimate reflection with the museum’s Avro Lancaster as one would with an old old friend.

His children still miss him terribly. Buried Jasper Cemetery, Alberta Canada.

Information kindly submitted to Aircrew Remembered via the Richards Family Archives. With thanks to Alison at ‘Find A Grave’ for photograph.

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