Wings of my father: A son finds peace half a world away

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DUNCAN HUNTER HAS FEW MEMORIES of his father beyond a pile of old photographs and the stories his late mother left him. A mechanic in Westlock, Alta., a small town north of Edmonton, Ralph Hunter headed to war when his son was 3 years old. He disappeared into the Burmese jungle three years later. The mystery the father left behind has been in the back of the son’s mind for more than 70 years.

But now, thanks to a happenstance of history and the kindness of strangers, Duncan Hunter, a Western Chemistry professor emeritus, has found peace and answers in a field half a world away.

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AT 4 A.M. ON FEB. 19, 1945, Ralph Hunter rose into the skies for a final time.

Strapped into his Hawker Hurricane, he was serving as airborne eyes for the 14th Army front in Burma. His mission was to map a swath of land near Myotha and the surrounding area south of the Irrawaddy River, approximately 30 miles southeast of Mandalay. It was a run he had made countless times.

If the Allied campaign in the Pacific is the ‘forgotten theatre’ of the Second World War, then the efforts in Burma are nothing but a fever dream. In March 1942, Japanese forces overran the British administration in Burma. The country provided a firm foothold for the Axis power until the Allies turned their attention fully to the Pacific Theatre as the war in Europe neared its end.

Service in Burma meant many things for the Allies – harsh terrain, oppressive heat and humidity, unfamiliar cultures, constant threat of enemy attack, even dangerous tropical diseases and wildlife. Even though the Japanese lost air superiority as the war progressed, danger still existed for pilots. Demanding low-level flights, harsh terrain and unpredictable weather all took their toll.

There are no exact numbers for Canadians who served in Burma. As was the case with Hunter, most who served did so with the Royal Air Force (RAF) and, therefore, are counted among the ranks of British forces, instead of their home Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF).

In the skies above Burma, Canadians mainly conducted combat missions – shooting down Japanese bombers and fighters, as well as undertaking reconnaissance duties to pinpoint bombing and strafing efforts on such enemy targets as trains, pipelines, roads, ships and airfields.

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For those on the ground that February morning, the sounds of Hunter’s Hurricane engines were familiar, but the mission was relatively new for the aircraft.

First taking to the skies Nov. 6, 1936, the Hurricane is revered as among the most versatile fighter aircrafts of its time. This single-seater, U.K.-designed fighter aircraft flew over more fronts than any other British fighter aircraft, including a starring role in the Battle of Britain. As a fighter aircraft, it was omnipresent in the Pacific Theatre and, specifically, in Burma.

Starting in January 1941, British engineers started converting a handful of Hurricanes from fighter to tactical reconnaissance aircrafts. Each plane was outfitted with British F24 recon cameras, mounted in the rear fuselage, close to the trailing edge of the wing, and an additional radio to communicate with ground forces. To compensate for the extra weight, specs called for some – or all – of the plane’s guns to be removed.

While only a small number of photo-recon Hurricanes were produced, they carried a heavy mission load above the front lines.

Hunter had already spent 14 months at the controls of the aircraft by that day in February 1945. A veteran reconnaissance pilot, superiors applauded his thorough efforts. He was “brilliant” and “tremendously keen” at the controls of both craft and camera. “Hunter usually brings so much valuable information that,” one army liaison officer said in 1945, “it usually takes an hour to de-brief him.”

While Hunter spent a military life in search of details, little is known about what happened during his final flight. Initially, when he did not return, two of his fellow officers conducted a search for wreckage. They found nothing. Ralph Hunter had simply disappeared into the jungle.

A week later, Anne Hunter, home in Edmonton, received word of her husband’s disappearance.

“Whilst I hold out every hope for his return, I cannot assess his chances of finding his way back to the squadron as highly as I would like,” RAF Lt. I.A.S. Gibson wrote in a letter dated Feb. 27, 1945. “The area in which he was operating is limited in size and, moreover, the Japanese are fairly thick on the ground.”

This was the first of many letters to arrive at the Hunter family home.

“At that point, they have no idea where he is,” Duncan Hunter explained. “He just disappeared.”

By July 1945, military officials offered a clearer picture.

British investigators believed Hunter’s aircraft crashed into trees along a road eight miles from Thit Yon Village, 38 miles southwest of Mandalay, after an attack on a Japanese truck filled with soldiers. The “headman of the village” reported seeing the pilot, who had been killed in the crash, in the wreckage. According to eye-witness accounts, a Japanese officer stripped the aircraft of its equipment, guns and ammunition and ordered the locals to burn the wreckage, along with the body.

The story matched the reality on the ground – the Japanese were in retreat at that time. They had no desire or time to deal with the wreckage. They left that to the villagers.

Based on that story, Ralph Hunter’s official status was changed from ‘Missing’ to ‘Missing – Believed Killed in Action’ in August 1945. He has retained that status ever since.

In November 1953, a military search team returned to Burma. Villagers led the team to the site of the crash, a farm field that had been cultivated repeatedly. Beyond a few small scraps of metal found about the property, there was scarcely any indication an aircraft had crashed there eight years earlier.

The headman stated that a group of “military people with maps” visited the site some months after the crash. He did not know if they took back the remains, but did not believe so, as the farmer of that field had seen signs of them for years afterward as he worked the soil.

That was the last time anyone went looking for Ralph Hunter.

Until last month.

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AN ONLY CHILD, DUNCAN DOES not remember the day his mother explained what happened to his father. He knows his mother rarely spoke of his father’s fate. She never remarried.

His memories are mainly photographs.

One shows the family standing outside their home in 1942 – Ralph in full uniform, Anne in a light-coloured spring dress, Duncan in a sweater and shorts with stockings pulled high. Such is spring in Edmonton.

Another shows mother and son in 1947 – Anne in a black dress with gloves and clutch, hat and veil, Duncan in a suit, hair parted tight, holding his father’s posthumously awarded Distinguished Flying Cross. Mother and son took the train from Edmonton to Ottawa to be there that day. Governor General Harold Alexander presented the cross to the family – Duncan still has it at home. There is a sweetness and a sadness to that photo.

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The honours did not stop there. A year later, Ralph Hunter had a mountain named after him. Mount Hunter rises 2,603 metre high above the Alberta Rockies, located at the heads of the Little Berland River and Carson Creek, within the Berland Range, Willmore Park.

But no matter the fanfare, Ralph Hunter remained missing in body and spirit.

In the meantime, Duncan grew up. He earned a B.Sc. (Honors) in Chemistry from the University of Alberta and then a PhD from UCLA where he worked with Nobel Laureate Donald J. Cram. Following a postdoctoral fellowship at the California Institute of Technology, Hunter joined the Department of Chemistry at Western in 1966. He remained at the institution until his retirement in 2006.

Throughout his career, he was a teacher and researcher who also served as Associate Dean of Science (Academic), the Acting Chair of Chemistry and Associate Dean of Science (Research). A pair of sabbatical leaves took him to France – one to work with Nobel Laureate Sir Derek Barton, another spent at a research institute devoted to the development of imaging agents for nuclear medicine.

He taught a wide variety of chemistry courses, from first year to graduate. He won the Edward G. Pleva Award for Excellence in Teaching in 1996 and was named repeatedly to the University Students’ Council Teaching Honour Roll. He also served as Director for the Centre for Environment & Sustainability.

The story of his father was always with him – but it was not a matter of everyday life. For most of Duncan Hunter’s adult life, Burma was a destination achievable only in his mind, as political unrest all but sealed its borders to the world.

That all changed this year.

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WHILE ITS HISTORY IS DOTTED with city-states or kingdoms for generations, the modern story of Burma – known officially as Myanmar since 1989 – does not begin until 1824, when the British conquered Burma over a period of 62 years and incorporated the country into its Indian Empire. Initially administered by the British as an Indian province, Burma became a separate, self-governing colony in 1937 and obtained independence from the British Commonwealth in 1948.

But independence did not equal freedom. Almost from the start, Gen. Ne Win and his ruling military oversaw the government of the country in one form or another – first as a military ruler, then as self-appointed president and finally as a political kingpin. He ruled until he resigned in 1988 following widespread civil unrest. However, the military quelled that uprising in a matter of weeks and took power once again.

In 1990, the country’s main opposition party – the National League for Democracy (NLD) – won a nationwide election in a landslide. However, instead of handing over power, the ruling military junta jailed NLD leaderships, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. Years of political wrangling and international pressure ended with the country’s first true civilian government in more than 60 years in March 2016.

Burma was now open.

And Duncan sailed right in.

He discovered Viking River Cruises was offering the Myanmar Explorer, an 11-day cruise along the Irrawaddy River, celebrated in Rudyard Kipling’s poem The Road to Mandalay. The Hunters – Duncan and his wife, Judy – had taken Viking to other destinations in the past. This one proved an obvious attraction. Plans were made for an October-November trip.

“I don’t know if you can make the connection,” Hunter said drawing his finger down a map of Burma. “But that cruise was going right beside where he went down. The plane has been identified pretty well. But not the person. He is still ‘Missing – Believed Killed in Action.’ I thought, ‘Jeez, if we go to the site, you never know.’ Maybe we could find some DNA for analysis and that would clear that up. What the hell?”

Hunter contacted Earth Sciences professor Fred Longstaffe, who previously partnered with the Department of National Defense. The two professors sent contacts in the government information about Ralph Hunter and his son’s plans to track down his remains. They received back a less-than-encouraging reply.

In an email dated Feb. 18, Vanessa Oliver-Lloyd, a casualty identification officer at the Canadian Forces’ Dictorate of History and Heritage, attempted to dissuade Hunter from his plan. She wrote, in part:

“Unfortunately, I am afraid that my overall recommendation will probably not go in the direction you would like them to. My advice is first and foremost not to go looking for anything and not stray from the beaten path. … I do not recommend trying to get to the site in question, much less actually digging or trying to actively find remains. The Burmese authorities would vie with skepticism any activity that is out of the ordinary around a crash site, no matter how much time has passed since the Second World War.”

Currently, the Government of Canada advises a “high degree of caution” for Canadians traveling to Myanmar (Burma), including direct warnings to avoid all travel in the border regions with Thailand, China and Laos. Although Hunter’s plans took him nowhere near those areas, he accepted Oliver-Lloyd’s warning. The cruise was still on – “but going off to find this thing, forget it,” he said.

When packing for the trip, Hunter brought his case file – a collection of official letters, photographs and maps outlining the final days of and ensuing search for his father.

While killing time at the Yangon airport, Hunter showed his file to the ship’s cruise director. She was intrigued. Once on the ship, she informed the captain, who also took an interest in the quest. Seems the captain was a local. While unfamiliar with the village Hunter sought, he scoffed at the Canadian government’s warnings. “That’s not right,” he told Hunter. “This is a perfectly peaceful area. Everybody is warm and friendly.”

During a day’s dock, the captain arranged for a car and driver to head toward the village. As his fellow travelers set off for a day of site-seeing, ancient temples and whatnot, Hunter headed down an unnamed road in search of his father.

Even in the immediate area, the village was not well known. During the journey up the dirt-path road, worn rutty by repeated monsoon seasons, the driver often stopped to ask where the party might find a place Hunter knew only as ‘Thityon’ – or ‘Thitton’ – depending upon what government document he referenced. There was no Google map location – only a point 90 kilometres away down ‘Unnamed Road.’

And then they saw it – a sign that read ‘Thit Yon’ in both Burmese and English. It was one of the few markers Hunter had seen the entire trip marked in English script. He had trouble believing it at first. And yet, there is was, in seemingly the middle of nowhere. Hunter took it as, well, a sign.

“Coming onto that Thit Yon sign, not even knowing if the town existed, I was overwhelmed,” Hunter said, with still a quiver in his voice. “My god.”

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Near the sign, the driver asked a man on a motorbike if he had heard about an old plane crash.

He said, “Everybody knows about the plane crash. There is a Plane Crash Farm just down there. Everybody has pieces of the plane in town.” This was the moment he had waited his whole life for – confirmation of his father’s final moments.

The man took them into the village where he introduced the group to an elderly gentleman, about 85 years old, who was 14 at the time of the crash. He remembered the day clearly; he remembered hearing the crash and running to the site where he found the plane upside down with the pilot still inside. The pilot was dead.

The tour through the village continued. The Hunters met two other men who were 4 or 5 years old at the time of the crash – the same age as Hunter back in Edmonton. Their stories were contradictory and second hand – one said the pilot was dead at the scene, another said the plot had run away.

“I tend to believe the man who was 14 at the time. His was a firsthand account. A 14-year-old boy would remember something like that his whole life,” Hunter said.

Most of the homes in the village, maybe 100 total, had some souvenir from the plane. At one home, the family brought out what appeared to be an ammunition box. There were no clear indicators it belonged to Ralph Hunter, or even to his Hurricane, but the younger Hunter photographed it for later research. “Maybe someone, somewhere knows this is a thing from a thing that belonged on a Hurricane,” Hunter said.

The Hunters were also told about an ex-villager who had a large portion of the plane – maybe a portion of the wing, or the tail section – but he had moved to Mandalay from the community four years earlier. He took the piece with him for his personal collection.

“Are there other pieces? Maybe. More parts of the plane. A piece of uniform. Anything. We just don’t know,” Hunter said. “But you can imagine, if a plane went down in a small village, you are not going to ignore it. You are going to go get what you can.”

The group was then escorted to Plane Crash Farm. There was nothing to be seen there – the scars from the crash long ago healed. But it was ‘The Place’ – where his father’s plane crashed, where his father died all those years ago, the place he tried to imagine since he was 6 years old. There was no headstone or marker – only the echoes of the past.

“Standing there, I was just overwhelmed at that point. It was just so much, so much had come at me that I did not expect. I cannot even – I was just overwhelmed. Just one more thing to overwhelm me.”

At the site, Hunter left a bouquet of Eugenia. The plant signifies respect for the dead in the local culture.

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FOR DUNCAN HUNTER, THE STORY ends here. There will be no follow-ups, no return trip. There is no way to contact the villagers – no phone, no mail service, no Internet.

“We know a lot about what happened to the plane. But as for what happened to the pilot – not so much. We did not accomplish our ultimate goal of finding something to conduct a DNA analysis on. That was a way long shot. And it didn’t happen,” Hunter said. “But this was a lifetime opportunity. We went thinking we would be lucky to find someone still alive who remembered that day. And we did.”

His head swimming with details, he returned to the ship and, later, home with amazing tales of happenstance, hospitality and human connection – ones almost assuredly shared among villagers in Burma, as well. Tales of the stranger who came to town to find his father.

Gaps remain – maybe even regrets that he didn’t have more time.

“In retrospect, there were so many other questions I would have asked if I had been alert. Questions about the pilot, mainly. But I was overwhelmed. I came underprepared because we went there never thinking it was going to happen,” Hunter said.

“But I have to be satisfied, right? Even if there are obviously many more questions.”

He wishes he had asked about dogtags or chased down the farmer of that field. The original farmer is long gone, of course. But maybe a few moments with the current one would have revealed further clues. “If someone has been working that field for years, and if he turns up something, what is he going to do with it? He would take it home, right? So maybe there is a cache of things somewhere.”

Officially, Ralph Hunter remains missing in the eyes of the government. But for his son, there is some peace in knowing his fate.

“I did not think about this every day of my life. It wasn’t until this cruise became a possibility. That is when I started thinking about it, rethinking about it. It was just one of those things I had in the back of my mind, not the front,” Hunter explained. “I was raised without a father. Did I know I didn’t have a father? Not really. That was just sort of normal for me.

“To me, this is filling a void. I never really knew my father. If I had been 15 years old when he died, he would have been in my life and I would be missing something. But I wasn’t. He went away when I was 3. So it’s not like I am missing something. Anything I learn just helps fill in that void. It doesn’t make me feel sad. I just had nothing. And now, I am putting the pieces together. It’s part of my story.”