Monument committee has found the last remaining photo to complete tribute to plane crash victims

After more than a year of searching, the committee working on the Forever in the Clouds monument has found all of the faces it has been looking for to complete the tribute.

The committee found a suitable photo of Clifford Somerville Coppin last week, according to committee member Marie Calder. They now have the photos of all 21 servicemen – 20 pilots and one crewman – who died in a plane crash at the former Estevan Airport site south of the city on Sept. 15, 1946.

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Nineteen of the 21 faces have already been engraved into a 500-year-old cottonwood tree that has been transformed into Forever in the Clouds. Sculptor Darren Jones, who used a chainsaw to engrave the faces, will be coming to Estevan next week to engrave the last two faces, Coppin and Vitantos Kirko, whose face was found last month.

If Jones completes the monument on Sept. 15, it would be on the 72nd anniversary of the plane crash.

Calder said somebody sent Jones a photo of Coppin from the Sept. 20, 1946 edition of the Winnipeg Free Press, but it was so blurry the photo wasn’t usable. But they found the original copy of the photo, and it was much clearer.

But one hurdle still had to be cleared.

“How do I get this from the newspaper article to somewhere in which I can text it or email it to Darren?” asked Calder. “My iPhone was sitting there, and I took a picture with my iPhone, and it worked.”

When she found out that she had the final photo, Calder said she felt excitement and relief.

“It was overwhelming, really, because I was beginning to doubt that we were going to find him,” said Calder. “On the surface, I was certainly optimistic, but there was this little voice that said ‘What if, what if you don’t find him?’”

She expected she would secure Coppin’s photo through someone in Coppin’s home town of Kamsack, but it didn’t happen. The branch manager of Kamsack’s library worked hard to help find the photo, and other people did their part as well.

“It’s been quite the roller coaster ride, but now we can finally complete (this monument),” said Calder. “And it is was never going to be complete without all 21 of the airmen.”

Her sentiment was shared by Jones and by Lester Hinzman, who had the idea for Forever in the Clouds.

The discovery of Coppin’s photo came just a few weeks after they found Kirko, after about nine months of searching for those two. The quick timing was surprising to Calder.

The committee has now shifted its attention to finding the families of the victims of the plane crash of 1946. So far they have only found the families of William Wiecker and Leonard Turtle. Wiecker and Turtle were among the last photos found by the committee. 

“The other 19 families, we don’t have a connection with. So really our job isn’t done,” said Calder.

The committee wants to reach out to all of the families of the victims, and let them know that their loved ones are no longer forgotten.

Members of the Wiecker family have seen the sculpture already, and it was an emotional moment for them.

“You could imagine how it feels to see this majestic and phenomenal structure with their uncle’s face carved into it. It was difficult for them in that at long last there was something tangible to remember their uncle when, by all accounts, he had been been forgotten.”

The Wiecker family came to Estevan in the 1970s, hoping to find something to commemorate their uncle’s loss. But they couldn’t find anything. A former mayor took the Wiecker family to the site of the former airport during that visit in the 1970s, and found two small remnants of the plane that they could take with them.

An unveilling for the monument is slated for Sept. 16 at the Estevan Regional Airport at 3 p.m. There will be a flyover as part of the event, and representatives from 15-Wing Moose Jaw Canadian Air Force Base will be present.

The ceremony was going to happen regardless of whether they had Coppin’s photo. It will be open to the public, and Calder hopes to see a large crowd.

Turtle’s granddaughter, who is in the air force, is expected to be in attendance.

The monument is currently in a field southwest of Estevan. A permanent home has yet to be located, but Calder hopes it can be in a highly visible spot, near the city’s cenotaph.

The provincial Ministry of Central Services denied the committee’s request earlier this year to have the monument on the Estevan Courthouse property. The committee wanted it on the east side of the courthouse lawn; the cenotaph and the Estevan Soldier’s Tree are on the west side of the lawn.

“That’s where we honour those who have served and lost their lives for us, and why are these 21 airmen any different?” Calder asked.


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