One woman’s determination to remember fallen crew
Stephen Kuleski was born on June 17, 1918 in Hillcrest, Alberta, the youngest of three children born to my great-grandparents, William and Pearl. Steve, as he was known, and his two sisters were first-generation Canadians. Their parents, ethnic Ukrainians, had immigrated to Canada from Austria.
Steve was doted on by his family — especially his mother. After high school, he followed in his father’s footsteps and became a coal miner. In January of 1942, at the age of 23, he enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force.
After training on a base near High River, he was awarded his pilot wings in October of 1942.
In May of 1943 Steve was posted on duty overseas to England. After further flight training, he was eventually assigned to pilot a four-engine Halifax — a heavy bomber tasked with carrying out night raids in enemy territory.
Prohibited by military censors from revealing specific details about his location and role, he shared as much as he could.
“There’s a lot I’d like to tell you about, but I can’t,” he told his parents. “You’ll have to wait until I get home.”
He tried to quell their anxiety. “I know you cry and worry about me all the time,” he wrote. “But I will be okay.”
Occasionally, the stress of being involved in active combat came through in his letters. “We are always living on the edge here,” he told his parents. “Sometimes it’s too much.”
The loss of fellow airmen also weighed heavy on him, in particular a young man he trained with in Fort Macleod.
“He was such a swell kid,” Steve wrote. “I can’t believe he’s gone.”
But for the most part, his letters are mainly upbeat and detail small moments of happiness set against the backdrop of war — a week spent sightseeing in London, learning to play cricket, taking a childhood friend up for his first airplane ride.
The crew of MZ 506, No. 423 Squadron, Royal Canadian Air Force
Pilot Officer S. Kuleski Royal Canadian Air Force (pilot)
Flight Officer W.H. Matthews Royal Canadian Air Force (navigator)
Flight Sergeant B. Richmond Royal Australian Air Force (bomb aimer)
Pilot Officer J. Desmairais Royal Canadian Air Force (air gunner)
Pilot Officer E. Boutilier Royal Canadian Air Force (rear gunner)
Pilot Officer M. Wiwsianki Royal Canadian Air Force (air gunner)
Pilot Officer W. Crum Royal Canadian Air Force (air gunner)
Sergeant E. Horton Royal Air Force (flight engineer)
On May 17, 1944, Steve wrote a short letter to his parents. An old friend from home had been posted with the army in England and Steve hoped to meet up with him on his next leave. “It will be great to see him again,” he wrote.
Steve mentioned a recent letter that he had received from his brother-in-law — my grandfather Tommy — who at the time was serving with the Canadian army in Italy. Steve and Tommy had hoped to meet up while both were stationed in England. But they were never able to arrange for leave at the same time. My grandfather’s army unit was shipped off to Italy before they could get together.
Steve closed by asking if his nine-year- old niece — my Aunt Wilma — would write him a letter.
On May 24, his parents received a brief telegram saying that Steve and his crew were missing.
A few days later, a letter arrived from Steve’s commanding officer. It offered a few more details.
On the evening of May 22, Steve and his crew took off from England to carry out a bombing raid on a railroad yard in Le Mans, France.
Due back at base shortly after 5 a.m. on May 23, they never returned.
In his letter, W.A. McKay attempted to offer hope to Steve’s family, noting that the plane may have landed in enemy territory and the crew taken as prisoners of war.
During his time in England, Steve had flown 11 night operations over enemy territory and had won the respect of his fellow soldiers.
“He had proven himself a most capable pilot and well qualified to be captain of one of our best crews,” McKay told Steve’s parents. “His comrades miss him very much.”
Photo courtesy of Stephen TaylorWhile they waited for word of what happened, the families of the crew reached out to each other.
Three months after the crash, Mary Matthews, the mother of the plane’s navigator, wrote to my great-grandmother and told her not to give up hope: “So often we hear of those missing three or four months, and then they turn up as prisoners of war.”
This faint hope, however, was lost in September, 1944. Military officials advised Steve parents that based on information gathered by the International Red Cross, the bomber – Halifax MZ 506 — had been shot down over Le Mans.
Their son, along with his air crew, was now officially considered “missing, believed killed.” Of the eight men abroad Halifax MZ 506, six were Canadian, one was Australian, and one was British.
Steve and his crew faced a high possibility of death each time they went up in their Halifax bomber.
In his book “Men of Air,” historian Kevin Wilson refers to the air crew members of the Royal Air Force Bomber Command as “doomed youth.” Almost all of the crews were made up of young men in their teens and early twenties. Life expectancy of a crew was six weeks.
During the month of January 1944, 2,256 air crew members were lost over Germany. On March 30, 1944 96 bombers and 545 men were lost in a single night during an air raid over the city of Nuremberg.
Steve and his crew took part in, and survived, the Nuremberg raid. They also took part in several other important raids as the Allies prepared to storm the beaches of Normandy on D-Day.
“We’ve been to some hot targets lately, but we haven’t been bothered by anything” he wrote home on May 15 — a week before his death. “Just luck, I guess.”
Photo courtesy of Stephen TaylorThe story of Halifax MZ 506 and its crew did not end there.
In the summer of 1947, a French woman named Marie Fortier contacted British military officials with details of a plane crash that she had witnessed during the night of May 23, 1944.
Using Fortier’s account, as well as two metal plates bearing airplane serial numbers that she provided, military authorities were finally able to clarify what had happened to Steve and his crew.
Crippled by German gunfire, the big Halifax bomber had crashed and exploded in a pine forest near the tiny village of Monce-en-Belin, 13 km from Le Mans.
Haunted by what she saw, Fortier placed a small wooden cross on the crash site.
For years, she had longed to find out who the soldiers on the plane had been. She wanted to contact their families to let them know a French mother cared about their sons and remembered them.
In July 1947 — three years after the crash — Fortier found someone who had dug the bomber’s identification plates from the ground.
This information, along with a military forensic investigation of the cemetery in Le Mans, helped to verify where the air crew had been buried. British and Canadian military officials helped Fortier contact their families.
A letter from a French mother
In October of 1947, my great-grandparents received the first of what would be many letters from Fortier.
Fortier began her letter with a warning that its contents would be very painful to read. She explained that she was a mother herself and that her 17-year-old son had recently enlisted in the French air force.
“When we give our children to the defense of our countries, we ourselves must have courage,” she wrote.
In memory of the bomber crew, Fortier asked my great-grandparents to “remain brave” while reading her description of what she witnessed on the night of May 23, 1944.
Fortier attempted to soften the pain of her account by suggesting that the crew likely were killed as soon as the plane was hit by German gunfire.
She and others attempted to help the crew. “But it was impossible to get near the plane as the fire caused the ammunition on board to explode,” Fortier recalled.
Except for the plane’s rear gunner, the members of the flight crew were burned beyond recognition. Pilot Officer Eric Boutilier tried to bail out, but his parachute did not deploy. He was killed when he crashed headfirst into a tree.
The next morning, Fortier and the others found him where he fell.
“We could not bury him in our cemetery as the Germans were already on scene of the crash,” Fortier wrote. “All we could do in remembrance of his bravery was to put flowers on his body.”
Every week, Fortier assured Steve’s parents, she visited the crash site to leave flowers and to pay her respects. She also regularly visited the cemetery in Le Mans.
She asked if Steve had a favourite type of flower.
“Please let me know, and I will leave them on his grave,” she wrote.
Although she knew her account would be painful to read, Fortier felt that it was important for Steve’s parents to learn what had happened to him.
“I have done for your son exactly what I would have done for my own,” she wrote.
Along with the letter, Fortier included two small photos.
In one photo, she is standing by the small memorial that she erected at the crash site. In the other, her son Maurice stands — proudly wearing his French air force uniform.
Fortier asked Steve’s parents if they would send her a photograph of their son.
She also sent photographs and drawings that she had made of the cemetery — gestures which brought the families comfort.
“It seems a beautiful place by the photos,” the parents of Flight Sargeant Edward Horton — the crew’s British flight engineer — told my great-grandparents in a letter. “It’s nice to know where there are resting.”
Photo courtesy of Phil Delahaye. Fortier’s visits to the crash site and cemetery to lay flowers while France was still under German occupation were undertaken at considerable personal risk.
While the occupation authorities gave the crew a full military funeral, they issued instructions banning French civilians from laying flowers on the graves.
Despite this, Fortier and others would elude German guards by throwing flowers as they walked past the graves during the day. Others would scale the cemetery walls at night to lay flowers on the graves.
Fortier’s efforts to remember the aircrew continued after she established contact with the families. She raised funds to build a permanent stone memorial on the crash site.
The monument was unveiled in October of 1948 in a ceremony attended by military officials, government dignitaries and thousands of others.
During the ceremony, a tiny coffin containing ashes gathered by Fortier on the morning after the crash was placed inside the monument. To this, she also added earth from a rose tree sent by Sargeant Horton’s parents in England.
She later sent similar tiny coffins to each family.
The names of the air crew are etched in marble on the front of the monument. Along the top, an inscription implores: “All Who Pass By Here, Remember.”
An annual ceremony of remembrance for French and other Allied soldiers has taken place at the monument for over 60 years. Eight streets in Monce-en-Belin are named after the crew members.
In honour of Fortier and her efforts, the main plaza of Monce-en-Belin is named Madame Fortier Square. At its centre stands a granite marker embossed with her name, a Halifax bomber and the flags of Canada, Great Britain and Australia.
Although they never met in person, my great-grandmother and Fortier forged a friendship and wrote to each other faithfully for many years.
Neither seems to have minded that they did not speak the same language — a French-speaking neighbour of my great-grandmother served as a translator for the letters exchanged between the two.
Fortier wrote in her initial letter that she hoped she could provide Steve’s parents “with a small measure of comfort.” I believe that she did that — and much more.
With great compassion, Marie Fortier reached out to my great-grandparents at a time when they needed something of their son to hold on to.
My great-grandmother passed away in 1996.
As was her wish, the tiny coffin that Fortier sent to Canada in 1948 was buried with her.