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A Cold War crash over Northern Ontario and the search for a missing pilot

In his latest column, Back Roads Bill Steer brings us along on his quest to find out what happened to United States Air Force Pilot Lt. Gaylord Treu, whose remains were never recovered

Is United States Air Force (USAF) Pilot 1st Lt. Gaylord Treu, MIA, a casualty classification? He is somewhere out there among the boreal black spruce bogs of Northern Ontario.

Accidents are a series of mistakes. Something went tragically wrong on Dec. 17, 1959 during the height of the Cold War. A fighter jet collided with a long range bomber north of Hearst during a training mission. The Pinetree Line of radar stations stretching across Canada (many Northern Ontario locations, including nearby Pagwa) was fully operational as was the BOMARC guided missile base in North Bay. During this training mission the interceptors would have been in pursuit of enemy aircraft.

Capable of carrying nuclear weapons, the Convair F-102 Delta Dagger was an American interceptor aircraft built as part of the backbone of the USAF. Its main purpose was to intercept invading Soviet strategic bomber fleets during the Cold War; the F-102 was the USAF's first operational supersonic interceptor and delta-wing fighter. It used an internal weapons bay to carry both guided missiles and rockets.

The Boeing B-47 Stratojet was a long-range, six-engine, turbojet-powered strategic bomber designed to fly at high subsonic speed and at high altitude to avoid enemy interceptor aircraft. The primary mission of the B-47 was as a nuclear bomber capable of striking targets within what was then the Soviet Union. It had what was termed a “swept wing.” With its engines carried in nacelles underneath the wing, the B-47 represented a major innovation in post-World War II combat jet design, and contributed to the development of modern jet airliners.

The collision occurred at 28 000 feet, or more than five miles (10 kilometres) above the ground. It was a high altitude to deploy parachutes as the two aircraft plummeted to the floor of the boreal forest. The two bomber pilots ejected and were found the next day. Two navigators from the bomber died and the fighter jet pilot was never found. The six-day search was called off just before Christmas. We know from a memorial notice the family did their own ground search the following year for USAF Pilot 1st Lt. Gaylord Treu.

Down river 50 kilometres, when you get there, tangled parts of aircraft strewn throughout the area of impact which caused its own unnatural depression. The 116-foot (35 metre) wings of the B-47 remain intact with USAF insignias. This writing is an avocation but after being at the crash site there was an inexplicable connection to the fighter pilot.

Fast forward. It took a long time and dogged determined effort to find next of kin. It started with a memorial obituary for the pilot, at the time, “ . . . surviving Lt. Treu are his parents, his wife, the former Marjorie Sutcliffe of Clear Lake; a son Dennis, 2 . . . ) and then a Clear Lake, Iowa memorial for his wife in Jan. 12, 2015.

“When in high school she met the love of her life, Gaylord Beryl Treu . . . She is survived by her two sons Denny M. (Kathleen) Treu…She will be laid to rest next to her parents, sisters and her beloved Gaylord.” The initial “M” and the wife’s name became the focus for ancestry search engines.

Dead end phone calls pile up. What about LinkedIn? Up came a profile, the head and shoulder shot of the son is unmistakably the same as the father sitting in his fighter jet. You sit back in your chair, more sleuthing. Denny was listed within the prestigious “Cambridge’ Who’s Who’ - Professional of the Year in medical Instrumentation and technology. He is the holder of more than 50 U.S. patents. Another list of “cold” calls, with an explanatory context, finished with “ . . . are you related to USAF Pilot 1st Lt. Gaylord Treu?”

Finally after a dozen calls, “He is my dad.” A poignant pause when something important is discovered. More questions and information follow.

Jay Strayer, retired Colonel USAF, was at the time a Kincheloe, Mich. AFB neighbour of “Gay” and a part of the rescue mission as a helicopter pilot. Of the mishap he said, “USAF expects its pilots to maintain clearance of other aircraft, even if under radar control. Unless the investigative team finds a mechanical cause, the accident is invariably the fault of the pilot. In this case, the B-47s were flying closer than authorized and the Pagwa radar controller who broke off the intercept unknowingly turned Gaylord and his wingman (our Fighter Group Commander no less) directly into the blinding sun which impaired their ability to see well enough to avoid the collision.

“Our air and the ground search (there was snow but fortunately less than knee deep), turned up some surprising evidence of the event,” said Colonel Strayer. “I had seen Gay don his orange flight suit a time or two and one thing he always did was tie his orange handled jack knife, with its special blade for cutting tangled parachute shroud lines, around his waist using parachute cord under his flight suit. Someone found the knife and cord in one place and a piece of orange flight suit in another. Amazing considering the collision occurred at such an altitude.”

Denny has that knife. He wants to journey north with his step brother to see the site. Closure remains. Another story will follow.

Although Gaylord Treu was on a training mission, he could be MIA or “Missing in Action” in which aircrew members were lost and remain unaccounted for. The U.S. Defense Agency allows for a search of both unaccounted-for and accounted-for individuals. Today, 126 service members remain unaccounted for from the Cold War. Treu is not listed.

The accident report is classified. Bethany Aitchison, Curator, Canadian Forces Museum of Aerospace Defence, 22 Wing/Canadian Forces Base North Bay, with great interest, processed the request and connected stateside to a Defense Safety Center contact and was able to secure the accident report.

“Because my colleague went through an internal request process, Lt. Treu is listed as having ‘fatal’ injuries, so he is not considered missing (despite the fact that he was never recovered, ‘missing’ is a different category.) Like many aircraft accidents, the situation that led to the collision is complex and has multiple factors.”

The boreal is home to countless shades of green and has an austere beauty. It is a neverending scene of black spruce trees, interspersed with bogs, inhospitably and respectively described as: “Should have brought my rubber boots,” and “which way around this?” The human mind faces its own nature, and as you gaze out on the vastness of this green blanket one would like to think you are within the consciousness of the past. USAF Pilot 1st Lt. Gaylord Treu is out there. 


Bill Steer

About the Author: Bill Steer

Back Roads Bill Steer is an avid outdoorsman and is founder of the Canadian Ecology Centre
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