Banting Saga





by Frank Tibbo

The name of Sir Frederick Banting, the co-founder of insulin, is familiar to millions of people, particularly diabetics.

Banting figures prominently in the tragic history of those who died in or near Gander during WW II. It was in 1941 that he died in the woods, a few miles from Musgrave Harbour. The Hudson Bomber aircraft in which he was a passenger on his way to England, crashed the evening before, shortly after departing Gander.

Banting, a Canadian born in Alliston, Ontario, in 1891, and a British physiologist John Macleod, won the Nobel Prize in 1923 for discovering insulin. Banting shared his half of the prize with Canadian physiologist Charles Best, claiming that MacLeod had not participated in the discovery of insulin. The first question asked by many is, "What was Major Sir Frederick Banting doing in a bomber on the way to England?" There have been several answers to that question but the most logical concerns medical research. Dr. Banting was a very patriotic individual and volunteered to help where ever he was needed. He had received several assignments from the Canadian military, and it seems this time the British government had asked the Canadian government for his assistance in war related medical research that was taking place in London. Hindsight is 20-20, and the Canadians realized, too late of course, that North Atlantic ferry crossings weren't yet a state of the art. As a matter of fact, Banting was only the second passenger on a ferry operation.

Dr. Banting found out for himself while he was marking time in Gander from Feb. 17th to Feb 20th, that only four flights totalling 25 Hudsons had crossed since the operation began on November 10, 1940 and he was shocked to find out that only one Hudson had crossed thus far in 1941. He was also told that one Hudson had crashed on take-off and another had to return. It was common knowledge that the aircraft were grossly over-loaded with fuel in order to make the journey, and the civilian crews that had been hired to ferry the aircraft had little, if any, experience in flying the North Atlantic.

The company, for which the civilian pilots worked, was a subsidiary of the just-formed Canadian Pacific Airlines. The pilots were relatively unfamiliar with the aircraft which they were paid to ferry, and had no experience flying over-loaded aircraft long distances in mid winter.

It was at noon in Toronto on Saturday Feb. 15,1941, when he received a call to report to Montreal the next morning. As soon as he arrived in Montreal he was taken to a supply depot and outfitted for winter flying. He was to fly to England in a Hudson bomber that had been brought in from the United States for delivery to the RAF. Incidently the United States had not declared war against Germany up to that time and because of the rules of neutrality aircraft could not be flown to Canada but were pushed across the US/Canada border. It was a relatively new idea to fly aircraft across the North Atlantic, but the success of the German submarine wolf packs operating in the North Atlantic made delivery by ship more hazardous than flying.

The Lockeed Hudson (T-9449) carrying Banting departed Dorval Monday, Feb. 17, at 9:50 a.m. with captain Joseph C. Mackey, navigator William Byrd, and wireless radio operator William Snailham. They travelled the 800 miles to Gander in less than five hours with the plan to depart Gander that evening, but they were grounded by reports of bad weather over Britain and joined five other crews waiting for conditions to improve before departing.

It soon became obvious that Mackey, a former Kansas City barnstormer and was one of the more experienced pilots, having made one previous ferry crossing, wasn't happy about having to take a passenger on his ferry run, however, he and Banting got to know each other much better while in Gander, and Mackey changed his mind about his famous passenger.
There are several interesting stories told about what Dr. Banting did during the three days spent in Gander. During the first evening (Monday), C. M. Tripp, a radio officer from one of the waiting Hudsons, took him to the Officers' Mess of the local unit of the Royal Rifles of Canada. On Tuesday (18th) there was a snow storm and Banting spent some time attending to soldiers in the Eastbound Inn who had "colds". He personally dispensed medicine and procured hot-water-bottles for the ailing men.

The blizzard persisted on Wednesday, but by Thursday, Feb. 20th, the weather had cleared and a late evening departure was planned for six Hudsons. Banting, curious about the weather conditions, made his way to the Gander weather office where he received a briefing. Roderick Goff of Gander was on duty that night and remembers that "Banting had an impressive presence because of his physical stature and his reputation as a medical scientist." One of the six Hudsons had engine trouble but five including Mackey departed at 1958 hours. The other four Hudsons heard Snailham, the radio officer on Mackey's Hudson, asking Gander for a bearing back to the airport. That was the last radio transmission that was heard.

T-9449 was about 50 miles north-east of Gander, over the Atlantic, when the failure of the oil cooler forced Mackey to shut down his starboard engine and head back. He could have made it easily on one engine but then the oil supply to the port engine failed. Mackey jettisoned his excess fuel and ordered the others to thrown out everything to reduce weight. Mackey then told Snailham to tell William Bird the navigator and Dr. Banting to bail out. No one did. As the aircraft descended, Mackey was hoping against hope that, despite the darkness, he would see something flat on which to make the crash landing. He knew Newfoundland had a lot of lakes and he might be lucky. He wasn't lucky enough. The rough landing, at 9:25 p.m. in the black winter night, knocked Mackey knocked out, but it turned out to be just minor head injuries. Snailham and Bird were killed on impact and Banting suffered severe head injuries, and a fractured rib punctured his left lung.

When Mackey regained consciousness he revived Banting, but the severe injuries had rendered Banting delirious. By noon on Saturday (21st), Banting had fallen into a deep unconsciousness. Mackey thought he should go for help, and fashioned a crude pair of snowshoes and set off. He soon knew it was impossible to travel any farther and followed his tracks back to the aircraft. When he reached the aircraft he discovered Banting had got out of the aircraft and had died face down in the snow.

An intense air search was now on but it wasn't until Monday morning (Feb. 23rd) that a searching Hudson found the crash and dropped a package to some rabbit hunters nearby. The package contained a message asking the hunters to go to the aid of the survivors. It also contained a map showing the position of the aircraft. The hunters found the crash and brought Mackey back to Musgrave Harbour. They then returned to the crash and recovered the three bodies. Once the bodies were in Musgrave Harbour they were sewn in white sheets and "laid out" in the Orange Lodge for several days until ski-equipped planes came for them.

The departure of the aircraft from Musgrave Harbour with the bodies was quite an emotional affair. The local Salvation Army had a memorial service and the Salvation Army band played as the planes departed with the bodies.

Because Banting was known world-wide, speculation was rampant as to the cause of the crash. Sabotage was talked about and as late as 1984, Joseph Mackey's widow said that two members of the ground staff had put sand in the Hudson's oil. Patrick McTaggart-Cowan, a well known meteorologist stationed in Gander at the time, said it was the new oil cooling systems being installed in the Hudsons that winter. He said that rectangularly-constructed grids that produced faster cooling were turning out to be weaker in cold weather that the old circular-grid coolers. In extreme cold the new oil coolers had a tendency to rupture on starting, and that the problem would show up shortly after take-off.

The following excerpt if from the RCAF Station Diary - Gander:
"Sept.12/41 His Royal Highness, the Duke of Kent, after inspecting the guard of honour, officially opened the Station Hospital which is named in honour of Sir Frederick Banting (who was recently lost in an aeroplane crash in Newfoundland) and is officially known as the Sir Frederick Banting Memorial Hospital."

When the James Patron Memorial Hospital was built in Gander to replace the Sir Frederick Banting Memorial Hospital, a ward was named in honour of Dr. Banting.

It would be a fitting tribute if, after the Gander Bay Road in Gander is taken over as a town street (after Cooper Blvd. is extended to Gander Bay Road), that it be named Banting Boulevard. The fact that it leads to the Banting Memorial Museum in Musgrave Harbour would make that name very appropriate.

[Randolph Abbott, Musgrave Harbour, led first search and rescue party. Official enquiry conducted at Gander Airport by magistrate Malcolm Hollett. Ray W. Guy of Musgrave Harbour area has a copy of magistrate's report. Mackey was 33, licence no. 12800 had 15 years flying experience. "My machine was working perfectly" Estimated they were flying for 25 minutes and at that time were 25 miles offshore when black smoke began pouring out of the control box at his side - was not strapped into seat at time of crash. Radio officer was strapped in but seat was torn out at impact. Mackey ws put up in house where nurse Parsons lived.]

I would like to acknowledge with thanks the help given me in writing this column by Mr. R. W. Abbott of Musgrave Harbour, and Mr. Roderick Goff of Gander. Mr. Abbott, a published author, is planning a book about Banting.

As published in the Gander Beacon and written by Frank Tibbo


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