When she was finally told her father’s secret in her late teens, Donna Wells says she found it disorienting — as though she hadn’t known who he was.
“As a kid, you don’t think your parents had a life before you,” she says. “Then there’s this huge thing that happened to him, and it was so sad.”
James Wells had a wife and four children, but they were his second family. His first was killed in 1944 in a tragedy that is largely forgotten today.
Donna and her sister Jo say when they were finally told the story, their mother did most of the talking. Another sister, Linda, was so upset she ran from the table.
“Dad was there, too, but I don’t remember him saying that much,” says Jo.
On the morning of April 25, 1944, James left for work. He and his wife, Elizabeth, lived in Griffintown, a predominantly Irish, working-class neighbourhood just south of downtown Montreal. They were raising a three-year-old son, who was named after his father.
James worked at a pharmaceutical company just a few blocks from his home. Just after 10:30 a.m., his sister ran into the company and told him a plane had crashed into his home.
His life was changed forever. When he arrived home, James found the entire block on fire. Elizabeth and James Jr. were somewhere in the rubble.
“He had nothing,” says Jo. “Not a suit of clothing, not a pair of underwear.”
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The plane was a four-engine Liberator B Mk VI bomber headed to Europe. It had taken off from Dorval Airport about 15 kilometres away but developed mechanical problems.
Montreal was an important hub for military aircraft during the Second World War. Thousands of planes were built around North America and then ferried overseas through Quebec.
Military historian David O’Keefe says manufacturers were rushing the construction of new Liberator bombers, and the planes often had problems.
“This wasn’t uncommon because of how quickly they were put together for the demands of the war,” says O’Keefe. “They had to get them out.”
The Liberator EW-148 had been built in Michigan and was on its way to Gander, N.L. Its final destination was India, but the plane never made it.
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The crew reported problems flying east over Mount Royal. They turned south, according to reports, to try and land in the Saint Lawrence River.
They were losing altitude quickly and passed over downtown Montreal just 75 metres off the ground. Workers inside the Sun Life Building witnessed the plane fly by and reported seeing parts of the tail and a wing come off.
The plane narrowly missed another tower as it headed south. It cleared a brewery but then crashed in Griffintown.
All five members of the crew were killed as well as 10 people on the ground.
The plane was full of fuel for the long flight, and the resulting fire burned for hours. At least 10 nearby homes were destroyed.
James wasn’t the only person in his family to lose someone. His brother Walter lived close, and his wife was also killed.
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Both men remarried and raised families.
James eventually divorced from his second wife, and when he died in 2012, he was buried with his first wife Elizabeth and their son James Albert.
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