How a Persistent Bahamas Diver Solved a WWII Mystery Involving a Halifax Pilot
Tom O’Neill didn’t know what to think when he received an unexpected email last fall.
The email was from a man who claimed to have found a plane, the one O’Neill’s uncle was in when it crashed in World War II. The plane was off Nassau, Bahamas.
O’Neill’s uncle, Maurice (pronounced Morris) O’Neill was from Halifax. He was one of two people to die after a mechanical failure on a B-26 Marauder on October 17, 1944, during a training exercise.
“It was interesting to hear what happened,” said Tom O’Neill, who lives in Villa Nova, Ont. “They didn’t talk about it much in the family, just that it had come down, [they] didn’t know the circumstances or why they hadn’t been able to find them.”
The discovery of the plane also provided answers for Joanne Green of Guelph, Ontario. Her uncle, Jack Wood, was the other person on the plane.
“My mom didn’t like to talk about it,” Green said. “She was still very upset. So when it started, it went from kind of a family tradition to, like, this is real.”
The discovery is due to Eric Wiberg, a determined American who lives in Boston. He travels frequently to the Bahamas and spent time growing up there.
Last year was tragic for him. A nephew who lives in the Bahamas died in a car accident and his mother passed away after an eight-year battle with cancer.
“I was hypnotized”
He found solace in diving and became obsessed with finding something he had spotted decades ago as a teenager.
While on a friend’s motorboat in 1985, he and his best friend fell on the wheel of an airplane.
“I was hypnotized,” he said. “Basically, what does a wheel do on a reef, you know? That really caught my imagination and that question stuck with me.”
Wiberg is an author and historian who has published over a dozen books. One of these books is The Bahamas in World War II: A Military Timeline 1939-1945.
The Bahamas was an important training ground for pilots during the war, as well as a critical stopping point for North American-built planes making the trip overseas, said WWII historian Jeff Noakes. at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.
If it was possible to disassemble planes and transport them by ship, this posed problems.
“It takes time and it takes space on ships that can be used for other things and if the ships are sunk you lose the plane,” he said.
As a result, the Bahamas was a popular staging point for Allied aircraft.
Wiberg’s book, in part, examines the more than 100 Royal Air Force accidents that occurred on the Caribbean island during the war.
One of these accidents caused the death of O’Neill and Wood. The location on official military records led Wiberg to believe that the airplane wheel he spotted in 1985 was from that crash.
“I was just deathly afraid that someone else would find it, desecrate it, and steal it,” he said.
Plunged into a personal turmoil, he went in search of the plane.
He thought he had found it, but his hopes were dashed when aviation experts reprimanded him. They told him he had found the remains of a Beechcraft aircraft, not the B-26 Marauder flown by O’Neill and Wood.
It wasn’t even the plane he spotted in 1985.
“My colleagues in Australia and elsewhere have dismissed me and said, ‘You’ve wasted our time. It’s obviously not a B-26. You obviously don’t know what you’re doing,'” Wiberg said.
What the accident report got wrong
He was discouraged, but became more determined than ever to find the plane piloted by O’Neill and Wood.
While the accident report listed latitude and longitude, Wiberg’s dive in the area proved unsuccessful.
Eyewitnesses had confirmed the plane crashed 400 yards (366 yards) from shore. Aided by a reference to the location of a building, Wiberg’s attention narrowed.
“So if you… drew a line and swam that line, you’d end up finding something, right?” Wiberg said.
Over a three-week period last November and December, Wiberg spent about five hours a day diving around a 1.6 kilometer grid. An accomplished swimmer in his youth, Wiberg dived without a breathing apparatus.
Fittingly, he made his breakthrough on Remembrance Day, finding a first piece of the plane, about two miles from where official records said the plane would be. In the weeks that followed, he found about 45 pieces belonging to O’Neill and Wood’s B-26 Marauder.
“I had done my job,” Wiberg said, fighting back tears.
A harrowing experience
The dive, performed at average depths of six to seven meters, was physically demanding. The twisting and spinning caused by the attempt to lift the wreckage from the sea floor caused a case of stenosis.
In some cases, Wiberg found wreckage less than three meters from shore.
The area where he dived is located on the North Shore of Nassau, home to the Marley Resort and Spa, formerly a vacation home for famed musician Bob Marley.
O’Neill then contacted Green. They had first met several years ago through research he had done for The Bahamas in World War II: A Military Timeline 1939-1945. She helped Wiberg connect with Tom O’Neill.
Green is an only child and his mother’s only brother was Jack Wood. His father had no siblings.
Interested in genealogy, she has long sought answers to her family’s history.
Wiberg’s discovery brought her closer to the uncle she never met.
“It’s all about closure”
Wood married about a year before enlisting in the war in 1942, and worked as an assistant manager in the Simpsons mail-order department in Toronto. He had a son, John Jr., who was just 10 months old when Wood died.
“I think it’s all about closure, you know, coming full circle,” Green said. “Someone I didn’t know at all, and now I feel like I know him. He was a good guy and he’s just been great with me.”
For Tom O’Neill, this discovery allows him to better understand his uncle Maurice, who lived in south Halifax.
Before the war, O’Neill worked at a paper mill in downtown Halifax with his father. Tom O’Neill thinks his uncle intended to return to work there after the war.
Green said his mother was still bothered that no funeral was held for Uncle Jack. He was told it was not allowed. The reason is unclear.
But that will change.
Plans for the memorial service
Green plans to go to the Bahamas this fall to hold a memorial service in the area where the plane crashed. Wiberg even lined up a bugle for the occasion.
“We’re here, like the next generation, we’re meeting each other,” Green said. “And I hope we maintain our friendships.”
For Wiberg, finding the B-26 Marauder was not an action fueled solely by grief. It was an act of family history.
Her father was a longtime Swedish consulate in the Bahamas. He instilled in his children the value of service to others, especially when they were away from home.
Locating the B-26 Marauder wasn’t the reward, it was letting O’Neill and Green know what had happened to their uncles.
“I brought them back to life in a small way,” Wiberg said.
For Noakes, the historian of the Canadian War Museum, stories like that of O’Neill and Wood are important to remember.
“It’s loved ones who never came home or someone who was always a picture in a family photo album, so obviously there’s that connection,” he said.
“It’s hugely important to people who have these direct personal ties to these events. It’s also important because it’s a reminder that the Second World War has this global impact…and takes Canadians to places around the world that the people here in Canada right now don’t necessarily think so.”