English village uses Net to snare veteran's family
by Diane Nelson
The Brandon Sun ~ August 21, 1999

A connection made on the Internet, the electronic highway that leads us into the future, is allowing two family members of a downed bomber pilot to forge a link with the past.

Fifty-four years ago, Flight Lieut. William Gavin Campbell and six crewmates were killed when their Lancaster bomber, for reasons unknown, crashed in England just outside of the Staffordshire village of Sandon.

It was only a few short days before the end of the Second World War -- April 30, 1945 -- and spirits were high on the home front. Husbands, sons and brothers who had put their lives on the line for their country would soon be returning, and members of the Campbell family in Strathclair, Man. were eagerly awaiting Billie's homecoming.

Hillman never met namesake

They were devastated by the news of his death. His older sister Louise had an especially difficult time coming to terms with the grim reality.

"They were so close, and it hit them pretty hard, because it was in the last couple of days of the war -- you know, he was going to come home," said Louise's son Bill Hillman. "All the guys were coming home."

Hillman never met the uncle after whom he was named -- Billie went away to war on Jan. 10, 1943 and Hillman was born the next day.

But the now-56-year-old Brandon musician, restaurateur and former teacher was raised in the same house as William Sr., and grew up, as Hillman puts it, "in his memory," surrounded by photos of his late uncle. He and his wife Sue-On still maintain the Campbell homestead in Strathclair.

And it was that very home that, after all these years, provided the clue Sandon residents needed to make contact with descendants of the young Canadian pilot who had perished near their village.

Hillman, an avid Internet user who has created numerous websites, based one of those sites on Strathclair, drawing material from a chapter he had written for a university textbook entitled A Geography of Manitoba.

"They did a search (on the Internet) for Strathclair and this popped up," Hillman said. "There's a reference to the Campbell homesite in this thing, and so they thought, well, hey -- this guy is maybe some connection. And my e-mail address is on there so that's why the letter came."

The e-mail letter was from Don Mitchell in Sandon, inquiring as to whether Hillman would be able to help him "trace any relatives of William Gavin Campbell," since the village's local branch of the British Legion was planning to dedicate a memorial to the crew of Lancaster KB879 on Aug. 28 of this year.

"Very little was known of these chaps who had laid down their lives for us so close to the end of the war," Mitchell wrote. "In our local church there are many memorials to local people lost in wars and conflicts, but none to these chaps who actually died in our midst.

"We have decided that the memorial stone and inscription will be erected close to the crash site, on the roadside of the hedge, so that it can be seen by all who pass."

The cairn will bear a plaque listing the names of Campbell and his crewmates (listed in the local Commonwealth Air Training Plan Museum Memorial Book entitled They Shall Grow Not Old): Thomas Daniel Lawley of Hamilton, Ont., John Henry Kay of Calgary, Stuart Berryman also of Hamilton, John Lester Tweedy of Lougheed, Alta, and Edward James Wright of Winnipeg, along with one unidentified British airman [Walter Graham Ward of Scotland].

While Bill and Sue-On have twice visited William Campbell's gravesite -- he's buried in Chester, not far from Sandon, and the musical duo have performed extensively in England -- Louise has never before seen her brother's final resting place.

But along with her son, Louise (who will turn 81 during her time overseas) has accepted Sandon's invitation to attend the dedication, which will include a memorial flypast of a Lancaster, Spitfire and Hurricane to be viewed from the field where Campbell's Lancaster came down. The Hillmans will be joined by dignitaries, military personnel and relatives of four of the other lost crewmen.

"For my mother, it's going to be tough, and quite an expense, too, on a pension," Hillman said of the upcoming journey to England. "But I thought it was something she had to do.

"This isn't really a joy trip but it's still very, very important."


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