When Art Lagendyk went up to the attic of his Agassiz home, the last thing he expected to come across was a historic treasure trove.
Lagendyk and his wife, Clara, bought a local home that used to belong to District of Kent Mayor Sylvia Pranger and her late husband, John. While working in the attic, Lagendyk came across an unassuming, covered wooden box filled with medals, official documents and newspaper clippings. Art contacted Sylvia about the box, and she left the box to the Lagendyks’ care.
Earlier this year, Art Lagendyk gave the box to his friend, Theo Gantzert, who documented Calhoun’s life, submitted documents and photos to The Observer, began a search for next of kin and contacted the Bomber Command Museum of Canada in Nanton, Alberta about the box.
These items belonged to Flight Lieutenant Maxwell Boyd Calhoun of St. Lambert, Quebec, a bomb aimer and pathfinder aboard Avro Lancaster PB239 heavy bomber that was shot down in 1944.
‘Doing a grand job’
Calhoun was born to Eliza and T. Orley Calhoun in 1923 in St. Lambert, he and his twin brother the youngest of seven children (three brothers, three sisters). He graduated from St. Lambert High School and went to McGill University’s school of commerce for accounting and mathematics. At age 18, he enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force. He graduated from the No. 9 Air Observers’ School in St. Johns, Quebec with the highest marks in his class before he was sent to England.
During training he was described as having an “Intelligent and pleasant personality, excellent spirit; good worker. Thorough and reliable.”
Pathfinders had a particularly dangerous job during World War II, flying ahead of the bombers to map out the way. Simply put, a pathfinder crew maps out bombing routes, marking targets to ensure accuracy of the bombers that followed.
Karl Kjarsgaard, curator for the Bomber Command Museum, said bomber crews flew a total of 30 missions, but only 25 per cent would complete the full 30 missions. Of the remaining 75 per cent, half were outright killed, 12 per cent died during training and the other 13 per cent became prisoners of war.
Calhoun not only finished 30 missions, he went on to complete 25 more before his plane was shot down.
Calhoun flew first with the 427 Lion Squadron, but spent most of his time with the 405 Pathfinder Squadron aboard a Lancaster. Calhoun was moved to the 405 after demonstrating excellence during the first 10 missions of his career, according to Kjarsgaard.
405 Squadron was formed in 1941, completing its first bombing operation on a railway yard in Germany in April of that year. The 405 participated in the 1,000-bomber raid to Cologne in 1942, briefly assisted in North Africa before joining the No. 8 Pathfinder Force to complete their operations in Europe.
Kjarsgaard said while every story the museum has handled and preserved is as unique as each individual airman, Calhoun stands out for his status as pathfinder alone.
“This was not a regular job that he did,” Kjarsgaard said. “You don’t get to be pathfinders if you’re just an average crew, and you don’t get a Distinguished Flying Cross just for showing up. That’s for excellence in combat.”
Missing in Action
Calhoun was reported missing on Aug. 17, 1944, roughly 10 days shy of his 21st birthday. The crew was on its way to a bombing mission to Stettin, Poland, according to a clipping of the Montreal Daily Star. Kjarsgaard said Calhoun’s plane was most likely shot down by a Luftwaffe night fighter about 20 kilometres off the coast of Germany. When Calhoun was reported missing, there was an outpouring of support, sorrow and a sliver of improbable hope that he somehow made it.
“Your son was very popular with this squadron and was an excellent bomb aimer,” reads a 1944 letter from 405 Wing Commander R.J. Lane to the Calhoun family. “he is greatly missed by his comrades, and his loss is regretted by all.”
“I knew Max very well and find it most difficult to express my feelings at this time,” 405 Squadron’s padre J.W.T. Van Gorde wrote to the family. “but I do want to sat that I personally shall miss him as a friend, as will a great many of the Squadron, with whom he was very popular. He was most capable at his work and flew with an excellent crew, who were all doing a grand job of which you may be justly proud.”
Calhoun’s twin brother, Reginald, wrote a consoling note to the family; he wanted to come home to be with them when he heard the news.
“Dear Mother and Dad, received your telegram to day concerning my twin,” read the telegram from Guelph. “With faith believe him to be alive and safe.”
He never made it home
Calhoun’s plane crashed into the North Sea near the German-Danish border, and it was later determined that there were no survivors. The bodies of four of Calhoun’s crewmates were later found on the islands of Sylt and Romo; two were buried in Germany and the other two in Denmark. However, Calhoun’s body, along with two of his fellow crew members, was never found, likely entombed inside the plane at the bottom of the North Sea.
Calhoun is commemorated at Runnymede Memorial in England.
Calhoun’s parents were presented with the prestigious Distinguished Flying Cross two years later. Papers in Calhoun’s box indicate T.O. Calhoun, Maxwell’s father, would receive the medal from the Governor General, Vicsount Harold Alexander. There have been roughly 4,400 Distinguished Flying Crosses awarded during World War II; nearly 250,000 men and women enlisted in the RCAF from 1939 to 1945.
The family also received the Operational Wings and Certificate from Wing Commander W.A. Dicks and a letter from Buckingham Palace.
“The Queen and I offer you our heartfelt sympathy in your great sorrow,” read a brief letter from King George VI. “We pray that your country’s gratitude for a life so nobly given in its service may bring you some measure of consolation.”
The rightful owner
The Lagendyks had little success when seeking an owner for this box of priceless military history. In fact, it wasn’t entirely clear how the box made its way from Quebec to the west coast in the first place. Kjarsgaard speculates it came to Agassiz by way of Surrey through Calhoun’s twin brother. Reginald, who went by “Rex,” became an art teacher in Surrey when he retired and moved to the area, managing the Ranger Station Art Gallery on Rockwell Drive. Rex and John Pranger became good friends, and the box was apparently entrusted to the Prangers for safekeeping.
Rex passed away in 2012, survived by three sons, Thomas (who goes by Tan), John and Andrew.
“We connected with Thomas (Tan) who at this time lives in Fraser Lake,” Gantzert said. “After a phone conversation, we learned that Tan’s brother Andrew lives in B.C. as well. We started to exchange some emails and after a short while I promised to scan some of the documents and pictures and also take pictures of the medals etc. It turned out to be about 100-plus scans.”
With permission from the family, Gantzert took the box to Nanton.
“The Bomber Museum is an amazing place and well worth a visit to get more insight of what was going on before, during and after those bombing missions,” Gantzert commented.
An unlikely journey
In addition to being memorialized at Runnymede, Calhoun’s name has been recorded in the Book of Remembrance at Ely Cathedral in the U.K.
In 1950, nearly six years to the day after Calhoun’s death, the Canadian Board on Geographical Names approved naming a lake after Calhoun in recognition of his services. The lake is located near Kazan River in the Northwest Territories.
Gantzert, carrying Maxwell’s box, made it to the Bomber Command Museum in Nanton, meeting Kjarsgaard. The two men posed for a pictured together and pointed to Maxwell’s name, immortalized on the museum’s memorial wall, along with 10,000 of his fellow airmen.
Looking back, Kjarsgaard was amazed the box completed its journey to the museum.
“This could’ve been thrown out when the new owners came in,” he said.
Instead, the box was and is in the careful hands of history’s protectors. The picture taken that day in Nanton could be considered by some a fitting bookend to the unlikely journey and impressive legacy of Maxwell Calhoun, a life so nobly given.