February 19, 1915 - March 23, 1945
Herbert Leece was the son of William and Jessie Leece of Simcoe, Ontario. He had four sisters, with a fifth sister who died in infancy. The family was Anglican.
He had been a farmer/orchard operator for four years, plus did assessment work at Hoyle Gold Mines for two years, returning to Norfolk Fruit Farms until 1941 when, he enlisted. He had one year of high school.
Herbert married Margaret White Hadden on January 10, 1938 in Vittoria, Ontario at a Baptist church. They had three daughters: Brenda Margaret, born in July 1939, Barbara Jean, born in June 1940, and Gwenyth Ann, born in October 1942.
In North Bay, Ontario, he enlisted on July 1, 1941 for the duration of the war. He said he had interest and some experience in mechanics, gasoline engines and woodwork. He began his service as a General Duties Guard, the Special Guard, and then remustered to become a navigator.
He started out at St. Hubert, Quebec, and then was at RCAF Station Rockcliffe, then in Dartmouth.
In August 1942, he was at No. 1 Bombing and Gunnery School, Jarvis, Ontario. On his form, Herbert indicated he had been seasick in 1929, had an appendectomy (1937), tonsillectomy (1941) and herniotomy (1937). He enjoyed sports, hunting and fishing. He smoked one cigarette per day and enjoyed one pint of beer a week. Herbert played the harmonica.
He was at No. 16 Recruiting Depot, RCAF, Debert, Nova Scotia, in October 1942. The previous month, he was being remustered to become a pilot or observer. His marks in his final exams at No. 1 Bombing and Gunnery School, Jarvis, Ontario were 93% in Mathematics, 80% in Science and 85% in English, all considered Honours.
“This man is excellent aircrew material, very alert, cheerful, responsive and stable. A very capable and intelligent airman. Very determined to be aircrew. Has completed pre-entry courses with honours in all subjects. Nice manners and approach.”
From December 7, 1942 to February 19, 1943, he was at No. 3 ITS, Course 68, Mountain View, Ontario. “Keen, conscientious man with good service spirit and motivation. Has ability, is hardworking, and applies himself diligently. Displays initiative and has leadership qualities. Alternative recommendations: air bomber.”
He was sent to No. 6 B&G School from March 8 to April 30, 1943. “Showed steady improvement. His air firing results were average. Dependable and trustworthy. Worked hard on course.” He was passed to No. 8 Air Observers School.
In May 1943, he was at Ancienne Lorette before being sent to Summerside, PEI.
On October 1, 1943, he was awarded an Air Observer’s Badge until his Air Navigator’s Badge was available.
From October 13, 1943 to November 20, 1943, he was at the General Reconnaissance School in Summerside, PEI. “Very keen and industrious student. Worked hard throughout course and results were not as good as expected. Should do well in any type of aircraft.” He was recommended for flying boats or land based general reconnaissance. “A keen student of all-round capabilities. He should prove to be successful in future work.”
From December 13, 1943 to February 10, 1944, Herbert Leece was at N. 3 O. T. U. Patricia Bay, BC. : “A good NCO of above average ability. Weak in coding and signals. Commissionable material.” He was 4th of out 6 in his class, earning an 84% in Ground Training. He was a navigator on a Canso.
In April 1944, he was at Coal Harbour, BC.
From February 12 to March 10, 1945, he took a Personnel Counselor’s Course, No. 11, at Rockcliffe, Ontario. He earned 72%. “This General list officer was successful on the course, standing sixth out of 29 in the class. In spite of his limited civilian background, he has a very high degree of ability. He’s keenly interested in the work and is highly recommended for counseling duties. He was not ranked and suitable for an instructor.”
On March 19, 1945, he was taken on strength at 6 Squadron, RCAF Station, Prince Rupert BC. He was then sent to No. 22 SU and No. 26 Radio Unit March 22, 1945 at Massett, BC, on Langara Island in the Haida Gwaii (formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands). On March 23, 1945, Flying Officer Herbert Leece was a passenger on the RCAF M/V Stuart. While being taken ashore to Langara Island in a dinghy during heavy seas, he, along with F/L Arthur ‘Art’ Newman, drowned.
A Court of Inquiry was struck and many witnesses were called.
The first witness, Flying Officer J. W. Dickie, Officer Commanding No. 22 Staging Unit, RCAF Massett, BC stated that he knew Leece for only one day. "He was introduced to me by F/L Newman. He sat in on the Pay Parade for the Red Cross and he accepted my contribution for the Red Cross and signed his name on the receipt...He was assisting F/L Newman as Personnel Counsellor and was to proceed to Langara in the same capacity. F/L Newman, P/) Leece, Sgt. Collicut, and Cpl. Foldeak were in the party going to Langara on the Marine Vessel ‘Stewart.’ The two officers stayed at the hotel in Massett and were picked up by our truck drive on the morning of March 23, 1945 to be taken to the boat."
The second witness, LAC Turcotte, spare truck driver at Massett, BC stated that P/O Leece interviewed him and gave him a test. “I was talking to him again for some time in the evening. I took F/L Newman and P/O Leece to the hotel on the evening of March 22, 1945 and I also took them down to the boat where they met the skipper of the ‘Stuart.’ The next morning I picked them up at the hotel and took them to the boat. I saw them get on the boat and the boat left.”
The third witness, WOII Walter Wayland Smart, Seaman ‘A’, skipper of the RCAF motor vessel ‘Stuart’ M531. "I had five passengers bound for Langara Island on March 23, 1945, one of them being P/O Leece who was introduced to me by F/L Newman the evening previous. The time of arrival was 1346 hrs. We stood off and considered the landing. Sea conditions at the landing were bad, but it was possible to get the boat out and in if the boat crew watched the big seas, and navigated the entrance on the small seas. As we watched the boat was launched and rode out to the Stuart buy three crewmen. The airmen in charge said he was only making one trip and retake the two officers, film, and mail. It’s has arranged that I would watch the sea and blow the whistle when it was safe to go in. They wrote away from the Stuart (each with a life belt or Mae West on), and stood off the Landing, apparently waiting for the whistle to signal them in. However the tide was sweeping them out of position and it appears they realized this and decided to go in anyway, because they started to pull hard the landing and I have not blown the whistle. A big sea passed under them just at the entrance which hindered their rowing and stopped the boat’s way, and also push them dangerously close to the reef on the leeside. The next big se caught them just at the entrance (the most dangerous spot) and as the boat commenced to rise on it, it broke. When the sea passed, the men were in the washer and the boat overturned. The Stuart was unable to get insufficiently close to be of any assistance as the keel had bumped the bottom on the trip previous, so I ordered the lifeboat launch. The Stuart’s boat was unable to help the men in the water has by that time the men had been washed close to or onto the rocks. The Stuart’s boat was twice nearly overturned by breaking seas in shallow water. The Stewart’s boat picked up one Mae West, four mailbags and two small personal bags. After standing by to be of assistance and to pick up any wreckage, the Stuart left the landing at 1530 hrs. and proceeded to a more sheltered bay 3 miles away to just charge for three remaining passengers and then continued to Henslung Bay, arriving at 1750 hrs. The boat upset at the landing at approximately 1420 hrs. P/O Leece had a Mae West in his hand when the dinghy left the Stuart, although I did not actually see him putting it on. The landing at Langara is always dangerous, because even the smallest swelled makes a surge in the Landing, and to rescue a man from the cold wash, with the surf pounding on the rocky shores is almost impossible before he has been injured, possibly badly. The landing, in the winter months at least, should not be used."
The fourth witness, Sgt. L. C. Roy, Mate on RCAF Motor Vessel Stuart, No. M531 confirmed the skipper’s observations. He added: "There were five passengers on the Stuart bound for Langara Island on March 23, 1945: three airmen and two officers. They were in the rowboat when it left the Stuart to be taken ashore when we arrived at the landing place at Langara. The two officers have something to do with rehabilitation. I saw the officer in the stern putting a life jacket on. I did not pay much attention as to whether the other was wearing one or not. After the rowboat left the Stuart, I was carrying out normal duties on the deck straightening away. Someone shouted that the boat had capsized, and I immediately went to the wheelhouse where the skipper order the ship’s lifeboat put into the water. The whole crew assisted in this operation and another crewmember and myself were sure to try to be of some assistance. By the time we got close to shore, all rowboat passengers and crew but the men on the beach had helped one to shore. One airman shouted that they were all there about one. We picked up a floating Mae West and a moment later a couple of breakers came in almost swamping the lifeboat. The skipper seeing this, recalled us to the Stuart. After arriving alongside the Stuart we went after an picked up for mail bags and two small personal bags floating a few hundred yards from the scene of the tragedy. We then returned to the Stewart. The landing at Langara Island is, in my opinion, a very unsatisfactory place to make a landing. There is nearly always a swell breaking over the rocks at the entrance of the cut and a good part of the time, it is impossible to put a boat in the water owing to the surge of the waves. Going into the cut, the rowboat crew have to wait for a fairly calm spell, and with a fair see running, and they are very easily swept out of position and nearer to the rocks."
The fifth witness, Cpl. R. L. Dunn, chef on the RCAF Motor Vessel ‘Stuart’ M531 stated: "A rowboat with three airman rowing put out from Langara landing and pulled up alongside the Stuart which was drifting off shore at the time. The man in the row boat mentioned that they were only going to make one trip, so the mail, one show and two officers were put aboard. F/L Newman had on a life jacket and P/O Leece had one in his hand, although I did not see him put it on. They put off from the Stuart proceeded towards the landing. The season timer very rough and I saw several large breakers break around the rocks at the entrance to the Landing. The rowboat seem to be very close to the rocks and was swamped by one very large breaker that rolled in at that time. The Stuart was approximately 200 yards offshore but was unable to venture any closer with safety. The Master ordered the ship’s lifeboat to be pushed over the side, but the crew was unable to help the men in the water as they have Paul apparently reached sure. They did however manage to salvage several mailbags and personal luggage."
The sixth witness, LAC H. H. H. Chapman, Seaman on strength of No. 26 Radio Unit, Langara Island, BC stated: "I was in the first boat which went out from Langara Landing to the M/V Stuart. There were two oarsmen in the boat with me. Two passengers from the Stuart got into the rowboat: F/L Newman and an officer, but I had never seen him before. When we started to go to the Stuart, it looked as if we had a good chance of getting back. It still looked good until we got outside the opening to the ‘Gut’ and then a few big breakers hit to us. It didn’t look so good then we got through. When we got the two passengers on board, it looked fairly good again so we started back. When we got near the entrance to the gut, we saw a big wave rolling in. By putting a bowl of the boat into the wave, we can usually ride it if it doesn’t break. We wrote the first unsuccessfully, but another larger one followed it immediately. By that time we knew we had it. This second breaker turned the boat over. It seems it sure would about 100 feet. When the boat capsized, upon coming to the surface, I swam to the overturned boat and pulled myself up onto it. I then had time to look around and saw S/L Newman swimming toward me and the boat. He got quite close but give it up and almost immediately was thrown on a rock. I left the boat and got him off the rock, and Swim to shore with him. Artificial respiration was started immediately by Lt. McDougall. Landing conditions at Langara Island are highly dangerous the better of the time. This is mostly due to climactic conditions as a water around the gut is seldom calm. The fact that our orders for new or repair equipment are not satisfactorily filled out does not add to general safety. Every time a supply book comes here, we break at least one and sometimes two and three orders. We sometimes have to repair them for wanted new and this weakens them considerably. This goes for new boats and motors."
Another witness, LAC F. D. Stacey, General Duties, No. 26 Radio Unit, Langara Island, BC confirmed what Chapman had said, adding, "We managed to pull out of the big wave, which was quickly followed by one much bigger and we had the nose of the boat into the wave but it turned the boat around to its side and upset us. We started swimming for the nearest rocks. Many attempts were made by the men on the rocks throwing lines to us. Cpl Bird was pulled into the shore wants but was washed away from the line by another big wave. I received the line a few minutes later and was drawn into the rocks by LAC Cavassat and LAC Poyntz. I was aided across the rocks by LAC Somerville. I can’t remember too much what happened after we were upset due to the fact of being so exhausted. I could hear someone yelling for help. I didn’t see what happened to the officers. the cooperation of the fellows on shore was excellent."
The seventh witness, Cpl. J. H. Bird, chef at No. 26 Radio Unit, Langara Island, BC said: "The landing conditions on 23 March 1945 were little rough but not unusual...P/O Leece was directly behind me about 15-20 yards and I heard him call for help. I saw some of the efforts made to save the officers. I was directly in line between the rope throwers and P/O Leece. the rope thrown past close enough for me to take hold. The same rope was also within reach of P/O Leece. Does not sure waited until it was quite evident that P/O Leece was not making any effort to take hold of the rope, and then drew me to shore... When reaching shore, I was about 5 feet below the man on the rock and to men maybe grab for me, and away struck us and flung me back into the sea. When I came back up, I could not see one of the men because see the other Man trying to get up on the rocks. He finally succeeded. Then another menstrual line, which brought another fellow to safety and then, he threw it to me and the other man. This affected my rescue. During the winter, they are certainly not safe. This has been an unusually bad winter all along the coast. If chances had not been taken, we should not have been able to operate the unit."
The ninth witness, LAC H. E. Bonner stated similar information, adding "At approximately 1400 hrs. on Friday, March 23, 1945, LAC Poyntz, LAC Miners, and myself stood on a rock near the mouth of the ‘Gut’ as was the custom when unloading the boat. The purpose of this was to throw a rope in case of an accident. When the rowboat was on its way back, it was caught in a series of big waves and overturned, throwing all five occupants out. Immediately, LAC Poyntz through the rope into the midst of the five men. At the same time shouting to the men to grab a hold of rope, Cpl Bird grab the rope and immediately we started to pull him in. When he reached the edge of the rock, I went to give him a hand. Just when I was about to reach out to help him, a wave swept me off the rock. For a while I just try to keep myself afloat and then LAC Byron through an or for me to hold onto. This I put under my chin so that it would help keep my head out of the water. After I had reached the other shore, LAC Heatherington was in the water up to his waist. I did not see the other officer. In my opinion the landing conditions at this unit are very poor and dangerous. In the summer months, when the sea is fairly calm, it is comparatively safe. During the period from October to April or May, it is definitely dangerous and should not be used."
The tenth witness, LAC A. Poyntz confirmed what his fellow airmen saw, adding: "I was at the farthest most point out on the rocks, too close to the edge for safety. I can see the two passengers in the rowboat and I can see that they were officers. In accordance with usual safety precautions, LAC Bonner and proceeded to the further most point of the rock on the south side of the ‘Gut.’ Conditions were no more hazardous than usual. On the return trip, the rowboat was overturned by a large waves spilling the occupants into the sea. When the passenger surfaced, a robust cast directly over Cpl. Bird extending out to the P/O Leece, who failed to see it. At this moment, a large waves swept LAC Bonner and myself into the sea, however I managed to climb out. When I regained my feet, Cpl Bird was washed into the rocks and pulled out by several fellows, including LAC Cassavant and LAC Byron. at this time, LAC Bonner had been washed out quite away. P/O Leece was approximately in the middle of the bay. LAC Chapman was atop the overturned boat nearest too sure of the three. LAC Bonner In compliance for shows and directions from sure, headed towards the opposite shore. P/O Leece was beyond reach of any assistance from shore. LAC Chapman Dove off the overturned boat in effort to assist F/L Newman. P/O Leece disappeared, LAC Bonner, carried by the swells was finally thrown close to shore where LAC Heatherington managed to catch him and pulled him ashore. I threw a rope out to P/O Leece and it appeared that the rope was less than a foot from him. he appeared to be alive because he was yelling for help. ice cream to him but he evidently did not hear me. He made no attempt to grab the real, he seemed oblivious as to anything that was going on. At last he peer to give up in his face fell for in the washer and he stopped struggling. I think everything humanly possible was done to see him, we were just lucky to get any of them out."
The eleventh witness, LAC P. A. Byron, Wireless Mechanic, No. 26 Radio Unit, Langara Island, BC confirmed the information previously reported. He added: "A series of large waves in waterfall formation struck the boat and he eventually overturned the rowboat throwing all passengers into the water... This same wave washed the broken oar near me. I threw this to LAC Bonner who is being carried further from the rocking past the point where he could be reached by a rope. All the men and the water seem to be wearing life belts except LAC Bonner. Two officers were too far out to be reached by ropes and they were slowly being pushed to shore by the waves. No further eight could be rendered from this point.I saw F/L Newman have been hauled to shore. I had seen him just before his head was in the water and he looked as though he was done for. I never saw him afterwards at all. I have been on Langara Island since September 1, 1944. During these months it has appeared to me that about 50% of the landings are made underwater conditions that endanger the welfare of men manning the rowboats, without taking into account the ever present hazards encountered in the wasting of gear and skyline equipment."
The twelfth witness, Sgt. M. A. Somerville, Wireless Mechanic, No. 26 Radio Unit, Langara Island, BC confirmed what his fellow airmen had said. He added: "All men in the boat wore life preservers. The condition of the water was about as usual: fairly quite. Broken at definite intervals by series of large swells. The both weathered to fairly large swells on its way out, but arrived at the Stuart safe and sound. At the Stuart, they took onto passengers and a few male bags and headed back towards the dock. When they were within about 100 yards of the entrance of the ‘Gut’ which forms our harbor, a large swell broke over them drenching the occupants believing about upright in all passengers and oarsmen safe. This wave is followed by another and another the third one turning them over and over and throwing the occupants out into the sea. The wave, which overturned them, also washed them much nearer to shore...I believe both officers wore life preservers...Stretchers, hot water bottles, and blankets percent four at once and Wendy’s arrived, the officers wet clothes were cut off and he was wrapped in a blanket and hot water bottles. In the meantime able to put out from the Stuart but the other officer could not be located. Lieut. McDougall, Cpl. Cote And the man continue to work on the unconscious officer for many hours with no results."
The thirteenth witness, LAC J. R. Hetherington, General Duties, No. 26 Radio Unit, Langara Island, BC stated that he felt the weather was fair and that the sea was not what he would call “real rough, it was ordinary to us.” He confirmed that the oarsmen wore life belts or jackets. He said that one officer had a life belt on, the other he could not way. “I heard that the officers were Personnel Counsellors.” Hetherington said that F/O Leece was yelling and something seemed to buoy him up, but he was not making any effort to swim. He agreed that the landing facilities at Langara Island were not good. “If chances were not taken nearly every time, the boat would seldom be unloaded.”
The fourteenth witness, Cpl. B. Morrison, Fitter Diesel, No. 26 Radio Unit, Langara Island, BC said that three men left the dock with life belts on and the officer they pulled out of the water had one on. He could not see P/O Leece.
The fifteen witness, LAC W. G. Phillips, Radar Operator, No. 26 R. Unit, Langara Island, BC also confirmed that the three oarsmen had life belts on. He also described what he saw on March 23, 1945, calling the event a tragedy. He said that the water was fairly rough, but no rougher than it was often when unloadings took place. “If these unloadings were not attempted, few supplies would be obtained for there are not many days when the water is calm.” He said that seven of the men from the station were in various positions along with rocks with ropes as is the custom on boat days. After the wave overturned the rowboat, the waves continued to move the men further away. “Several of us were almost washed off the ledge in helping Bird and Stacey to safety.” He said that for four and a half hours, people worked to bring F/L Newman back to consciousness, to no avail, adding that there was no other sign of P/O Leece." He spoke of the landing facilities at Langara Island: "The dock should not have been placed where it is. The landing is open to swells at all times and almost any wind will make the approaches rough. On practically every both day, the water has been too rough for safe passage. The various upsets and near drownings bear testimony to that. The type of boat used is very poor when it has to be propelled by oars. Some type of boat with an inboard motor is highly desirable. Outboard motors are not very dependable in rough water such as these. Use on this and other detachments has shown them difficult to keep going. He good dependable motor would probably have saved to life March 23 twenty third ways instead of wallowing in the trough and then being swamped. The cable lift system from the water is a rather fragile fair and should be replaced with a heavier and stronger system. Otherwise someday, it may collapse under the strain of a heavy load. It, however, seems to be the only feasible way to land at that spot. The two-way surge of the waves through the gut make it impossible to hold a boat close to the dock."
The sixteenth witness, Cpl George V. A. Edwards, Carpenter W&B, No. 26 Radio Unit, Langara Island, BC confirmed what the others had said. He said that artificial respiration was started on F/L Newman at 1425 hours and continued for five hours. “The other officer in the water kept going farther out and nobody could do anything for him and when he went down, we saw him only once after that, close by the rock we were on but the water being so rough, it was just risking another life to try and retrieve the body.” He noted that F/L Newman had a “bad gash over the right eye.”The seventeenth witness, Cpl. S. Foldeak, on temporary duty from No. 9 CMU Vancouver, BC said that he was one of the passengers aboard the M/V Stuart as he was going to Langara on temporary duty for telephone maintenance. He knew F/L Newman, meeting him at Terrace and Smithers, BC. “The other officer said that he had been flying and that this was his first trip dealing with personnel counseling. He said that he had 800 hours flying time. He also told me of a trip he made to Cape James or some place like that to get a man who had his hand injured.”
The eighteenth witness, Sgt. J. H. Collicut, on temporary duty from No. 9 CMU Vancouver, BC was another passenger aboard the M/V Stuart. He spoke to both Newman and Leece. “The older officer, I understood, was a personnel counselor and the younger officer, I understood was traveling with him as a kind of assistant. While speaking to him, he mentioned some of his flying experiences.”
The nineteenth witness was Cpl. R. M. Graham, Service Police, posted at No. 26 Radio Unit, Langara Island, BC. He spoke to the two officers a few times during the trip as they were all passengers aboard the M/V Stuart. He said that P/O Leece had a lifebelt, but was unsure as to whether Leece put it or or not.
At approximately 1350 hours, Marine Craft M659 (boat pulling) left the dock at this unit to proceed to
On September 29, 1943, a letter to Western Air Command in Vancouver was sent asking for a plank road to Henslung Bay from Townsite, No. 26 Detachments. (See images.) On December 22, 1943 another letter was sent about the damaged row boat M549. (See images.) A memo was sent from the RCAF Station at Prince Rupert BC about unsatisfactory and dangerous facilities. (see images) Letters dated January 7 and 19, 1944 about Loading and Unloading Facilities was sent. (see images) A letter dated February 21, 1945 about Marine and Landing Equipment was sent.
On April 16, 1945, at the RCAF Station, Prince Rupert, BC, the Court of Inquiry’s Board deemed that the accident was accidental and know blame can be attached to any person or persons. There was no conclusive evidence to be found to prove whether or not P/O Lecce had been wearing a light preserver at the time of the accident. The main contributing factor in his death was the lack of adequate and safe landing facilities. The board noted that if the unit’s personnel did not repeatedly risk their lives and attempting to bring supplies ashore during the winter months, the unit would not operate. They also noted that the personnel attempting to rescue the others in the water displayed heroism and indifferent to their personal safety.
The recommendations: a plank road was to be constructed as soon as possible from the site of No. 26 Radio Unit to Henslung Bay where sheltered and safety landings may be affected even during the winter months. And immediate action was to be undertaken to provide the unit with two boats of the type of the Coast Guard rescue lifeboat which appointed at both ends and equipped with protected and strong in board engines and ballast tanks. It was adjusted that a marine railway be constructed for taking these boats from the water for unloading.
Margaret remarried by November 1949 and became Mrs. Johnson, St. Williams, Ontario and in 1955, she was living in Simcoe, Ontario, when she received the letter telling her that Herbert’s name would appear on the Ottawa Memorial.
Arthur Newman left his wife, Helen, their four sons, and one daughter, in Lacombe, Alberta. His body was returned to Lacombe with his funeral being held on April 3, 1945.