An underwater trek leads to an epic find

Great Island Expedition

By Madigan Cotterill

The Great Island Expedition was a unique endeavour to document the historic shipwrecks, Second World War artifacts and underwater landscapes of Newfoundland’s fiords. For two weeks, a 15-member team of explorers investigated and shared the province’s hidden geography. The team, which included Royal Canadian Geographical Society Explorer-in-Residence Jill Heinerth, overcame frigid temperatures and murky waters to log a remarkable discovery.

The crash

On Sept. 4, 1943, a Second World War-era B-24 Liberator bomber (dubbed “Liberator 589D”) crashed upon takeoff into Gander Lake, taking the lives of all four crew. Search and salvage missions were conducted by military divers in diving helmets but abandoned when the bomber slipped off a steep ledge and disappeared into the depths of the lake.

The crew

Wing Commander J.M. Young, Squadron Leader John Grant MacKenzie, Flying Officer V.E. Bill and Leading Aircraftman G. Ward perished when the engine failed on takeoff and the aircraft plunged into the lake. The body of MacKenzie, from Lucknow, Ont., was the only one originally recovered. He is buried in the Gander cemetery.

The groundwork

The Royal Canadian Air Force had rough coordinates from the original crash report 80 years ago. In July, the Shipwreck Preservation Society of Newfoundland and Labrador found the plane’s exact location using multibeam sonar and made 3D images of the wreck. On Sept. 5, 2022, the Great Island Expedition team made six challenging dives, managing to locate the aircraft in ice-cold, murky conditions. 

The find and its future

The wreck’s identity was confirmed through a series of artifacts, including a small landing light on the wing, a turbo launcher, a turret and ammunition belts. The team passed along sketches, video and images to the Shipwreck Preservation Society, the Department of National Defence and the RCAF. The RCAF will determine what happens next.

Part of the B-24 Liberator bomber. (Photo: Jill Heinerth)
Map shows 2022 dive sites. (Map: Chris Brackley/Canadian Geographic)