Young life ends in death spiral

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As a child, Lorne Cleary was discouraged from rummaging through an old trunk belonging to his late uncle.

The trunk was off limits but its contents –  a pilot’s uniform, a viewmaster and other personal belongings – were irresistible to the children of the family.

They were the possessions of Ernest Cleary, killed on Dec. 18, 1917 at the age of 22 while training for First World War combat, returned to his parents after his death.

“His plane fell out of the sky in what they call a death spiral,” said Lorne, who grew up hearing stories about his uncle.

A chocolates box containing old letters to and from Ernest tell his story. At first he writes from Canada before taking a ship overseas. He then stays in a hotel in London before heading to camp.

The young man from Dunedin began his career at Toronto Dominion Bank in Creemore, where he was branch manager, before transferring to a branch in Toronto.

He was the eldest of four siblings: Agnes, Minnie and Gordon, Lorne’s father.

It was in the early days of his profession as a banker that Ernest enlisted with the infantry.

In 1916, he was promoted to lieutenant with the infantry of the 164th battalion. He joined the Royal Canadian Air Force in July of 1917, training in Trenton and Camp Borden.

During the first training flight out of Borden, Ernest was piloting the plane that made a landing in Creemore. The flight training is depicted in the mural at the corner of Mill Street and Caroline Street West.

While training to go to France, Ernest was learning to fly a new high-powered “machine”.

Ernest’s roommate wrote to the family telling them that it was on his first solo flight that “Ernest accidentally choked the engine while still very near to the ground and in endeavouring to recover it, and at the same time to turn back into the aerodrome, he lost flying speed and the machine fell into a spinning nose drive – a move out of which it is impossible to get an aeroplane without considerable height, especially a fast service machine.”

“I have helped to take an inventory of all of his belongings, and I have packed them away in his trunk and suit case,” writes MR James, a fellow Canadian.

James writes again to Ernest’s mother describing the burial at Stoke-on-Tern St. Peter Church Cemetery near Markey Drayton, Shropshire, England on Dec. 21, 1917.

“There was an escort of one flight from our squadron, about 30 men, also the firing party of 30 men, the bugles (10 in number), besides the officers and NCOs in charge. Then we had a gun carriage to carry his oaken casket draped with the Union Jack, and the carriage drawn by four fine black horses,” recounts James.

“His remains were laid to rest in a pretty little cemetery adjoining the church, beside four other flying corps officers who had been called from their duty in a similar manner.”

Ernest’s family back home in Dunedin were happy to get some news of their son’s death and funeral.

“Words could not explain to you the burden that it lifted from my heart to get the full particulars of his death,” writes Mrs. Cleary. “For we have been anxiously waiting day by day for word from some of the officers or from someone and I often thought we might never know what happened to him.”

She asks James if her son was instantly killed or if he regained consciousness and what was the condition of the body?

James assures her by letter that Ernest was killed instantly and suffered no pain.

“An accident like this is all over in a fraction of a second and the pilot never knows what happens,” writes James. “As regards to the body, I did not see it personally – not feeling capable of the ordeal and besides, my CO asked me not to go over to the crash since accidents like this have a very trying strain on one’s nerves. However, he told me that the body was not badly mutilated. Our ambulance was on the scene within five minutes form the moment of the crash and Ernest was then quite dead. I went within a hundred yards of it but seeing the body being lifted out from the machine, I could go no farther. Major Cooper met me then and said that he was quite dead. The shock of his head on the dash of the machine is a nose dive would be sufficient to cause instant death.”

A friend, WB Yuille, writes to Ernest’s mother, “He was admired and like by all those with whom he came in contact. His ever ready smile and desire to help anyone that was sort of up against it, made his very popular, not only with the members of the officers’ mess but with the men as well.”

“He was also a fine pilot and had he had a chance would have brought honour and distinction to his mother,” writes Yuille. “He is now resting in peace and has been spared the painful contact with war, and will not encounter its sad tragedies and horrors.”

Lorne was told that the pilot’s uniform was donated to the Simcoe County Museum but he has lost track of the trunk and the other belongings.

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