Korea War Veteran Remembers Comrades killed at Canoe River

Leslie Mercer pictured at Artillery Park, Petawawa, reading the 2RCHA Memorial Cairn for the 17 Gunners killed at Canoe River. *** Leslie Mercer au parc de l’Artillerie, à Petawawa, lisant les noms inscrits sur le monument du 2 RCHA, lequel rend hommage aux 17 artilleurs qui ont perdu la vie à Canoe River.

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By William Mercer

Mr. Leslie Mercer of St. John’s, Newfoundland, Korea War Veteran and 65 year member of the Royal Canadian Legion, recently travelled to Garrison Petawawa, Ontario, home of the 2nd Regiment Royal Canadian Horse Artillery, to attend an emotional 69th anniversary commemoration ceremony for the Canoe River train wreck.  On 21 November 1950, 17 Gunners were killed when their troop train collided with a CN passenger train at Canoe River, British Columbia.  Mr. Mercer was on that train, part of the Canadian Army Special Force raised for the war in Korea. Following basic artillery training at Camp Shilo, the newly formed 2RCHA were westbound to Fort Lewis Washington and the Yakima mountains to further hone their artillery skills before embarking for Korea.

Leslie T. Mercer, 92, was a young Bombardier in 1950 and remembers well that cold winter morning in the interior mountains of British Columbia. The accident killed four railway men and 17 of his comrades, including his best friend Gunner Leslie Snow, of St. John’s. Five other soldiers also from Newfoundland were among the fatalities. The westbound troop train was constructed of wooden cars with steel undercarriages and was no match for the eastbound all-steel new CN Passenger Continental train.  The head-on collision occurred south of Valemount east of a small station named Canoe River on the only stretch of the CNR mainline in the mountains not protected by automatic block signals. It was determined that the railway signal order given to the troop train was not as intended and lacked key information. The leading cars of each train were derailed while those which had been part of the troop train were demolished. The locomotive of the troop train was lifted up and over its tender to come down atop the second car, crushing it. The effect on the other wooden passenger coaches was equally catastrophic. Some cars imploded, some were upended and pitched from the tracks with a scream of grinding metal and wood and glass and scalding hot steam that seared then froze in the -18 C temperature that morning.  Leslie was in the fourth car and was knocked out by the sleeper bunk above him which crashed on his head.  When he came to he looked out the window and looking up above saw a jack-knifed car, the wheel still spinning.  He got out and went to search for his friend Leslie Snow who was in one of the first three cars. He later found him covered under a blanket in a train carriage that had been turned into a make-shift morgue.  The surviving soldiers were helpless to do much with only their bare hands to assist the trapped and injured in the wreckage of splintered wood, glass, steam and steel.  Dr. P.S. Kimmett, who happened to be on the passenger train, administered first aid as best he could to the injured. Sadly the remains of four gunners were never recovered from the wreckage. After three cold hours, a relief train arrived with medical personnel from Jasper and evacuated 61 wounded back to a hospital in Edmonton. The remainder of the soldiers reconstituted at Camp Wainwright, Alberta, before carrying on their journey west again the following week.

Mr. Mercer was invited to attend this year’s commemoration at Petawawa by 2RCHA Commanding Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Dan Matheson, after it was learned that Leslie was a survivor of the Canoe River tragedy.  During the ceremony LCol Matheson remarked what an honour it was to welcome Mr. Mercer back to his Regiment and for the soldiers to hear his experiences. LCol Matheson in his address: “2nd Regiment Royal Canadian Horse Artillery was born that fateful day in the mountains of British Columbia where through adversity and tragedy this regiment came together. The survivors, veterans of WWII and men not yet tested in combat, showed their mettle and surged into the fray to save those they could whilst under the perilous danger of scalding steam, fire and boiler explosions. They pulled over 61 injured comrades from the wreckage….It is my experience that bonds are formed in these moments of shared grief, fear, compassion, anguish and hardship.  That day men simply thought they boarded a train bound for Fort Lewis and then on to Korea but in fact that day they boarded a train and arrived as a regiment. And it lives on, gaining strength with each passing generation.”

At 1030 on the morning of 21 November 2019, approximately the same time the crash occurred in 1950, 2RCHA was formed up on parade, Last Post and a solemn service of remembrance was conducted. Wreaths were placed by the 2nd Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group, 2RCHA, the 2RCHA Association and on behalf of Korean Veterans. Mr. Mercer placed a wreath on behalf of Canoe River survivors. In his address to the parade Leslie reflected on his personal experience of the crash and its aftermath. He was honored with the presentation of a quilt from the Quilts of Valour – Canada Society, volunteer quilters dedicated to ensure that injured Canadian Forces members are recognized for their service and commitment to our country. Other honours were the presentation of Bombardier (Ret’d) Mercer’s Veterans Service Card and the culmination, when he was asked to take the firing seat and pull the lanyard for the second round fire of the gun salute from a vintage 25 Pounder artillery piece, the same gun-type he operated during the Korean War.

After the ceremonies Mr. Mercer was brought to Artillery Park on the Garrison where a cairn erected by 2RCHA memorializes those killed at Canoe River. Also at Artillery Park is the salvaged smokestack top from the troop train that 2RCHA subsequently obtained and mounted onto a rock as a tribute to the fallen.  May they rest in eternal peace.

Gunner Arden Joseph Atchison, 24, of Loon Lake, Saskatchewan;

Gunner Weldon Eugene Barkhouse, 20, of Wolfville Nova Scotia;

Gunner Norman William Carroll, 20, of Pennant, Saskatchewan;

Gunner Frederick William Conway, 25, of Grand Falls, Newfoundland;

Gunner Robert Arthur Craig, 22, of Foam Lake, Saskatchewan;

Gunner Austin Emery George, 30, of Canso, Nova Scotia;

Gunner Urbain Joseph Levesque, 30, of Ottawa, Ontario;

Gunner Robert William Manley, 19, of Niagara Falls, Ontario;

Gunner Basil Patrick McKeown, 19, of Moscow, Ontario;

Gunner Albert William Orr, 30, of Calgary, Alberta;

Gunner David Owens, 19, of Granby, Quebec – who died December 9, 1950;

Gunner Leslie Albert Snow, 25, of St. John’s, Newfoundland;

Gunner Albert George Stroud, 22, of Howley, Newfoundland;

Gunner Joseph Thistle, 31, of Conception Bay, Newfoundland;

Bombardier James Milo Wenkert, 22, of Cowansville, Quebec;

Gunner James Joseph White, 23, of Placentia Bay, Newfoundland;

Gunner William David Wright, 20, of Neepawa, Manitoba.

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