It was accompanied by five destroyer escorts,
the Aircraft Carrier Bonaventure.
In total, those ships accounted for a gigantic amount of naval
tonnage, manned in total by several thousand sailors and
air force pilots. It was there to support the rescue,
which it did superbly. Thanks to the Canadian Navy!
Virtually none of the survivors had a chance to see this key player in the rescue of Flying Tiger 923, and many had no idea that it was there at all. The nearly invisible, but vital, player was the Canadian Aircraft Carrier Bonaventure.
The Bonaventure intercepted the SOS from the crippled aircraft, however it was several hours behind the Swiss Freighter Celerina. None-the-less, the “Bonnie” changed course and headed to the crash scene.
At the time of intercepting the SOS, the Bonaventure was steaming east toward Rotterdam with five destroyer escourts: the Crescent, Athabaskar, Cayuga, Mirmac and Nootka. The carrier, with escort Athabaskin, immediately altered course toward the scene of the disaster. Aircraft from the Bonnie were over the search area shortly after dawn on Sept. 24 and the two Canadian warships (the Bonaventure and Athabaskin) reached the scene about noon on that same day.
Other ships, which had been closer to the scene were searching in vain hope of recovering survivors. About 10 ships in total were participating in the search, including a number of weather ships.
An immediate requirement for survivors, upon reaching the Swiss rescue ship Celerina, was for medical attention for survivors. Fortunately for the survivors, a medical doctor was one of the survivors himself, Air Force Capt Juan Figueroa-Longo, who immediately began administering medical attention even though he had lost his eyeglasses in the crash and had only the few medical supplies he could find on the Celerina.
The Bonnie delivered much needed supplies and a Canadian medical team flown via helicopter from the carrier to the Celerina. It was found that the injuries of four survivors were such that they needed immediate hospital attention.
Those flown that day from the Celerina included: Flying Tiger 923 Captain John Murray; Army Major C.R.Elander and his wife, Lola, suffering with a broken back, and Army Lieut. Col. George Dent. In addition, three bodies of those who died on the raft with the 48 survivors were transferred to the Bonaventure.
The Bonnie remained on the scene with two weather ships, one of which, the Juliett, had nine bodies aboard, in addition to the three from the rescue ship. The Celerina proceeded on her voyage to Antwerp with the remaining 44 survivors.
The disaster area was lashed by strong winds and high seas all day on the day of the transfers. In all, that stormy afternoon, the Bonaventure’s rescue helicopters made 13 trips to the Celerina under difficult conditions. From time-to-time, rain showers reduced visibility and sea swells ranged from 10 to 12 feet. The Bonaventure proceeded toward land and transferred four injured survivors, including the aircraft captain, and 12 bodies recovered up to that point to Shannon Airport, where they were greeted by the appropriate medical and mortuary teams.
Once the Swiss Rescue Ship Celerina reached the Irish coast near Cork, two yellow British Royal Ambulance Helicopters were used in transferring passengers the 28 miles to the Cork Airport, and then on to Mercy Hospital.
In all, the rescue during the first two days involved many ships, aircraft and helicopters. For all practical purposes, the rescue operation was truly an international effort, with all players providing a minimum of 110% effort.
[Editorial note: Relatively few of the survivors were aware that Canada had a naval fleet, much less an aircraft carrier. It was our good luck that Canada did and was available for assistance.]
HMCS Bonaventure was designated as a “Majestic class” light class aircraft carrier. She served in the Royal Canadian Navy and Canadian Forces Maritime Command from 1957 to 1970 and was the third and the last aircraft carrier to serve Canada. The ship was laid down for the British Royal Navy as HMS Powerful in November 1943. At the end of World War II, all work on the ship was suspended in 1946. At the time of purchase of the uncompleted ship from the British by the Canadians, it was decided to incorporate new aircraft carrier technologies into the design. Bonaventure—named after Bonaventure Island, a bird sanctuary in the Gulf of St. Lawrence—was commissioned into the Canadian Navy upon completion of its refit and modernization on 17 January 1957.The Bonaventure never saw action during her career, having only peripheral, non-combat roles. However, she was involved in a major NATO fleet-at-sea patrol during the Cuban Missile Crisis shortly after its role in Flight 923 rescue operations.
The involvement of the Bonaventure and its facilities around Flying Tiger 923 was the period from September 23 to approximately September 27.
In 1966 the carrier docked in Quebec for a mid-life refit. This second refit took 18 months and cost $11 million. After the 1968 unification of the Canadian armed services, the Bonaventure was decommissioned in Halifax, on 3 July 1970, and was scrapped in Taiwan in 1971. Components from Bonaventure’s steam catapult were used to rebuild the catapult aboard Australian aircraft carrier HMAS Melborne.
Here are a few Bonaventure statistics: displacement: 16,000 ton, 19,920 ton with full load; Dimensions: length,19202 meters (629.9 feet); width, 24.38 meters (79.9 feet); crew, 1,200, nickname: “The Bonnie”. The flight decks were not built for new jet aircraft and many refused to try to land on it, which is part of the reason the ship was rebuilt in 1968 and scrapped in 1971. However, it provided an heroic service to the survivors of Flying Tiger 923.