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Back Roads Bill shows us another piece from a 65-year-old puzzle

This week Bill updates a story about a mid-air crash over Northern Ontario at the height of the cold war

Something went tragically wrong on December 17, 1959, during the height of the Cold War.

A fighter jet collided with a long-range bomber north of Hearst during a training mission.

The Pinetree Line of radar stations stretching across Canada (many Northern Ontario locations, including nearby Pagwa) was fully operational as was the BOMARC guided missile base in North Bay.

During this training mission, the interceptors would have been in pursuit of enemy aircraft.

Capable of carrying nuclear weapons the Convair F-102 Delta Dagger was an American interceptor aircraft built as part of the backbone of the USAF. Its main purpose was to intercept invading Soviet strategic bomber fleets during the Cold War; the F-102 was the USAF's first operational supersonic interceptor and delta-wing fighter. It used an internal weapons bay to carry both guided missiles and rockets.

The Boeing B-47 Stratojet was a long-range, six-engine, turbojet-powered strategic bomber designed to fly at high subsonic speed and at high altitude to avoid enemy interceptor aircraft. The primary mission of the B-47 was as a nuclear bomber capable of striking targets within the then Soviet Union. It had what was termed a “swept wing.” With its engines carried in nacelles underneath the wing, the B-47 represented a major innovation in post-World War II combat jet design and contributed to the development of modern jet airliners.

The collision occurred at 28,000 feet or more than five miles or approximately 10 km above the ground. It was a high altitude to deploy parachutes as the two aircraft plummeted to the floor of the boreal forest.

The two bomber pilots ejected and were found the next day. Two navigators from the bomber died but the fighter jet pilot was never found. The six-day search for Pilot 1st Lt. Gaylord Treu was called off just before Christmas.

In search of the crash site

It was May 22, 2020, when we ventured down the Kabinakagami River, NW of Hearst. The chartered voyageur canoe with a motor included Danny Gratton and daughter Mylène Coulombe-Gratton, from Hearst, Brian Emblin from Timmins and Back Roads Bill. After quite some time this was trek was going to be the culmination of finding the remains of the crash site.

COVID had arrived and the early spring was one of those times to get away safely, we were all in for a long haul with no end in sight. Downstream we go, in the Arctic watershed beyond the height of land. The river runs deep into the vastness of muskeg country.

The site was easy enough to find, the Grattons had been before.

When we got there, we saw tangled parts of aircraft strewn throughout the area of impact which caused its own unnatural depression, 65 years earlier. The 116’/35 m wings of the B-47 remain intact with USAF Insignias.

Writing is an avocation but after being at the crash site I felt an inexplicable connection to the fighter pilot and it remains. I knew this would be one of those unique history stories that takes some time.

While the others wondered off to look for strewn wreckage just about in all directions, I stood on the bomber wing. It was a tranquil, sunny early spring day, still as could be. When the wind blows, we feel it, we sense it. There was no wind that day.

It was more than a breath, but I could feel the warmth pass by my ears. I felt the rush of air encompass me almost like when in the bathroom shower and you first feel the water, a little shock. Distinctive and mesmerizing it was there and gone in what seemed like a few moments of time. Ordinarily I would keep this to myself; I would not reveal that I have been affected although I couldn't say why that is. The feeling I experience while standing on the wing of the bomber I felt something similar to that ghost story in Cobalt.

But, back at the site of the crash 65 years ago, I took some photos and did some more investigation, then it was time to go.

Riding back in the canoe and the long car ride home my thoughts of a story were muddled. The story didn't shape itself easily. So, back home I began some more research – the fighter jet pilot was the only person not found and he had a young son at the time. I asked myself the question and the answer was there in my mind. 'Hmmm,' I thought. 'He should know his father is still out there.'

That trail of thinking became the pursuit and led to the question that remains unanswered. 'What happened to the pilot? Who was he? What did he leave behind? Determination to answer these questions rose in me and a commitment to the dead pilot to so my best followed.

Finding the Family

It took a long time and dogged determined effort to find the pilot's next of kin. It started with a an Iowa memorial obituary for the pilot from the time, “…surviving Lt. Treu are his parents, his wife, the former Marjorie Sutcliffe of Clear Lake; a son Dennis, 2,…) Then another obit, a lifetime later, Clear Lake, Iowa again, a memorial for his wife, Jan. 12, 2015. “When in high school she met the love of her life, Gaylord Beryl Treu…She is survived by her two sons Denny M. (Kathleen) Treu…She will be laid to rest next to her parents, sisters and her beloved Gaylord.”

The initial “M” and the wife’s name became the focus for ancestry search engines. Post crash, Gaylord was never found. A memorial stands over an empty grave next to the grave of the love of his life.

So, I kept looking for the son. How many times did I say, “give up.” No.

Months went by. They were punctuated by dead-end phone calls and data bases drying up.

At last, I tried LinkedIn?

Up came a profile, the head and shoulder shot of Denny Treu. He is unmistakably his father's son and his image strongly resembles the one of his father sitting in his fighter jet. I sat back in my chair with a sharp inhale, “That’s him!” I said out loud. The resemblance is uncanny an inspires more sleuthing.

Denny not Dennis, was listed within the prestigious “Cambridge’ Who’s Who’ - Professional of the Year in medical Instrumentation and technology. He is the holder of more than 50 U.S. patents. Another list of “cold” calls, with the usual, introductory context…finished with “…are you related to USAF Pilot 1st Lt. Gaylord Treu?” I had done this so many times, looking, searching.

This time started the same but then a poignant pause ensued, “He is my dad.”

I feel the shiver today as I did then. Two strangers became connected in that instant.

I asked my questions and got some long-sought answers. I found out that Denny has been searching for more information about the crash his entire life.

“I have been waiting to hear from someone for a long time,” he says.

The Pilot

Jay Strayer, retired, Colonel, USAF, was at the time of the crash a Kincheloe, Michigan AFB neighbour of “Gay” and a part of the rescue mission as a helicopter pilot.

“USAF expects its pilots to maintain clearance of other aircraft, even if under radar control. Unless the investigative team finds a mechanical cause, the accident is invariably the fault of the pilot," he said of the crash. "In this case, the B-47s were flying closer than authorized and the Pagwa radar controller who broke off the intercept unknowingly turned Gaylord and his wingman (our Fighter Group Commander no less) directly into the blinding sun which impaired their ability to see well enough to avoid the collision.

“Our air and the ground search (there was snow but fortunately less than knee deep), turned up some surprising evidence of the event,” said Colonel Strayer. “I had seen Gay don his orange flight suit a time or two and one thing he always did was tie his orange handled jack knife, with its special blade for cutting tangled parachute shroud lines, around his waist using parachute cord under his flight suit. The fighter jet cockpit was never found. Someone during the search found the knife and cord in one place and a piece of orange flight suit in another. Amazing considering the collision occurred at such an altitude.” Denny has that knife; what we know to be a keepsake.”

Although Gaylord Treu was on a training mission he could be MIA or “Missing in Action” in which aircrew members were lost and remain unaccounted for. The U.S. Defense Agency allows for a search of both unaccounted-for and accounted-for individuals. Today, 126 service members remain unaccounted for from the Cold War. Treu is not listed.

The accident report is classified. Bethany Aitchison, Curator, Canadian Forces Museum of Aerospace Defence, 22 Wing/Canadian Forces Base North Bay, with great interest, processed the request and connected stateside to a Defense Safety Center contact and was able to secure the accident report.

“Because my colleague went through an internal request process, Lt. Treu is listed as having ‘fatal’ injuries, so he is not considered missing (despite the fact that he was never recovered, ‘missing’ is a different category.) Like many aircraft accidents, the situation that led to the collision is complex and has multiple factors.”


So three years go by, and I get a Facebook notification from Mylène Coulombe-Gratton. She has a company now. She is a professional outdoors guide and her bio is found here, on Instagram and Facebook.

On May 28, with her father, they located the tail of the bomber, remote enough but visible on Google Earth. They used fabricated snowshoes not for the snow but to traverse the very spongy muskeg; a brilliant idea, the crash site is about 4 km from the other.

She contacted me right away. 

“It was always on our mind to find the other plane to complete the story you originally wrote," she said. "We first thought we were going to look for the fighter jet and we thought that's what we had found.” It is the tail of the bomber though, no question; it has verifiable Boeing parts.

“So it was kind of disappointing when we learned that but now it gives us a new mission to keep looking for the fight jet cockpit.

“This plane crash is one of those rare souvenirs from the Cold War. A piece of history. It is just one piece of history that is found in the middle of the vast boreal forest.” She will take interested visitors on overnight treks down the river.


The boreal is home to countless shades of green and has an austere beauty. It is a never ending scene of black spruce trees, interspersed with bogs, inhospitably and respectively described as: “Should have brought my rubber boots,” and “which way around this?”

The human mind faces its own nature, as you gaze out on the vastness of this green blanket one would like to think you are within the consciousness of the past. USAF Pilot 1st Lt. Gaylord Treu is out there.

Here is the map.

I have talked to those who claim to communicate with spirits or those who have been led by spiritual guides. The answer I get is usually “for that moment you were in, you were the conduit between the son and father.” Son Denny Treu is planning to come north with his family and visit the site and leave a memorial.

For what it matters, I wonder if United States Air Force (USAF) Pilot 1st Lt. Gaylord Treu, MIA, a casualty classification? I do know he is somewhere out there among the boreal black spruce bogs of northern Ontario waiting for his son. Maybe Denny will leave his dad that keepsake knife? He is not missing anymore. He remains missed.

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Bill Steer

About the Author: Bill Steer

Back Roads Bill Steer is an avid outdoorsman and is founder of the Canadian Ecology Centre
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