Instead of a mammoth reception in New York City, The Bremen, the first plane to cross the Atlantic from east to west crash landed right beside the Greenly Island Lighthouse at 2.08 PM on April 13, 1928. For a short time this remote strip of Canada near the small fishing village of Blanc Sablon, off Quebec’s most northerly shore became the epi centre of international news.
The Bremen, a Junker 33, took off at dawn on April 12 from Baldonnell, Ireland for New York City. On board were three experienced crewmembers, the backer of the expedition, the frail, aristocratic German, Baron Gunther von Hunefeld, his fellow countryman, the pilot Captain Herman Koehl, and the Irish co-pilot the charismatic Major James Fitzmaurice.
The Baron recorded in his logbook that the first twenty hours were uneventful. Then the weather deteriorated and he noted “a cold, intense fog and sleet wrapped around us like a clinging hand of fate.” Their compass failed; drifting off course they veered north to Labrador where the snowy Torngat Mountains were their first sight of land. Heading south and with only two hours of fuel remaining, the sky cleared and they spotted a lighthouse, a pack of dogs, four people and a place to land. Captain Koehl made an instant decision and directed The Bremen to Greenly Island.
Early in the afternoon of April 13, exactly thirty-six and one half hours after the pilot’s had taken off from Ireland, eleven year old Antoine, the light keeper’s son shouted, “There is a giant fish in the sky”. His family rushed outside to watch an aircraft land on their lagoon, break the ice, plunge nose down and settle in about six feet of water. The pilot and co-pilot stepped from the cockpit, unharmed. The unlucky Baron landed up to his boot tops in the frigid water. Madame Caroline Letemplier, the light keeper’s wife rescued him with moccasins and a warm place beside the fire in the light keeper’s house.
The pilots, with the help of the light keeper Johnny Letemplier and his assistant Albert Letemplier, attempted to pull down the tail of the aircraft into a level position with ropes. Soon curious people from the mainland, all anxious to lend a hand, arrived by dogsled. Language became a problem, with the German Koehl directing operation and the Irishman Fitzmaurice interpreting his commands to a mainly French Canadian workforce. Mass confusion resulted. Although The Bremen was, only slightly damaged on landing, the willing but unskilled hands pulled it badly out of shape.
When the aircraft was finally secured and the gas tank emptied, the exhausted aviators accepted Madame Letmeplier’s invitation for tea in the light keeper’s house. Fitzmaurice wrote in his memoirs “It would be impossible to describe how wonderful this meal of potatoes mixed with coned beef tasted.”
For thirteen days the international aviators were world news and part of the daily life of the light keeper his wife and their six children. To avoid the crowded conditions in their small house Fitzmaurice and Koehl soon moved into Blanc Sablon. The Baron, already suffering from cancer, developed a high temperature, and nearly died. Madame Letemplier nursed him back to health and he passed the time writing reflections and poetry in his journal. In one entry he comments on Madame Letemplier’s French Canadian hospitality and in another he sets a scene,
In the small hut of quiet rustic folk
In the snow blown wastelands, lonely and immense.
While the Baron was recuperating, Koehl made daily visits by dogsled to the island from Blanc Sablon to supervise the work on the Bremen. Fitzmaurice, the only English speaking member of the crew made a flying visit to Malabie on Quebec’s north shore. There, newsmen from Canada and the United States had converged, vying for information or a way to get to Greenly Island. Meanwhile technicians came from Germany to restore the Bremen to flying condition so the aviators could complete their flight to New York. It was not to happen and the aviators had to leave by another aircraft.
On their final evening in the north, the lighthouse family and the aviators held a farewell dinner. The following day the three flyers flew off for whirl of receptions in the United States.
A few weeks later, Desmond Clarke of Clarke Steamship Lines, hired Johnny Letemplier to build a granite cairn on the exact place where The Bremen had touched down. Attached to the cairn is a brass plaque with the date, April 13, 1928 and the names of the flyers. For the cairn’s dedication ceremony on August 14, 1928 neighbors and friends from up and down the north shore came to the lonely lighthouse to hear the story once again. Then Greenly Island disappeared forever from the world news.
The lighthouse and the adjoining light keeper’s house were destroyed by fire in 1947. A new metal tower replaced the lighthouse and a new light keeper’s house was built close to the tower. The metal tower still sends out signals, but the light keeper’s house is unoccupied and the island remains deserted, a mecca for birders and naturalists.
This story appeared in the
April 2007 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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