Pilot Officer Robert Ernest Nelson

While sorting through some long untouched boxes in the Archives, we discovered a display that had been created to tell the story of Ernie Nelson using photographs donated by and research material compiled by Jane Pilling-Cormick, PhD, in 2005.   The story and photographs were too interesting not to be shared!

Ernie as a young teen in Grande Prairie (photo taken in the Forbes House)

Ernie as a young teen in Grande Prairie (photo taken in the Forbes House)

Robert Ernest (Ernie) Nelson was born on March 4, 1925 in Grande Prairie and had four brothers; two older and two younger. The Nelson family lived in the Forbes House, a provincial historic site in Grande Prairie, from 1936 to 1947. Ernie’s father, Isaac Nelson, co-owned the Nelson & Archibald General Store where Ernie spent some of his summers working. As a child, he attended Montrose Elementary Public School and then went on to attend the Grande Prairie High School.

At the age of 17, Ernie Nelson (R212423) decided to join the Air Force and trained to become a rear gunner. Once overseas, he had advanced training. He was posted to 429 (Canadian) Squadron, stationed at Leeming, Yorkshire.

Ernie at 17 in 1942 when he joined the Air Force

Ernie at 17 in 1942 when he joined the Air Force

Ernie in 1944 on the base in Leeming

Ernie in 1944 on the base in Leeming

Just before leaving on his last operation, on November 20, 1944, Ernie received his promotion to Pilot Officer (J92597). The next day, Halifax #MZ377 left the base in Leeming, England, at 15.46 hours for a raid on Castrop-Rauxel, located in the Ruhr Valley, five miles northwest of Dortmund, Germany. The target was the oil refinery. After climbing to 18,000 feet, they set course, went over London, crossed the channel and French coast. Two minutes from the target, at 19.30 hours, over Langenburg, Germany, they were illuminated by a single searchlight. A night fighter, directly underneath, spotted them and opened fire.

Ernie, the rear gunner, opened fire and the enemy aircraft, a JU-88, burst into flames above and to starboard. They continued on to the target. After releasing the bombs, the pilot gave the order to bail out. Ernie turned in his seat, opened the door, and jumped out. The aircraft went completely out of control. The port wing dropped off at the root. The pilot, hearing no response from the crew, looked into the nose to see an opened parachute. The crew could not get out. At 400 to 500 feet, the aircraft went onto its back.

The pilot was thrown out and landed less than 50 feet from the plane, badly burned. The plane exploded over a house in Langenberg, Germany and landed in the garden. The house is still standing today, in 2005. The bomber burned fiercely upon impact, killing the remaining crew members trapped inside. Ernie broke a bone in his foot when he landed. He became a Prisoner of War (POW no. 1254) at Stalag Luft VII (Bankau) and remained a POW until the end of the war. Ernie returned to Grande Prairie and died in Edmonton on October 15, 2004.

Ernie in 1945 after he came back to Canada

Ernie in 1945 after he came back to Canada