Yukon Nuggets

1918 Yukon Nuggets

Wop May




August 21, 1918. Eight yellow Sopwith Camels circled high in the cloudless sky, thousands of feet above the carnage on the ground below. Squadron leader Roy Brown was in command of the Allied squadron. The veteran ace from Carleton Place had eleven kills on his formidable fighter pilot's resume. Meanwhile, a rookie pilot in the eight-plane fighter formation had none. After all, it was just Lt Wilfred May's first combat flight.

Suddenly, the temporary tranquillity was broken from above. May heard the shriek of machine-gun fire. Dreaded Fokker's, the pride of the German air force, pelted the Royal Air Squadron. Lt May arced his Sopwith Camel and plunged down toward a blue Fokker, guns blazing. The German pilot slumped in his seat. As the Fokker smashed to the ground, Lt Wilfred May felt both some satisfaction and some remorse. His first kill.

After four years of trench warfare in which millions suffered ghastly wounds and hideous death, the air war was relatively new. Pilots on both sides were learning the art of combat flying on the job. None had learned better than the German ace, Baron Manfred Von Richthofen. He had eighty Allied kills to his credit. His dazzling red Fokker aircraft was the most feared weapon in the German arsenal.

The Red Baron ruled the skies over Europe. He had watched with some amusement as May downed the blue German aircraft. Now Richthofen would turn the tables on May. Down dove May racing the engine of his yellow Sopwith Camel at full throttle. An easy mark mused the Red Baron, as he opened his machine guns on the helpless Canadian. At tree top level they roared. The two aircraft reached blazing speeds. As he dodged the trees, May had every reason to believe the end was near.

Then from behind, Captain Roy Brown swung his biplane toward the red German Fokker. The three aircraft, two Allied and one German danced the airborne dance of death. Trench-based troops watched the unfolding drama in awe. Brown squeezed the trigger. Fiery bullets slammed into the ground near the front lines. May pulled up. Brown waved from his open cockpit.

Wilfred May and Roy Brown had just accomplished the unthinkable. The two Canadian heroes had rid the battle skies of Manfred von Richthofen. The Red Baron would rule the skies over Europe no more. When Lt Wilfred May returned to his Edmonton home at war's end in the fall of 1918, the 22-year-old pilot was a genuine war hero. He had a Distinguished Flying Cross and seven kills in a brief, but vicious, air war to prove it. Now the young man wanted to prove that aircraft and air travel could be used for good as well as evil. A few months after the war, the City of Edmonton was given an aircraft known as a Curtiss Canuck Jenny, a two-seated open-cockpit biplane.

There was no one better equipped to fly the airplane than war hero Wilfred May, who was known in Alberta by his nickname, Wop. He had carried the moniker since he was five years old. His little niece couldn't pronounce Wilfred properly. It always came out "Wop", so the name stuck.

J.J. Clarke, Edmonton's mayor, was a firm believer in the future of air travel. Not many others were. So the city rented the Curtiss Jenny to May for twenty-five dollars a month. He promptly set up a company called May Airplanes Ltd. May barnstormed small towns north to Grande Prairie, carrying reluctant passengers on their first and, for many, last airplane flight. Fear of flying was even more acute in the 20s. The aircrafts were climsy, cold, unreliable and often downright dangerous. What good could these contraptions be?

An answer came on New Year's Day, 1929. Wop May was living in Calgary and had spent a quiet morning with his wife, Violet, when the phone rang. Dr. Bow, Alberta's Deputy Minister of Health, was on the line. The message was simple and stunning. A diphteria epidemic was threatening Little Red River, a tiny native community, sixty miles down the Peace River from Fort Vermilion, that itself was isolated 960 kilometers from Edmonton. Dr. Harold Hamman, the medical doctor in Peace River, had sent an urgent message to the government. Get us diptheria antitoxin quickly or face the most serious medical crisis the Peace Country had ever known. Only an aircraft could do the job in time.

Wop May quickly caught the train for Edmonton, where he met co-pilot and long time friend, Vic Horner. The only aircraft in the entire region equipped for such a long flight in bitterly cold winter conditions was an Avro Avian, a fragile biplane with an open cockpit and a maximum speed of 160 kilometers an hour. At the rough, snow-packed Edmonton air strip, May and Horner shivered in the bitter cold dawn, even though they were both layered with woolen garments and covered in bear skin jackets. Dr. Bow handed May the precious cargo; 600,000 units of diptheria antitoxin. The mercy pilots climbed into the open cockpit seats. The engine sputtered in the -35 degree temperature.

Then as a small crowd watched, the tiny plane bumped down the snow-covered strip and disappeared into the snowy distance.

Pressing hard on the rudder pedal, May swung the nose slowly to line it up with the railway heading north to Peace River. The pair crouched in the cramped cockpit while the vicious wind screamed around them. The precious vials of antitoxin were stuffed under their arms, in their pockets, with barely enough fuel to taxi to a makeshift hut where fuel supplies were kept. By now it was pitch black. An overnight stay to thaw out and sleep was a welcome relief.

The next morning, the men thawed the frozen aircraft with oil heated over an open fire, and continued their mercy flight. At mid-day they landed in Peace River. Both men were so cold they could barely free themselved from the plane to refuel. As they prepared to take off for Fort Vermilon, May thought the improvised runway on the river looked a little short. He was right. As he raced down the icy strip, he saw the metal struts of the railway bridge looming closer and closer. There was no way the plane could clear the span so May flew under the bridge supports. A closer call than his fight with the Red Baron back in 1918, he thought.

The Avro Avian was butted by near gale-force winds that whipped like a banshee through the open cockpits. As daylight began to fade, they spotted a snow-covered building, the Hudson's Bay Company headquarters at Fort Vermilon, beside the marked landing strip. May landed the little aircraft with its precious cargo of antitoxin firmly stowed against his body. Numb with cold and fatigue, May and Horner had to be physically lifted from the aircraft by several Mounties. Dr. Hamman arrived by dog team about an hour later from Little Red River. His news was both bad and good. Albert Logan, a Hudson's Bay employee, had died, but the epidemic failed to materialize.

Still, May and Horner had risked their lives for others. They had taken three days to deliver the precious cargo from Edmonton, a long time by today's standards but, back then, such a feat could not have been accomplished at all during the frigid winter months. The mercy pilots embarked on the frigid flight back to Edmonton including another overnight stop at Peace River.

Unknown to May and Horner, a new radio station, CJCA in Edmonton, had been following the progress of their mercy flight. The news was relayed by ham radio operators, the RCMP and by telegram to the government in Edmonton. Soon, all of Alberta was aware of the drama in the air over the Peace River country.

As the Avro Avian touched down in Edmonton, May was puzzled by the number of vehicles parked along the air strip. It never occurred to him or Horner that during their flight, Albertans were listening and cheering them on. A large crowd ringed the aircraft as the two pilots were lifted, half frozen, from the cockpit.

Though the diphteria antitoxin was not as badly needed as Dr. Hamman had first thought, he decided to err on the side of caution. May and Horner decided it was worth the risk to prove that aircraft could save lives in remote Northern communities. The estimated ten thousand people of Edmonton, who greeted their return, now knew why Wop May had won the military's highest decoration during World War 1. The pilot was, indeed, a hero.

A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin.

Les McLaughlin

Les McLaughlin

As storyteller, radio man, and music producer, Les proved a passionate preserver of Yukon heritage throughout his life — nowhere more evident than as the author and voice of CKRW’s “Yukon Nuggets,” from its inception until his passing in 2011.