It was hard to know who were the most surprised – the adults and children who had hurried to Doughmakeon that September morning as the news spread, or the four dazed crewmen who emerged from the giant plane into the light of a Louisburgh day.
The happenings of the second World War were being reported, in spite of severe censorship, on a daily basis – but the landing of the Canadian Air Force bomber on the field by the sea was west Mayo’s first real brush with the conflict.
The Lockheed bomber had left Gander, Newfoundland, in late afternoon, en route to Prestwick in Scotland, there to join the Allied war effort. It was to be a nine-hour flight across the Atlantic, given favourable winds. The fuel tanks were full, with an emergency 500 gallons in reserve, more than enough to complete the journey.
But now, ten hours later, and with the fuel gauges reading empty, the four-man crew was not so sure. They had flown in continuous cloud since leaving Canada, they should be over Scotland, but their instrumentation was not giving the assurance they desperately needed. The pilot, Meyrick Powell, had to make the decision to descend through the clouds while he still had control of the aircraft, and while there was some hope of securing a landing.
As they broke through the cover, the vista of sea, mountain (dangerously close mountain) and small patchwork fields bounded by stone walls, met their gaze. Now it was a matter of choosing between ditching into the sea, close enough to the shore to be able to clamber to safety but at the loss of the Lockheed, or coaxing the aircraft on to the one grassy clearance next to the ocean.
And so with youthful dexterity, the pilot glided his bomber out of the skies, low over the small white cottages, and to a shuddering stop between two piles of stones, specifically placed there as a hindrance to wartime aircraft. Still unsure of their whereabouts, the crew clambered out to be met by an old man and a boy with a donkey.
“Where are we?” they asked.
“You’re in Pat Joe McHale’s duach,” came the answer.
Because of the Irish policy of neutrality, there had been detailed precautions taken to ensure that no combatants, of either side, would find shelter within our borders. Road signs had been blacked out; open spaces ‘spiked’ to prevent landings of aircraft, the word ‘ÉIRE’ spelled out on coastal hillsides to alert any wayward pilot that he was off course.
And above all, there was censorship of any military activity, so much so that the Doughmakeon incident went unreported until half a century later, and then thanks to the resaerch of late Westport historian Gerry Bracken.
The Canadian airmen were taken into custody by the Gardaí at Louisburgh barracks, and were shortly afterwards quietly released into British hands into northern Ireland. Four weeks later, the Lockheed was dismantled in the field at Doughmakeon and towed away to Belfast.
There it was reassembled and made airworthy again, flying several missions until it was put out of service in 1945.
Fifty-plus years later, in 1996, and thanks again to the efforts of Gerry Bracken, the navigator on that famous flight, Gil Drake, returned with his wife to Doughmakeon to visit again the location where his plane had found safety.
There, he met the members of the Lyons family and other locals who had bade him and his colleagues welcome all those years ago. And it was only then that the full story of the Lockheed adventure came to light.