Letters and photos sent home from the frontlines of the Second World War are the only mementos the nieces of Hugh Coles MacMillan have of their uncle.

The letters paint an optimistic MacMillan, writing to his parents that he had received their gifts. He also spoke of how the war was quiet. Elizabeth MacMillan-York and Moraig Grounds never met their uncle.

“It makes me feel connected to him, but more to my grandmother,” MacMillan-York says. “All of a sudden the letters stop and then she gets this in the mail, that he's missing in action.” 

In a telegram, a wing commander wrote that MacMillan “was a gunner in whom both his captain and I had the greatest confidence. Everyone liked him and his place will not easily be filled.”

“His loss is a blow to the squadron, but to you, as I fully realize must be a bitter tragedy.”

The Nobel, Ont. native enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1941. He saw it as an opportunity to escape the dirty and dangerous life of a miner.

“Like most young men his age, it was their way out. At that time, working in the mine was almost a death sentence."

MacMillan ended up posted to England. He was part of a commonwealth crew on a British Stirling Bomber.

The 26-year-old was the rear gunner. He was responsible for defending against enemy air attacks from the tail of the bomber. It was considered one of the most dangerous jobs during the Second World War.

“The rear gunner was a very exposed position and the rear gunner had no protection at all. Any kind of enemy fire he would be very exposed,” says Colin Bamford of Aircrew Remembered, an organization that researches and shares the stories of fallen airmen.

He completed 19 bombing missions with his squadron. Nearly three months before his death, the air force promoted MacMillan to flight sergeant.

On Sept. 5, 1943, his squadron took off from Wratting Common Airfield, north of London. They were part of an overnight bombing mission and their target was Mannheim, Germany.

While on the raid, the Stirling Bomber came under anti-aircraft fire. A German night fighter then shot the damaged bomber down, causing it to crash in a field. All seven crew members died.

“Parts were coming off the aircraft before it was downed by the night fighter," says Bamford. “The wreckage was scattered over a three kilometre area.”

It would take several months before the air force confirmed MacMillan’s death – a death that was a bit of a mystery for his family.

“I always understood that he was run over by a tank towards the end of the war,” says Grounds.

“When I read his flight log I realized it’s not true,” says MacMillan-York.

The search and discovery of MacMillan’s family

More than seven decades after his death, small parts of the bomber were discovered in a farmer’s field by a volunteer research group called, IG Heimatforschung Rheinland-Pfalz.

The group, headed by Erik Wieman, recovers remnants from crash sites and provides the families of airmen killed in action with keepsakes of the wreckage.

Since confirming the site, Wieman has been able to track down relatives of the crew in England and New Zealand. But the search for MacMillan’s family was more challenging.

In November, Wieman reached out to CTV Barrie to help his organization in their search.  We wrote a web story about the appeal, but few leads came in.

We started our own search. We reached out to the Municipality of MacDougall which includes Nobel. This is where his family was living at the time of his death.

We learned that his brother spent time living in St. Catherines and eventually we located MacMillan’s nieces in Toronto.

Wieman’s group is planning to unveil a stone memorial at the crash site during a ceremony in the summer.

"A plaque with the names, mission, a picture of the crew...an explanation in German and in English so this place is not forgotten," Wieman says.

MacMillan-York and Grounds hope to attend. Wieman also plans to give MacMillan's family a small part of the aircraft as a keepsake to remember their uncle's contribution.

“I was thinking of my dad and how happy he would have been that this is happening.”