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Canada is full of legendary tales that centre on epic quests towards a goal. We have the The Hunt For The Mad Trapper, The March West, the building of the railroad and, of course, the Race Against Death.
It all begins in December of 1928 when Bert Logan of the Hudson’s Bay Company was posted at Little Red River, Alberta after spending time in Fort Simpson, Northwest Territories. While unpacking after his arrival following a holiday in Quebec, he suddenly became very ill. His wife, who was a nurse, quickly realized that he was dealing with diphtheria, which kills roughly five to ten per cent of the people it infects.
Upon the realization he had this contagious disease, an urgent effort was started to get inoculations to the town before anyone else was infected.
This was long before the days of e-mail, and there were no telephones or roads in the community. The nearest telegraph station was many miles away over the frozen landscape.
Bert’s wife asked William Gray and his son Bob to go up the river to Fort Vermilion to get Dr. Harold Hamman. This was a distance of about 120 kilometres for the two men to travel. They immediately set off after testing the ice to make sure it could hold the weight of themselves, the dogs and supplies.
After reaching Fort Vermilion, the doctor travelled back with them and confirmed that indeed, Bert had diphtheria. Since Bert had been dealing with the sickness for seven days by this point, and had a very difficult time breathing, the doctor knew that little could be done. He also knew the importance of getting inoculations to the community immediately to prevent others from getting sick.
Dr. Hamman then told William and Bob to get back to Fort Vermilion and request that Gus Clark take a message to the Peace River telegraph office. That was a distance of about 350 kilometres. Upon receiving this message, Gus chose Joe Lafleur and William Lambert to make the journey as they were experienced river men. Those two men left Peace River by dog sled on Dec. 18. They brought with them supplies of bannock, potatoes, bacon, tea, sugar, coffee and beef. They also had wild duck feather robes and bear hides to stay warm as they would be sleeping on the ground at night in the dead of winter. They also had a long fur parka for additional warmth.
Unfortunately, Joe Lafleur fell through the ice upriver and the two men had to come back to Fort Vermilion and could not leave for another three days. Once they set off, they travelled through -50 degree Celsius weather, arriving in Peace River on New Year’s Day. After delivering their part of the message, both men were put in the hospital to recover from the flu.
The telegraph message was as follows:
“Logan, Hudson’s Bay man at Red River, 50 miles below Fort Vermilion. Bad case diphtheria, voice gone, throat paralyzed, serum old. Have started immunizing people around, but quantity limited. Several known contacts five to nine days ago with great possibility of spread. One other suspicious sore throat tonight. If possible, rush aeroplane. Good landing. No snow. If snow will clear landing strip on river both Fort Vermilion and Red River. Radio message to me when to expect plane. Send incubation apparatus, several hundred anti-toxin, toxoid for 200 hundred. Cannot leave Logan’s bedside. Real emergency. Do all possible.”
Sadly, on Dec. 22, Bert Logan had passed away.
William and Bob had left Fort Vermilion on Dec. 24 to return to Little Red River, but had to turn back after a chinook melted much of the river ice. They set out again on the 26th and on the trail met Francis Bourassa, who was travelling south with Dr. Hamman, Mrs. Logan and the body of her husband. Dr. Hamman, Mrs. Logan and her husband’s body were then moved over to the sleigh of William and Bob and the group turned around and made their way back to Fort Vermilion.
Unfortunately, just outside Fort Vermilion the party was met by a member of the RCMP who told them they could not enter the community with the body.
Bob Gray would later state it was the only time he saw Dr. Hamman angry. The group was forced to leave the body at the Anglican Cemetery.
With the message now delivered to Edmonton, Wop May, the legendary First World War flying ace was asked if he could deliver the medicine, which consisted of 200,000 units. May had just happened to be in Edmonton visiting family.
In speaking with the Edmonton Bulletin, George Hoadley, the provincial Minister of Public Health, stated, “With the co-operation of the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Alberta Provincial Police, everything has been done by radio to assist the airmen should they meet with difficulty in their flight. The department fully supports the concern of the people for these gallant and intrepid airmen who are engaged in this mission and has endeavoured to deal with the situation as promptly and as effectively as permitted by all circumstances entering into the situation.”
Leaving in an Avro Avian, with Vic Horner the next day at noon amid -28 Celsius weather, the men followed the Edmonton, Dunvegan and British Columbia Railway tracks north, then moved along the south shore of Lesser Slave Lake.
As they were flying, they were forced to land when the baggage compartment, which had a charcoal heater in it, caught fire. The serum was stored in there and they were forced to throw the heater out and place the serum in their pockets, armpits and groin to keep it warm.
After flying for three hours that day, the men landed at McLennan as it was becoming too dark to continue flying. The Edmonton Bulletin reported the following, “The overnight stop was made at McLennan not only to refuel but also for comfort as both May and Horner were suffering from the cold and could have have continued on to [Peace River] last night without first landing and getting warmed up. It was then, too late to attempt a landing on the Peace as Wop has had previous experience here and knew the difficulties of poor visibility.”
In regards to landing at Peace River, May would later state, “If you people here only fully realized the strain it puts on a flying man to have to try and dodge the steel wires of the government telegraphs crossing the river and with the railway bridge a mile below and hemmed in by immense hills, you would get behind a movement to have those steel wires transferred to the bridge.”
After getting more fuel in Peace River the next day, the two men continued their flight and landed in Fort Vermilion at 3 p.m. just as a group from Little Red River were arriving.
The drugs were quickly handed over to Dr. Hamman, and people in Fort Vermilion were inoculated. This was done thanks to a dance that was held that night. When someone entered into the dance hall, the RCMP required them to have an injection of the serum.
Both Little Red River and Fort Vermilion would receive the inoculations and the only death would be that of Bert Logan.
As for Wop May and Horner, they flew back but had to stay in Peace River due to engine damage from using low quality fuel. Upon arriving in Peace River, Wop would say, “You can tell the world, it was a cold trip, boy oh boy! But here we are and damn glad to get this far. We spent a wonderful evening with Constable McCarthy. He treated us right royally and as a matter of fact, everybody was nice.”
In writing about the trip Wop and Horner made, the Bulletin would state, “They risked their lives to save others and they would do it again, just as freely. They would answer another call without a whimper. It is men of grit and determination such as these that make the world worth living in. All power to them.”
They would not make it back to Edmonton until January 7. By that point, news of their flight, now called The Race Against Death, had spread across Canada and both men were welcomed as heroes in Edmonton with thousands of Edmonton residents waiting for them at the airport.
As Vi, Wop May’s wife would later state, “Wop had to taxi the plane to the end of the field because the crowd was rushing the plane and he was worried somebody would be hurt by the propeller.”
In all, the flight consisted of 2,000 kilometres over the course of 14 hours.
In speaking on Don Harron’s Morning Side on Sept. 1, 1980, Denny May spoke about the mercy flight his father took in 1929.
In 2017, the Fort Vermilion Airport would be renamed the Wop May Memorial Airport. Wop’s son Denny would speak at the event.
It had been a hard flight back for the men, through -33 Celsius weather. May had covered his face with a silk scarf to prevent it from freezing. When he landed and took off the scarf, the skin on his lips came with it.
Before I end this episode, I want to talk briefly about the unsung hero of this race against death. While many travelled through terrible weather to save lives, it all started with the wife of Albert Logan, identified as far as I could tell as Mrs. Albert Logan.
She had been a member of Calgary’s Holy Cross and thanks to her nursing knowledge, knew what her husband was suffering from. She also knew that since he was a trader, he may have exposed as many as 500 people in both Red River and Fort-Vermilion and it was she who sent the first party out to alert Dr. Hamman in Fort Vermilion. She was also instrumental in sending Louis Bourassa to Peace River to get an urgent delivery of serum.
Without her, and I truly wish I could find her name, many would have died and this would not be a heroic tale, but a tragic one.
Information for this piece comes from WopMay.com, Wikipedia, The Canadian Encyclopedia, Around The Lower Peace, Heritage of Service: The History Of Nursing In Alberta” and the Edmonton Bulletin