Tragedy Commemorated

By John Swartz

On the evening of October 13, 1943, the boat building crew from Hunter Boats returned from dinner to work some overtime to finish electrical wiring on boat Q116, a Fairmile motor launch, which was to be commissioned and delivered to Trenton, Ontario the next day and then on to its destination of Sydney, Nova Scotia where it would  become part of the fleet of the 82nd Flotilla – Sydney Force, Royal Canadian Navy.

Hunter Boats; Fairmile Q060 (Mariposa Belle)

The Fairmiles were escort/coastal defence/anti-submarine/minesweeping/search and rescue vessels which could have their armaments of torpedos, mines or guns changed over within 24 hours, depending on the task at hand, to guard the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the St. Lawrence River.

Norm Johnstone survived Fairmile explosion

Norm Johnstone was hired to rivet planks as his main job. Stanley Peacock was an electrician’s apprentice. Both got overtime to help finish the wiring. As work began, one of the other 5 people working that evening smelled gas. The Fairmiles ran on what was then called High Octane fuel (capacity 2300 gallons and this Fairmile had a full tank), which today we know as 87 Octane regular gas. A leak in the fuel line was discovered. Another worker went to shut of the power, but didn’t get there in time.

“I was looking down the hatch (amidships) going down to the engine room. Stanley was right over the hatch and I was beside him,” Johnstone said..

At 7:10 p.m. they both bore the brunt of the explosion. The force blew both of them away from the hatch, with Stanley getting the worst of the blast.

“Oh yeah,” said Johnstone, “(Stanley was blown) about 80 feet back, I understand, straight into the water. The big blast knocked me off toward the side, the gunnels, (but not into the water).”

Johnstone, 97, travelled from Rochester, NY, Sunday for the unveiling of a monument to Stanley Peacock in Veteran’s Memorial Park. Johnstone was one of 6 injured. After recovering he joined the army and when the war concluded he studied to become an engineer, eventually being hired by General Dymanics in 1951 to work in Rochester where he has lived since.

Peacock was to be part of the crew delivering the Fairmile to Trenton the next day.

He was also a member of the Royal Canadian Air Cadet 99 Squadron. The cadets had a buddy system and Ray Raaflaub spent the next 79 years remembering his friend every October 13.  He often spoke of wanting to see some kind of memorial erected in Orillia. Raaflaub died in 2023.

Rob McCron

It was at one of those remembrance ceremonies Rob McCron became acquainted with the story.

“When I was a school kid I loved history. When Rick Purcell (RCL Branch 34 president) and I went over there, to the cemetery, it was quite a story. I looked into it through the internet and old newspaper clippings and ended up writing a story on it,” said McCron.

McCron has been on the case of getting the monument since.

“It’s close to three years. I am so happy this day has finally come and it will show the history of what happened in Orillia 81 years ago,” he said. He won’t take credit for the idea, and includes Purcell with deciding to pursue the project.

“We got together with Steve (Sanderson) from Signature Monuments. Steve designed it, and then we bugged them and bugged them (getting permission from the City of Orillia) to erect the monument),” McCron said.

Steve Sanderson, Signature Memorials

“Matt Horn, Ken Douglas and myself designed it. Like any custom design we had four or 5 ideas; this is the one the committee and the City seemed to grab and we developed it from there,” said Sanderson. It took 5 months for the go ahead to complete the monument.

The monument was shrouded, tight enough the shroud didn’t blow away in the high winds that gusted throughout the ceremony. Then it started to rain. Then it started to rain hard. Someone decided it would be wise to pull the shroud it while the crowd of approximately 100 people was still there. Many had turned to face away as a shield against the rain and missed the moment.

The ceremony included remarks from Orillia Mayor Don McIsaac and Bruce Stanton (filling in for Simcoe North MP, Adam Chambers), Commander Peter Antonew – Regional Cadet Support Unit (Atlantic), Bill Sergeant – president of the Royal Canadian Air Force Association, RCAF 441 (Huronia) Wing, and fire chief Michael Clark.

Orillia fire chief Michael Clark

Clark told the story of the department’s quick response to the explosion. Firefighters had an additional consideration Esso had four fuel storage tanks right across the road (south of the legion) and there was still unspent fuel on the Fairmile.

The City only had 8 full-time firefighters and 24 volunteers. Two firefighters, Capt. Elgin H. Jones and Lt. Daniel MacLeish (a volunteer for 4 years), went below deck and were instrumental in shutting off fuel system valves and keeping flames away from the tank. For averting a bigger disaster they each received The King’s Police and Fire Services Medals (awarded to those who have performed acts of exceptional courage and skill or have exhibited conspicuous devotion to duty.) Only 10 firefighters have received the award.

Chief Clark also told the audience Peacock’s body was recovered from the water at Couchiching Beach Park beach just before midnight that day.

Kyle Peacock, grand nephew to Stanley Peacock, represented the 10 family members on hand. He originally learned the story from his grandfather, Stanley’s brother, and expressed the family’s gratitude for the monument.

“I think it’s a good thing for the City of Orillia. I know my grandparents would be very proud. They were heavily involved in the community. This is a good monument that will continue to tell the story,” he told SUNonline/Orillia. He said the youngest members of the Peacock family in attendance were two niece’s ages1 and 4. While being too young to understand the significance of the event:

“I think they like seeing their name on it,” Peacock said.

Mayor McIsaac declared June 23 as Stanley Peacock Day.

Hunter Boats was located at the foot of Mississaga Street on land immediately north of the monument’s location. Members of the Hunter family were also in attendance. The monument cost $34,000 of which the City and the legion contributed $15,000 each and the remainder was raised through other fundraising activities.

Wreaths to be laid at the unveiling of the Fairmile Monument

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(Photos by Swartz – SUNonline/Orillia) Main: Fairmile Monument unveiling June 23, 2024 in Veteran’s Memorial Park.


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