Feb. 11, 2009
EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is the third in a series of five feature articles prepared for Heritage Week, Feb. 9 - 13, 2009. This article was prepared by Ian Andrews. For more information on Heritage Week activities throughout the province, visit the Heritage Week 2009 website.
Shediac on the world aviation scene
The small seaside community of Shediac has played a role significantly larger than its size in the history of transportation in New Brunswick. For hundreds of years, the area surrounding Shediac Bay was traversed on land, sea, and railway by First Nations, Acadians and Loyalists. It served as a resting site on the portage from the Bay of Fundy to the Northumberland Strait; a destination on the first public road in New Brunswick from Moncton; a departure point for ferry service to Summerside and Charlottetown; and the eastern terminus of the European and North American Railway between Shediac and Saint John.
But perhaps the greatest potential for Shediac to become a major transportation centre occurred during the Great Depression. That was when the adjacent waters served as a stopover site for aircraft during the primitive years of transatlantic flight.
By 1933, the First World War had been over for 15 years. The stock market crash had spread around the world, and a totalitarian government had just taken power in Germany. Another totalitarian government, the regime of Benito Mussolini, had already been in power for 10 years and wished to show the world the progress a decade of Fascist rule had brought to Italy, especially the role Italians had played as pioneers in the field of aviation. And what better way to do this than to fly across the Atlantic Ocean, en masse, with 25 flying boats, for an appearance at a World's Fair in the United States - the Century of Progress Exhibition in Chicago.
Only 30 years had passed since the first powered flight, and only individual planes had yet dared to fly across the broad Atlantic, but Mussolini was determined to show the prowess of his aviators. Under the leadership of his minister of aviation, General Italo Balbo, more than 100 pilots and crew trained for months before embarking on their journey from the coast of Tuscany on July 1, 1933. The 25 Savoia Manchetti S-55 flying boats would make overnight stops at several places along the way. The route would take them to Rome, Amsterdam (Netherlands), Londonderry (Northern Ireland), Reykjavik (Iceland), and Cartwright (Labrador) before landing on the waters of Shediac Bay on July 14. From there they would go to Montreal before arriving at their Chicago destination. Unfortunately, a mishap near Amsterdam claimed the life of one pilot, caused injuries to the crew, and resulted in a reduction in the number of planes to 24.
The people of Shediac had prepared for a July 14 arrival, installing 25 stone anchors (weighing 700 kilograms, or 2,000 pounds each) for moorings, setting up a fuel depot, and installing telephone and telegraph lines. More than three dozen Mounties were assigned to crowd control and protection of the seaplanes. Even a special Canadian National Railways train was engaged to take spectators from Moncton.
However, planning was thrown into chaos when the organizing committee received news on the morning of July 13 that the fleet was ahead of schedule, had left Cartwright, and would be arriving later that day - one day early. Amid much scurrying, the welcoming committee hastily assembled a delegation for the late afternoon arrival and reception. Included were Dr. H. Murray McLaren, the federal minister of pensions and national health; Premier L.P.D. Tilley; noted historian and Shediac native J. Clarence Webster; Mayor Alphonse Sormany; several MPs, senators and local notables; and Mildred Herridge, the sister of New Brunswick native son and Prime Minister R.B. Bennett. Herridge, the wife of the Canadian ambassador to Washington, was forced to travel quickly by car for 350 kilometres from her summer home in St. Andrews to be on time for the arrival.
When the planes touched down, one by one over a half-hour in the late afternoon, the pilots were taken ashore from their flying boat moorings by a naval tender provided by the Royal Canadian Navy destroyer HMCS Saguenay. They were welcomed and saluted by a guard of honour from the Saguenay. At the reception that followed, Balbo, his second-in-command, General Aldo Pelligrini, and frontman Captain Campanelli, who had spent the previous several weeks in Shediac planning for the occasion, led the aviators in a Fascist cheer and salute to Mussolini.
The next day the flotilla was off to Chicago by way of Montreal where they proved to be a major attraction. Before their arrival, Time magazine printed a major article on the excursion, with the cover featuring Balbo smiling from the cockpit of his plane. The city of Chicago honoured the Fascist aviator by naming a street after him (Balbo Avenue) and Mussolini donated a monument in honour of this aviation feat, one which stands across the street from Soldier Field, the home of the Chicago Bears NFL football team. Today, many Chicago residents question whether their city should still recognize a Fascist success in this way.
On their return flight, Balbo and his men stopped again in Shediac, on July 26. Even larger crowds filled the streets and dockside to see the Italian aviators. In entertaining their guests, the area's French-speakers held an advantage since they were able to communicate directly with the crews without translation. All of the Italian airmen could speak French as well as their native language, but none could speak English. The return flight from Chicago had included stops in New York (where Balbo addressed a crowd at Madison Square Garden) and Boston (Cosco Bay), and would continue to Shoal Harbour (Harbour Grace), Nfld., Ponta Delgado in the Azores, and Lisbon, Portugal, before returning to Rome. On August 10, only 23 of the flying boats would touch down safely on the Tiber River, since another accident had claimed the life of a second pilot and his plane in Lisbon. To commemorate this aviation feat, Balbo was promoted to the rank of air marshal in the Italian Air Force. He had already received a distinguished flying cross from American President Franklin D. Roosevelt while in the United States.
Shediac's place along the transatlantic flight route gained prominence again when, in 1939, Pan American Airlines chose the bay as a stopover point for its new weekly Clipper III service between New York and Southampton, England. As infrastructure, a Customs House and administration offices for PanAm were constructed at Pointe du Chêne. Boeing 314 flying boats began regular transatlantic airmail and passenger service in June, 1939, transporting such celebrity passengers as Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, comedian Bob Hope and actor Edward G. Robinson across the Atlantic through Shediac. Unfortunately for Shediac, the onset of the Second World War led to cancellation of the service since commercial flight was becoming too dangerous. By war's end, advances in technology had led to land-based aircraft and airfields replacing the necessity for flying boats, and the anticipation of using Shediac Bay as a major landing site had disappeared.
However, Shediac can rightfully claim another connection with history. On Jan. 14, 1943, President Roosevelt (whose summer home was on Campobello Island) flew across the Atlantic to Casablanca to meet with Prime Minister Winston Churchill about wartime planning. The plane on which he flew was the Dixie Clipper, the same Boeing 314 flying boat that regularly stopped at Shediac in 1939. Thus, the first presidential aircraft, or Air Force One as it is now called, had graced the waters of Shediac Bay with its presence.
And what happened to Balbo? His life ended on June 28, 1940, when his Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 plane was shot down by friendly anti-aircraft fire over Tobruk, Libya. Only months after his return from North America, Mussolini had sent Balbo to serve as governor of the Italian colony of Libya in North Africa. At the time of his death, only weeks after Italy had declared war on Great Britain, Balbo had been appointed commander-in-chief of the Italian North African forces.
Related online sites:
Masses Like Infantry
The Day Balbo Came to Shediac
First Transatlantic Airmail Flight
Pan American Airlines Chooses Shediac
Artefacts Canada (Canadian Heritage) has several photographs of the Royal Italian Air Force visit to Shediac that were submitted by the New Brunswick Museum as part of the Louis Merritt Harrison collection:
Other photographs of Balbo's visit to Shediac may be found at the New Brunswick Museum as part of the Louis Merritt Harrison Collection with the following Accession Numbers:
MEDIA CONTACT: Danielle McFarlane, communications, Department of Wellness, Culture and Sport, 506-457-6445.