In the summer of 2016, I received a Facebook message from a stranger who claimed to have information about a plane crash that carried my great uncle to his death almost 80 years ago. At first, I assumed it was a scam, and not the beginning of a three-year journey. Just three months later, I found myself standing on a remote side of Mount Kenya as my first introduction to the niche world of hunting down lost planes.
I never met my great-uncle. He went missing during a routine practice mission in Nanyuki, Kenya, where he was stationed for Air Force training in the summer of 1942. He had turned twenty-one the day before taking off. When my grandparents received the dreaded telegram that he had been declared missing-in-action, his disappearance became a hole in the family history that would never be filled.
At least that was the case, until I joined a British army expedition that left me with tears streaming down my face as I set eyes on what was left of my great-uncle’s mangled plane,
This expedition included three other civilians, one of whom was Kenyan-born Tom Lawrence. Tom has spent his precious free time in the past three years researching all 120 crashes of Blenheim Bombers, the kind of airplane my great-uncle was flying, paying specific attention to the ones that were never located.
Introduced to the Royal Air Force in 1937, these twin-engine planes were technologically superior to anything that had been previously built. Unfortunately for the young men flying them, the extenuating circumstances of wartime meant that instructors who were just learning the technology themselves were now teaching fledgling airmen how to fly. The high altitude and mountainous terrain in Nanyuki caused especially deadly problems for the Operational Training Unit (OTU) there. Out of the 268 Blenheims operating in Kenya, 120 fell out of the air, an almost 45 percent crash rate.
As Tom crossed off my great-uncle’s crash from his list with great satisfaction, he also sparked an obsession in me that would burgeon over the next few years, as I accepted further invitations to join him in plane-hunting.
A few months later I was riding along the slip-shod road that was Tom Lawrence’s driveway after rumors encircling another crash piqued my interest. No two plane crashes are exactly alike, and this one had attempted an emergency landing in the Kenyan bush after experiencing engine failure. Both the pilot and the navigator were killed, while the two remaining crew members walked away from the crash. The Air Force collected the bodies, but left the plane behind and supposedly fully intact.
Our journey began the next morning, when I climbed into Tom’s Land Cruiser for the five-hour drive north to Baragoi, windows down to help us bear the mid-summer heat with no air conditioning. It was about four hours in when Tom glanced over and chuckled: “Have you looked at your face?” My anxious re-applying of sunscreen had gelled the thick layer of dust into a muddy gloop, while Tom simply appeared dusted with a golden powder that had turned his salt and pepper hair a dirty blonde.
As we drove, Tom explained the delicate situation of Baragoi, what he calls the “Wild West of Kenya.” Up until two years ago, intense tribal conflicts between the Turkana and Samburu made traveling to the area practically out of the question. These days, the fighting has died down, allowing local herders to return their animals to graze in the open bush where they were previously vulnerable to raids. But skirmishes were still breaking out when Tom received a frantic call a few weeks prior from a colleague about gunshots being fired on Baragoi’s main strip. It turned out that the police had confiscated a herd of camels from some Turkana men. whose gunshots were a polite way of asking for them back.
We pulled into Baragoi as the summer sun began to turn the clouds a delicate violet. Our evening was spent making the rounds at the various hotels housing Tom’s crew of geologists while they surveyed a proposed pipeline route in the area. One of these men, a Baragoi local named Hassan, had promised to introduce us to the elders of the village in the morning, men who knew of the plane and might help us visit the crash site.
Sure enough, introductions were made over steaming cups of sweet milky tea the next morning, the sun barely peeking over the horizon. The conversation began in English, but switched to Swahili when Robert joined us—Tom stopped to translate as significant bits of information came through. Robert had been a government appointed village Chief in the early 1980s. He sat at the table stick-straight, answering Tom’s questions after thoughtful pauses. This conversation was an introduction, but also a test to pass. Without Robert’s and Joseph’s help, we could not and would not be able to find the wreck. If they believed our intentions were impure or questionable, they wouldn’t hesitate to turn us away.
At some point, the postures began to loosen and the tea disappeared fast as it cooled. Robert and Joseph understood the importance of connecting this crash to its history and offered to show us the site personally.
Joseph broke the bad news quickly: less than two years ago, a man had hauled away most of the wreckage for scrap, but they remained certain that there were still some bits and pieces at the site. We climbed into the Land Cruiser, making a pit stop to pick up Joseph’s uncle, who had accompanied the scrapper two years before. We headed out of town on a dirt track through the bush, Joseph directing Tom down a barely visible path until we weren’t on a road at all, the car bumping along between towering termite hills. After I yelped with excitement at the sand-castle-like mounds, Robert began pointing out especially impressive termite towers with a conspiratorial nudge, his eyebrows wiggling with mischief.
Tom parked the car in the shade of an acacia tree, and we continued the journey on foot through a large swath of flat land where green hills in the distance begged for the taste of rain. Dull grey calf-high bushes covered most of the ground and pulled on my pant legs as I squeezed between them. Robert motioned that this was the area and we spread out to look for anything left behind. After 30 minutes of concentric circles, we all came up empty.
For a moment, I thought I’d found a piece of canvas, but it turned out to be a partially shredded khaki shirt, most likely from a casualty of the tribal conflicts. Robert and Joseph explained that the rumors were true: the plane had rested, mainly intact, for decades in the open bush. I stood, sweat trickling down my back, trying to imagine the pair as teenagers, using the shade of the wing to hide from the oppressive midday sun. As we headed back to the car, Joseph said: “Let’s go to my boma. There might be something you want to see.”
The boma, Joseph’s childhood home, was surrounded by a fence of prickly cacti and tangled vines. He led us to one of three dwellings in the compound, where goats balanced on tin barrels. He explained that as a fifteen year old, he had brought home a token from the grounded airplane and placed it in the yard, gesturing as if he had put it there only yesterday. As we rounded the corner of a small shed, he pointed to the corner where something leaned against the wall. On closer inspection, it resembled a shock absorber, something that might be used for the landing gear of an airplane.
It seemed too big of a leap to hope that this airplane part, which had been sitting in a yard for the better part of 50 years, could be from our own Blenheim. Tom sent off some photos to our on-call Blenheim expert and we started crossing our fingers. Joseph graciously offered for us to take the strut with us, but with little evidence that it belonged to our plane, we thought it best to keep in Joseph’s––and the goats’––safe keeping.
The drive back followed an alternate route that took us up a dizzying climb through waves of green hills. Four hours later, we were our familiar dusted selves––I had opted against sunscreen and avoided the mud mask––as we drove back into cell service and stopped for some roadside relief.
Tom’s phone lit up with the positive confirmation from our aviation expert: “Yes, definitely a Blenheim. Great find!” We high-fived, took a congratulatory selfie, and got back in the dust-mobile to head home.
The next morning, we drove to the Nanyuki War Graves Cemetery and hopped the fence as it was not technically open. Buried in a row of three on the far edge of the pristine grass is Leon Udwin, one of the men who died in the Baragoi crash. On his headstone, we placed two pink-laced stones from the crash site, a Jewish tradition that some say symbolizes the permanence of our loved one’s memory in our mind.
Sitting in my high school classrooms, I had thought of history as something complete, intact and firmly rooted in the past. But like the butterfly flapping its wings on the other side of the world, these accidents of history adjust the courses of our lives with consequences both big and small, in ways unknown and obvious. Some of them may still be waiting to reveal themselves. Three years ago, my life changed because my great-uncle had died on Mount Kenya over 75 years before. The same plane crash that took the lives of two young men became a childhood playground for Robert and Joseph. History becomes tangible when you hold a piece of it in your hand, but we can only begin to understand its complexity when we take a step back to see the web that it draws around all of us.
Where have your travels taken you that you never expected?
Header photo by Monet Izabeth.