The Last Rover – Four young Mountain Friends died serving with Bomber Command

Frank Morro, Jim “Moose” Haley, Stewart Flett, and Len Dingley,were members of a Cranbrook based Rover group that together explored the mountains near their homeprior to joining the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War II.All four were killed in action while serving with Bomber Command over Europe.All four are honoured by mountains in the Canadian Rockies -Mount Morro, Mount Haley, Flett Peak, and Mount Dingley.

Dan Mills wrote the following article for the East Kootenay Newspaper group in May, 2003. It poignantly tells the story of the Rover group that the four belonged to during their mountain explorations prior to facing the horrors of war with Bomber Command.

The Last Rover

Stumbling after those who went before.
“Whoe’er excels in what we prize
Appears a hero in our eyes.”
Jonathan Swift

The flames, bright but quiet, flicker in the basement fireplace while the three of us, my father-in-law Frank Magro, myself, and our host Tack Wood, sit around a coffee table piled high with photo albums. Tack’s finger gently taps a black and white picture taken in 1937 that shows seven young men standing at the edge of a forest, their arms draped over each others shoulders. All of them are grinning back at the camera, but the fellow on the far left -the one with the tousled hair – has an especially mischievous, and somewhat familiar smile.

When Tack looks up from the photo, eyes-a-twinkling, there is no longer any doubt as to the identity of the kid on the left.

The impish grin fades only slightly when he says, “I’m the last one of the whole cock-eyed bunch ya know.”

It is a fact that both Frank and I are quite aware of. It is the reason we are here after all – to spend some time with the last of the Rovers.

It was in the basement of the Cranbrook United church in the mid 1930’s that Martin Harris started a senior Scout group called the 3rd Cranbrook Rovers. The troop was made up of young men, all in their late teens and early twenties, who shared a penchant for adventuring in the great outdoors and enjoyed the camaraderie that Scouting had to offer.

Seventy years have slipped past, but you can still hear the pride in Tack’s voice when he speaks of the Rovers, “All us guys were friends – good friends. There wasn’t a bad one in the bunch of us.”

Led by Murray MacFarlane, the Rovers were; Lloyd “Butch” Burgess, Ted “Rasp” Smith, Frank Morro, the grinning Tack Wood and his brother Ed, Fred Kolishek, Frank Hinton, Jim Stone, Joe Ward, Frank Jones, Jim “Moose” Haley, Stan Whittaker, Ed and Jerry Walsh, Stewart Flett, and Len Dingley. All dressed up in their light blue uniform shirts they were the pride of Cranbrook.

The Rovers participated in formal scouting events; ushering at international Jamborees, helping with camps, and leading troops of local kids. They were even honoured by the founder of the Scouting movement himself, Lord Baden-Powell when he visited Cranbrook. But according to Tack, what the Rovers were really all about was having fun, and that usually meant jumping on their CCM Redbird bicycles and pedalling off into the mountains.

Many of these trips were documented by the boys in elaborate journals, complete with maps, photos, and written accounts of their adventures. The time and effort that went into keeping these diaries is obvious, but it was not with out purpose. Upon completion, one of these books would earn the author the much coveted Ramblers badge.

The original intent may have been merely to earn merit, but 70 years after the fact, these journals have become much more than just simple scrapbooks.

Today they are priceless vehicles that are able to transport us back through time; to Mause Creek, Dibble Glacier, Fisher Peak, and Wild Horse Creek, circa 1938.

More than just simple novelty, these journals provide a historical portrait of the East Kootenay, reaching back beyond recent memory into a past we have already lost sight of. As Tack said more than once, “Everybody round here thinks the whole darn world began in 1950.”

For me, the wonder lies in the details – things like how important a bicycle could be to a young man. If you were a Rover it was the main method of transportation. Automobiles were still very much a luxury, so every trip they undertook, began with the boys doing a whole whack of pedalling. I don’t know about you, but to me, climbing Fisher Peak is enough of a challenge with out having had to ride your bike all the way from Cranbrook first.

This dearth of technological contrivance made the Rovers a hardy lot, wandering the mountains with nothing more than a packboard, a bedroll, and a sense of humour. No Gore-Tex jackets, GPS units, or ultra light tents here. They were leather and wool boys, with heavy boots and heavier packs, who rolled into their blankets and slept under the stars. As Tack explained, “We were Scouts. We knew how to look after ourselves in the bush. It wasn’t hard.”

The crews ingenuity was evident in almost everything they turned their hand to. A perfect example of this is the log cabin they build on the outskirts of Cranbrook. Hidden away in the pines beside a small stream, the Rovers Shack, as it was known, would come to serve as the troops headquarters.

Looking at the photos of this beautiful little log cabin, with its archway and sturdy stone fireplace, I couldn’t help but wonder how a bunch of kids had acquired the expertise needed to build such a fine structure. According to Tack, “If we didn’t know exactly how to do something, we just used common sense and figured it out as we went. We all just pitched in and got it done.”

Once completed, “The Shack” quickly became the social hub for the Rovers. The many goings on were recorded for posterity in a register book that documents from May 17th 1936 to the date of the last entry, June 8th 1942.

Tack, bless his heart, shared this treasure with Frank and I and we devoured it from cover to cover. We read about events like parents days, feast days, scout meetings, and my personal favourite, sleigh rides – where the Rovers invited the girl of their choice to spend the afternoon with them, sliding on the hills and drinking hot chocolate.

The most insightful entries however, are the ones detailing the boys just hanging out. Their favourite pass time when at the cabin seemed to be cooking up and consuming huge meals. On almost every page there is a detailed account of what was for dinner, and just as importantly, who drew the low card and had to do the dishes. Tack seemed to draw the low card a lot.

When they weren’t eating, they worked on the shack, played cards for .22 shells, discussed the merits of Ford vs. Chevrolet trucks, and listened to their beloved wind-up gramophone. All in all, pretty wholesome fun.

It is quite evident that these were young men of a high moral calibre; alcohol is not mentioned once, poker games are broken up when some of the players have to go to church, and young ladies are always spoken of in respectful tones. However, boys being boys, they sure did like a good fist-fight now and then. When I asked Tack about this he said, “Yes, sometimes we used to play pretty rough. We made the furniture that was in the shack – and we broke most of it too. There was never any hard feelings in the morning though.”

This excerpt taken from a March 6th 1937 entry is indicative of a typical night at the Rovers shack:

We left town on Saturday night at 10:45. Arrived at shack about 12:30. Had a “late” lunch. Tack, Ted, and Stone went to bed early. Lloyd, Frank and I sat up around the fireplace and played the gramophone until 4:50 a.m. Stone couldn’t sleep and so he took the music box and heaved it outside. We locked him out in his undies. He climbed in the window and got a sock on the head. Ted made breakfast, Lloyd and Frank cleaned up….. …..playing whist when Haley arrived. He no sooner got here than we were startled by a bearded apparition on snowshoes coming out of the bush. Moose made chow and cleaned up. Lloyd and I fought Tack and Frank with snowballs for 2 hours and ended in a draw. Tack made supper while he sang “Chinese Opera” (Oh Yeah!). What a supper. Stone and I cleaned up….

Signed; Jerry Walsh

This light-hearted frivolity continues through the register, but as you turn those last few pages, one can’t help but get of feeling that their world is changing. On April 26 1941 Frank Morro’s entry eerily fore-shadows what turned out to be the end of the 3rd Cranbrook Rovers.

…Came up to the shack to give L. Burgess a send-off party. Had small feed. Argued about war as usual. Burgess was given a present by local association. Question was brought up about where each Rover would be one year from today…. if anywhere. Left shack at 12:45 – still arguing war.    

Signed, Frank Morro

The man who wrote those prophetic words was not only Tack Wood’s best friend and a heck of a snowball fighter, he was also Frank Magro’s uncle and name sake.

Frank Morro went to war, as did Tack and many of the others. Young men who knew nothing about fighting in international conflict, but in typical “can do” Rover fashion, they thought that, “They would figure it out as they went. That if they all pitched in they could get it done.”

Frankie never came home. Nor did Moose, Stew, or Dingpuss. Never to be married or blessed with sons and daughters, the names of these Rovers were instead passed on to mountains; Mount Morro, Mount Haley, Mount Flett, and Mount Dingley. A fitting tribute to these hearty scouts, but a sad one none the less.

We too, were still talking war when we finally stood to leave. We could have listened to Tack all night, but the fire that had seemed such a cheery blaze upon our arrival, was now cold in the hearth. It was time to go.

As Frank and I drove home, I thought of another fireplace, one we had visited several weeks before. Once sturdy and built of large block-like stones, it now lies tumbled down in a lonely and forgotten spot near a small stream on the outskirts of Cranbrook. It hasn’t known a cheery blaze in a long time, but it has in the past.

History is given little respect in today’s society. It is seen as having no consequence on our existence in the now – of being no longer relevant. We seem to have forgotten what every good boy scout knows, that in order to find our way through the forest, we need to look over our shoulders now and then to see where we’ve already been. Without the perspective of the past, we will become lost.

Frank and I plan on going back to that derelict pile of stonework someday soon. And when we do, we’re going to alight a fire in that fireplace just out of spite for the ruthlessness of time, and then raise a toast – a mug of strong tea perhaps – and say, “Here’s to the last one of the whole cock-eyed bunch.”

Thanks Tack, for taking the time to look over your shoulder and share the Rovers with the world.