Damaged prior to its owner's death, the watch was in for repairs at a jeweler's shop in England. But a year after the aircraft crash that killed Constable and all onboard but one, someone retrieved the watch, paid the bill and made sure it found its way into the hands of his grieving family back home. "We got a letter that said his watch had been found and that a friend had picked it up and paid the (repair) bill and that it would be in our hands shortly," Bud Constable of Charlottetown says of the official Royal Canadian Air Force Estates Branch.

"I never knew anything about the watch except that I had it," says Bud, adding that the treasured watch was sadly smashed into unfixable pieces during a workplace accident years later.

Sgt. Ralph Constable, who was a wireless operator, was killed at the age of 24 when the Wellington bomber in which he was flying crashed in the early morning of Sept. 7, 1942. Details at that time were sketchy. The only thing the family was told of that fateful morning was that all the crew, except for the tail gunner, had died that day during their return flight from bombing operations over Duisburg, Germany.

Bud was just 12 years old at the time. "When I got home (that day) they told me Ralph was killed in the bomber (crash)," he remembers. "I don't remember the next day at all." Bud idolized his big brother, who was his protector, always encouraging him to study hard, complete school and join the armed forces like him. In fact, Bud was so determined to join the war effect that he, as a young cadet in charge of a corps in Queens County, transferred over to the regular army in 1944 by fibbing about his age which at that time was just 14. "(My real age) never came up till I was drafted for overseas (in the second year)," recalls Bud, who was made an officer the first year and led two contingents that were sent to a training base in Aldershot, N.S., before his ruse was discovered. He was held back to serve locally instead.

He eventually married Joyce Howatt and they had seven children, all of whom were told the story of their war hero uncle, Ralph.

Over the years, Bud's children did some digging on his behalf into the details of the crash and discovered where it actually happened, what the official cause was and the name of a possible survivor, Norman Hands.

In 1991, Bud travelled to England to visit his brother's gravesite in Marham Cemetery. "At first, it was eerie in a sense. I had a picture from when they put the main monument up and I knew where the grave was and I walked directly to the grave," he says.

Years later when Bud started talking about returning to England, his son, Ken Constable of Bethel, took full advantage of the modern Internet age to unearth some long-awaited answers. "He said he was going to go over in March 2009, so I was able to contact some people over there and was able to put him in the field (in Blofield) where the airplane came down. My brother, Doug, went over with him," Ken says. "They (also) went to the gravesite and visited there and put Canada flags on the graves of the four crew members and also some remaining flags on the graves of other Canadian soldiers in the cemetery."

In the course of his re-search, Ken had made contact with family members of the late Flt. Sgt. Charles Lanceley of Edmonton, Alta., and bomb aimer/gunner Flt. Sgt. Lester Colbran of Ontario. He is still searching for relatives of the navigator, Sgt. Stanley Scott of Montreal, Que.

But a true joy would be to find the only survivor of the crash, Norman Hands, who they knew had to be close to 90 years old if he was still living. The Constables knew Hands was born in Ontario but his family had moved to New York State when he was young. He returned to Canada during the war to serve in the air force. So Ken started calling different American legions in that state until he struck what looked like gold. A legion in Lima, N.Y., knew of a Second World War veteran Norman Hands who was about 90 years old and as of three months before that was living with his daughter in the community.

Ken then contacted the Lima village council to see they had any information on Hands' whereabouts. They directed him to Vietnam war veteran Doug Morgan who said he would help. A few days later Morgan let them know the good news, he'd found Hands and he was willing to talk to them if they were able to visit.

"That was a big relief to find out that he was still alive," Ken says. Just four days later, Bud, Ken and Doug Constable were on the road for the 16-hour drive to Lima for this momentous meeting.

Hands had had a stroke some time before but was still able to converse with his P.E.I. visitors. "Every time he'd get stuck for something, he'd say, 'And you're Ralph's brother. Well, well, well,' " Bud remembers with a smile. "(He and Ralph) had kind of buddied up and on the no-fly days they'd get on a train and go to Scotland where there was no amount of bombing so they could get a night's sleep."

Hands did have a few quirky tidbits about his P.E.I. radio operator pal that the family had no knowledge of until then. "(He said) 'It's probably not my place, maybe I shouldn't even mention it, but just before we'd get into the bomber Ralph would have a couple of stiff drinks and Ralph would say, 'That will make this flight's Morse (code more) smooth,' " Bud laughs.

Until that point, the Constable family had always wondered about the circumstances leading up to the return of Ralph's watch. All they had was the 1943 RCAF Estates Branch letter. And so out of the blue Bud posed the question to Hands.

"I said (to him), 'What do you know about the watch?' "He said you wouldn't shower with the watch on because (it wasn't waterproof) so the men would take their watches off and stick them in their shoes and put them to one side and have a shower. "Ralph came out of the shower . . . and shoved his foot in and broke the stem of the watch," Bud says.

It was in the shop being repaired when the crash happened. "Norman said, 'I've got something for you,' and he (fished in a shoebox of mementoes) and handed the original (1943) watch repair receipt to dad,"

Ken says of that poignant moment. "Oh, to have that, that's priceless." Here's a final footnote to this story.

Here's a final footnote to this story.

As The Guardian interview was coming to a close, Ken checked his emails and received the following sad news from their helper in Lima, the Vietnam veteran Doug Morgan. "Sorry to inform you that Norman Hands has passed away. It must have been fate that got you and your (father) down here before his passing. "Norman told me it was the highlight of his older years and he enjoyed it so much. He said it was like hearing a voice from the past.

"I can't thank you and your (father) enough for bringing Norman's military service to light. Some of the WWII guys knew part of his story, but none of us younger ones. "We (the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 26) were able to get a few guys up to visit with Norman before he moved to his daughter's place. "We also paid his dues for the year and thanked him for being a veteran. Most of this was a result of your inquiry into Norman's whereabouts. "My best to both you and your (father). You brought such a fitting final tribute to a military hero and brought joy into his life in his last days . . . ."

Hal Constable