Remembrance of RAF Cadets in Arizona? Yes, and Therein Lies a Tale

 

Three Veterans’ Days ago, I attended the East Valley Veterans Parade in Mesa, AZ. After the parade, I walked over to a restaurant for a bite to eat. In walked a spry elderly gentleman, who sat down across the bar from me. He had a small lapel pin, a twin blade propellor, telling me he was an aviator. So I asked. He had flown from England, as he had for many years, to honor his fallen mates from pilot training.

For obvious reasons, Britain was not a safe place, to learn to fly, during most of World War II. So, the United States agreed to set up three airfields, with support facilities, for the RAF. That is how Mesa got Falcon Field, which is very much in use today.

Learning to fly is always hazardous, and learning in wartime came with even more pressure. To start, the cadets were put on steamships and dodged U-boats across the Atlantic. Then they were bundled onto trains and sent to one of three states. Those who washed out, without fatally cracking up, were sent north to Canada, to become air crewmen, not pilots, for bombers and transports.

Twenty-three RAF cadets did not survive their basic pilot training, at Falcon Field. Their graves are together in the center of the Mesa Cemetery. Their comrades held a reunion and memorial service for the past thirty years, as the number of those living and able to travel dwindled.

Having heard this tale, for the first time, I had to attend the RAF Cadet Memorial. It was a simple but moving ceremony, with a small crowd and strong support from the British and U.S. governments and local civic organizations. It became an annual appointment event for me.

For the past three years, only one pilot was alive and well enough to travel: Stan Whalley. The memorial is always at 10:45, on the Sunday closest to 11 November. This year, the two dates coincided. The master of ceremonies answered the question on many minds. Stan Whalley was in good health but had to cancel to stay in England and tend to his wife, who was ill.

The first fly-over is always by Stearman biplanes, in which they first learned to fly.

At 11 sharp, T-6s, in which they took advanced pilot training, flew over in a missing man formation.

After the reading of the Roll of Honour, the names of the dead, and simple but fitting remarks by several dignitaries, there was a lengthy series of wreath laying. Each wreath represents a different organization. Below, you see the senior RAF officer in Arizona, Flight Lieutenant Gavin O’Brien, moving forward with the active RAF wreath.

These graves mark the first two casualties, 20 October 1941, and 21 October 1941. Imagine getting back into your plane as a student or instructor the next day. Yet they all did.

Wave after wave came, until later in 1944, when the Luftwaffe had been chased from the skies anywhere near Britain. I marked “A Call to Members: Remembrance and Veterans’ Day,” with a photograph, of the grave, of the last cadet to die in training at Falcon Field, 22 November 1944.

Mesa has been very supportive of this annual memorial service. Mesa Mayor John Giles has attended and spoken the past two years. He emphasizes that we must all take up the challenge of bringing the younger generations, to learn and carry forward the memories of those whose peers are fast departing this earth. The age mix this year was very encouraging. A number of families with young children were in attendance.

The unpaid civic organizations, from the Commemorative Air Force pilots and support personnel, to the Mesa Caledonian Pipe Band, to the Scottish-American Military Society, to the American Legion Post 27 Rifle Team, to the Boy Scouts Troop 301, all did a professional-grade job in making the ceremony dignified and respectful.

What hidden treasures are in your backyard? What memorials and commemorations are hiding in plain sight?

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  1. PHCheese Member
    PHCheese
    @PHCheese

    My uncle Francis Thomas was killed the day before he was to get his wings. They were practicing for the fly over which was to be part of their graduation to pilots. It happened in July of 1944 at Wright Patterson. His brother Jim had flown 23 missions in a B-24 Liberator and was sent home early for the funeral. He was made an instructor for the rest of the war. He transitioned to fighters for Korea and two tours of Vietnam.

    • #1
  2. Gary Robbins Reagan
    Gary Robbins
    @GaryRobbins

    Lovely. Thank you so much.

    • #2
  3. JosePluma Thatcher
    JosePluma
    @JosePluma

    The memorial in the library at New Mexico Military Institute has a list of the alumni and exstudents who died in World War II-about 150, a pretty large number for a school with a student body of 1500. What is more amazing is that about 1/4 of them died in flight training. 

    • #3
  4. Simon Templar Inactive
    Simon Templar
    @SimonTemplar

    You mean to tell me that freedom ain’t free?!?

    • #4
  5. Full Size Tabby Member
    Full Size Tabby
    @FullSizeTabby

    Just outside the front door of the Weatherford (TX) public library is a plaque commemorating a mid-air collision that occurred over the town on August 17, 1945 between two B-29 Superfortress heavy bombers flying separate training missions from separate air fields. The only survivors were two crewmen from one of the planes.

    http://www.texasescapes.com/WorldWarII/TragedyOverWeatherfordTexas.htm

    We just moved to town a couple of months ago, and were surprised to find this bit of history that brought some of the horror of WWII to this little town west of Fort Worth.

    • #5
  6. PHCheese Member
    PHCheese
    @PHCheese

    Full Size Tabby (View Comment):

    Just outside the front door of the Weatherford (TX) public library is a plaque commemorating a mid-air collision that occurred over the town on August 17, 1945 between two B-29 Superfortress heavy bombers flying separate training missions from separate air fields. The only survivors were two crewmen from one of the planes.

    http://www.texasescapes.com/WorldWarII/TragedyOverWeatherfordTexas.htm

    We just moved to town a couple of months ago, and were surprised to find this bit of history that brought some of the horror of WWII to this little town west of Fort Worth.

    The enemy wasn’t the only enemy in those days. The sheer act of flying even in good weather was very dangerous, bad weather forget about it.

    • #6
  7. Andy Perkins Member
    Andy Perkins
    @TAPerkLaw

    Thanks for this post! I did not know about the RAF training history stateside. Great example of local communities having a global impact.

    • #7
  8. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown
    @CliffordBrown

    PHCheese (View Comment):

    Full Size Tabby (View Comment):

    Just outside the front door of the Weatherford (TX) public library is a plaque commemorating a mid-air collision that occurred over the town on August 17, 1945 between two B-29 Superfortress heavy bombers flying separate training missions from separate air fields. The only survivors were two crewmen from one of the planes.

    http://www.texasescapes.com/WorldWarII/TragedyOverWeatherfordTexas.htm

    We just moved to town a couple of months ago, and were surprised to find this bit of history that brought some of the horror of WWII to this little town west of Fort Worth.

    The enemy wasn’t the only enemy in those days. The sheer act of flying even in good weather was very dangerous, bad weather forget about it.

    Speaking of Texas, the first RAF training center was in Terrell, Texas, commemorated by the No. 1 British Flying Training School Museum. The Terrell Municipal Airport, like Falcon Field, owes its construction to the RAF program.

    I had understood there were three, however there were 6 training centers, plus one short-lived location, designated “British Flying Training Schools.” Here is a brief account by an RAF veteran who trained at No. 6 British Flying Training School (BFTS), Ponca City in Oklahoma. A Ponca City tourism page provides the host community perspective [emphasis added]:

    One of seven flight schools established in the United States, # 6 BFTS existed for 33 months and trained 1,113 British and 125 American combat pilots. They received six months of intensive training before returning to fight the German Nazis. At the time, the Royal Air Force had every existing air base in their homelands geared for actual war time activities – thus the need for a safe place to train its new recruits.

    […]

    Groups of fifty young men for each course arrived in Ponca City and were greeted by the citizens with warmth, hospitality and generosity. Many wrote letters to their adopted Oklahoma families for years after the war. The men enjoyed sharing their sports, including cricket and soccer, with Ponca City’s citizens. They loved the abundance of good food, including steaks, hamburgers, malts and sodas, bacon and eggs. Cuzalina’s Drug Store was a favorite hangout and they enjoyed dancing at the Club Lido.

    Sadly, a large percentage of the first courses died in combat after their return to England. Seven young men who died during their training in Ponca City are buried at the I.O.O. F. cemetery and honored each year on Memorial Day with a special ceremony.

    The Royal Air Force in American Skies: The Seven British Flight Schools in the United States during World War IIwas published in 2015, by the University of North Texas Press. Project Muse summarized the fatality lists from an appendix of this book.

    Miami, Oklahoma, commemorates the Number 3 British Flying Training School, which significantly upgraded the existing municipal airport, and honors the 15 RAF cadets who died there in training.

    Interestingly, the cadets who died in training at No. 5 BFTS, at Embry Riddle Field, Clewiston, Florida, are commemorated annually, on the U.S. Memorial Day, at the Oak Ridge Cemetary.

    • #8
  9. JosePluma Thatcher
    JosePluma
    @JosePluma

    PHCheese (View Comment):

    Full Size Tabby (View Comment):

    Just outside the front door of the Weatherford (TX) public library is a plaque commemorating a mid-air collision that occurred over the town on August 17, 1945 between two B-29 Superfortress heavy bombers flying separate training missions from separate air fields. The only survivors were two crewmen from one of the planes.

    http://www.texasescapes.com/WorldWarII/TragedyOverWeatherfordTexas.htm

    We just moved to town a couple of months ago, and were surprised to find this bit of history that brought some of the horror of WWII to this little town west of Fort Worth.

    The enemy wasn’t the only enemy in those days. The sheer act of flying even in good weather was very dangerous, bad weather forget about it.

    When you read the exploits of amazing pilots such as Chesley Sullenberger, remember that that his expertise was built on the experience and deaths of thousands of pilots before him. 

    • #9
  10. Simon Templar Inactive
    Simon Templar
    @SimonTemplar

    JosePluma (View Comment):
    When you read the exploits of amazing pilots such as Chesley Sullenberger, remember that that his expertise was built on the experience and deaths of thousands of pilots before him. 

    Same-same but different for our amazing direct action dudes (Navy SEALs and such). We are the best because we fight, spill blood, die, and learn.

    The ones doing the fighting are the ones who (usually) learn the mostest the fastest. For example, the Colombians taught us a lot about riverine counterinsurgency warfare in the 1990s because they were the ones doing it every [redacted] day.

    • #10
  11. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown
    @CliffordBrown

    I was happy to find a Facebook page for the Falcon Field Number 4 British Flying Training School, with comments by family members of cadets, including a 98 year old who is doing well in Britain.

     

    • #11

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