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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?