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I was very pleasantly surprised Sunday morning in Mesa, AZ. The Royal Air Force Cadet memorial service was held as it has been for the past three decades or so at the Mesa Cemetery. I bore witness to this as I feared it would be another remembrance cast aside on the pyre of our fearful reaction to a middling pandemic. Not so. While people wore the city council mandated face masks, the mayor of Mesa was there to speak, as he had in the preceding years. This annual memorial service is held the Sunday before Remembrance Day, our Veterans Day, and calls to mind the special relationship between our two countries and the service and sacrifice of those who have served.
The air filled with the sound of bagpipes and bugles blew clear and true. Prayers, poems, and remembrances were offered. The roll of the honored dead was read. Mayor Giles spoke brief and appropriate words, as did the honorary British consul for Arizona. I thought the best remarks were offered by the young Royal Air Force officer, on assignment at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma. More on that in a bit, but first the event in pictures:
Opening Procession: Mesa Caledonian Pipe Band
Presentation of Colours: Scottish-American Military Society
National Anthems: sung by all
Invocation: Pastor Iain Glithero
Welcoming Remarks: Dennis Fennessey, Master of Ceremonies. He cued participants to the meaning of the two minutes of silence and the timing with the planes arriving in view. You could hear the low drone of their engines shortly before you saw them.
Two Minutes Silence Observed: Flyover by Commemorative Air Force Stearman biplane and T-6 Texan trainer aircraft. This reflected a cutback, an economizing from past years when we would see four Stearmans at the beginning and T-6 Texans would fly the missing-man formation to conclude the ceremony. As a volunteer, non-profit organization, they have faced the same financial hardships this year as many others. Operating aircraft is quite expensive, so it is a good showing that they brought the two types of aircraft flown by the RAF cadets.
Roll of Honour: DBE Regent Pauline Garthwaite; “High Flight” poem read by DBE President Mary Vossier; “A Yearning for England” read by Chief Warrant Officer John Barber
Guest Remarks by City of Mesa Mayor John Giles, RAF Flt. Lt. Dan Brown, and Rt. Hon. Hank Marshall
Rifle Salute: American Legion Post #27 Rifle Team
Last Post (British) and Taps (American): Jacob Peterson played first a British bugle for “Last Post” and then a US military-style bugle for “Taps” on which Peter Green played the echo on trumpet.
“Amazing Grace” was performed by the Pipe Band, Pastor Glithero gave the benediction and “Ode of Remembrance,” then the color guard retired the colors, ending the ceremony. It was altogether a first-rate remembrance. Which brings us back to our young flight lieutenant (lef-tenant if you are speaking British English).
Flight Lieutenant Dan Brown reminded us that this year marked the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, when a relative handful of young men stopped Hitler’s war machine over the skies of Britain. Britain stood alone, as Stalin’s Russia was with Hitler’s Germany in carving up Eastern Europe and the United States was still officially neutral. Winston Churchill remarked, in the middle of that months-long battle: “[n]ever in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” Flt. Lt. Brown recounted the story of an American volunteer who, because we were officially neutral, had to volunteer under the thin disguise of a Canadian. Pilot Officer William “Billy” Meade Lindsley Fiske III had been a two time Winter Olympic gold medalist in bobsledding for the United States. Billy Fiske married an English woman, took civilian pilot training, then volunteered when war came to Britain.
Fiske wrote to his older sister, Beaulah (“Peggy”) Fiske Heaton, his reasons for joining the Royal Air Force. He said that the English had
“. . . been damn good to me in good times so naturally I feel I ought to try and help out if I can. There are absolutely no heroics in my motives, I’m probably twice as scared as the next man, but if anything happens to me I at least feel I have done the right thing in spite of the worry to my family—which I certainly couldn’t feel if I was to sit in New York making dough.”
—“American Billy Fiske—One of the Few,” United States Naval Institute Blog, 16 August 2016.
PO Fiske showed just what determined, steady stuff he was made of when he refused to bail out, flying his Hurricane back to land safely, where it could be repaired. He did so with the cockpit on fire, his hands and legs so badly burned he had to be carried out of the cockpit. He died of his wounds in hospital. Billy Fiske was buried at St. Mary and St. Blaise Church, West Sussex, England. Fiske is among the honored at St. Paul’s Cathedral:
The following year on American Independence Day, a plaque was unveiled in the crypt of St Paul’s by Sir Archibald Sinclair, the Secretary of State for Air.
The plaque reads, simply: “An American citizen who died that England might live”.
At the ceremony, the words were spoken: “Here was a young man for whom life held much. Under no compulsion he came to fight for Britain. He came and he fought and he died.”
On 8 November, the Sunday before Remembrance Day, known to Americans as Veterans Day, British RAF cadets from the World War after the War to End All Wars were honored in Mesa, Arizona, and a young RAF officer honored both them and an American volunteer, who had to lie about his citizenship to get into the RAF. That called to mind the story of Medal of Honor recipient Silvestre Herrera, who is remembered in the Mesa, Arizona Silvestre Herrera United States Army Reserve Center.
Born in Chihuahua, Mexico, Herrera and his family moved to El Paso, Texas, when he was just a baby. In his mind, he was a U.S. citizen, as were the man and woman he called his parents – but none of it was true.
The man Herrera knew as his father until that day explained that Herrera’s biological parents succumbed to a wave of influenza that swept through their tiny town of Camargo when Herrera was only a year old. His uncle had brought young Herrera to El Paso to make a better life for them all.
“You don’t have to go,” his uncle told him. “You’re not a U.S. citizen.”
But Herrera was compelled.
“This country had already provided so much for me and my family at that time that I wanted to go,” said Herrera. “Besides, I didn’t want someone else dying in my place.”
His newly discovered status as a non-citizen also weighed on the mind of Herrera.
“They told us if we served in the Army, we would be able to get our citizenship,” he explained. “I knew this was something I wanted to do.”
And so Herrera joined the Texas Army National Guard reporting for boot camp at Fort McClellan, Ala. He was assigned to Company E, 142nd Infantry, 36th Division, and was immediately on his way to the European front with the first American unit to land in Europe during World War II.
He more than earned his citizenship in a field in France in 1945:
He advanced with a platoon along a wooded road until stopped by heavy enemy machine-gun fire. As the rest of the unit took cover, he made a one-man frontal assault on a strongpoint and captured eight enemy soldiers. When the platoon resumed its advance and was subjected to fire from a second emplacement beyond an extensive minefield, Pvt. Herrera again moved forward, disregarding the danger of exploding mines, to attack the position. He stepped on a mine and had both feet severed; but, despite intense pain and unchecked loss of blood, he pinned down the enemy with accurate rifle fire while a friendly squad captured the enemy gun by skirting the minefield and rushing in from the flank. The magnificent courage, extraordinary heroism, and willing self-sacrifice displayed by Pvt. Herrera resulted in the capture of two enemy strongpoints and the taking of eight prisoners.
Silvestre Herrera was a successful and honored man for all the days of his very long life, making a difference in Arizona until his death in 2007. Billy Fiske had a much shorter life, no less successful and honored. They both chose to fight for countries they loved, in causes they found right, without any obligation. Indeed, they both needed to get around their nationality to get in uniform. With World War I not that far behind, there was no more naive belief in short glorious war. Yet, they, like many before and after them, stepped up and signed their names.
See prior posts on the RAF Cadet Memorial service in:
See also the Imperial War Museums’ “8 Things You Need To Know About the Battle of Britain.”Published in