The nearly identical granite headstones at Oakland Memorial Cemetery in Terrell line up with appropriate military precision. One row of four, two rows of three, two rows of four, then one row of only two. Headstones mark the graves of the 20 Royal Air Force cadets who died while learning to become pilots at British Flight School No.1 in Terrell. The flight school, hastily built on farmland south of the city center, turned hundreds of young men into indispensable pilots during World War II.
My son and I had entered the cemetery on a Sunday afternoon while waiting for a nearby tire store to fix our puncture. The RAF section was immediately recognizable as a small-scale version of the American Cemetery in Normandy, France. It is orderly, immaculate and overwhelming. Seven of the cadets were only 19 when they died – only a year older than my son today. The RAF plot represents duty, sacrifice, sorrow and grace.
American flight schools have been a creative response to a difficult challenge. Having endured months of German bombardment during the Battle of Britain, the island kingdom was in desperate need of safer, less populated places to train aircrews. The United States was officially neutral and refused to provide direct military aid to the Allies.
Then a workaround emerged. The Lend-Lease Act of March 1941 allowed the United States government to purchase military supplies and loan or lease them to any country whose security was vital to America. He could lend aviation training equipment to civilian flight schools recruiting British airmen. Terrell was chosen as the site of the first British Flying Training School, or No. 1 BFTS.
The school’s first students crossed the Atlantic by boat, landed in Canada, then, out of respect for American neutrality, stripped off their RAF uniforms and wore civilian clothes for the long train trip to Texas. . A living history of the aviation school, The Royal Air Force in Texas, by Tom Killebrew, notes that the Airmen in training have become local celebrities.
It’s hard to imagine how foreign Texas must have looked to these young men from across the Atlantic. There was humidity and heat and the size of the state – Texas is almost three times the size of Britain. There were unfamiliar local accents. There was peace and plenty: the city lights could shine at night because no German bomber buzzed over their heads looking for targets, and the cadets could eat their fill of milk, d ‘eggs, sugar and bacon, strictly rationed foods at home.
The residents of Terrell opened their hearts and homes to British students. Families invited the young men to dinners and parties; churches and civic groups invited them to speak and sponsored dances, picnics and outings in Dallas. Local citizens greeted each new class of cadets at the station and watched them depart as they left.
Inevitably, there were accidents. The first fatality was Richard D. Mollett, whose plane crashed and burned down on November 30, 1941. He became the first student buried in Oakland Memorial Cemetery. A week later, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and America went to war.
Classes continued to run indoors and outdoors. The cadets performed a New Year’s musical revue in Terrell and several neighboring towns; this diary complimented the beautiful baritone voice of cadet Leonard G. Blower. A few weeks later, Blower’s plane collided in midair with another during a training flight. Both pilots were buried in the RAF section of Oakland Cemetery. It became common for a group of Terrell women to make sure there were flowers and mourners at every funeral.
On September 3, 1945, a day after Japan signed the surrender document, RAF cadets Thomas S. Beedie and Raymond B. Botcher died when their plane crashed into Lake Travis. BFTS # 1 closed a week later.
For decades, two of Terrell’s sisters watched over the RAF plot. He is now in the care of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. A little gem of a Museum, nestled in an industrial area of Terrell, details the history of BFTS n ° 1.
On a recent afternoon, the RAF gravestones were immaculate and legible. Mounds of red and white begonias and multi-colored portulacas bloomed between the gray granite markers. A row of crepe myrtles, still struggling with the harsh February frost, provided shade for the lacework. It was green and nice, but half a world from the land these young aviators had called home.
When the British cadets came to Texas, they were strangers here. They became friends in the deepest sense of the word, giving their lives to help win a war that has become our war too.
Jennifer Nagorka is a writer in Dallas. She wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.
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