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Albany group remembers British pilots

Photo by Laura Williams

Photo by Laura Williams

ALBANY, Ga. -- All of Great Britain is celebrating today the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, a monumental air victory that played a huge role in turning the tide of World War II.

Half a world away, near a monument in Albany's Crown Hill Cemetery, members of the RAF in Albany Memorial Committee will quietly mark the anniversary as well.

"Albany has a very special bond with Great Britain and the British Commonwealth nations," founding RAF in Albany Committee member Bob Drake said. "More than 5,000 young British cadets trained to become combat air pilots at Darr Aero Tech and Turner Field here.

"Seven of those brave young men who were killed in training accidents are buried here. This day is important in British history, but it's important as well to the people of Southwest Georgia who got to know and admire these young pilots."

Drake would know. As a teen soda jerk at a downtown drugstore, he developed a severe case of hero worship as he served the British pilots.

"The whole town embraced them," Drake said. "They were just so distinguished."

Other members of the RAF in Albany Memorial Committee remember the British flyboys as well.

"My parents entertained 62 of the RAF cadets in '41 and '42," said John Sherman, the great-grandson of Albany founder Nelson Tift. "Our family maintained correspondence with some of the pilots until two or three years ago."

Herman Goering assured Adolf Hitler that Germany's "Operation Sea Lion" -- a full-scale invasion of England -- could be accomplished quite easily once Germany's dreaded Luftwaffe gained control of the air around the Commonwealth. That would allow them to protect German troops already gathering in preparation of crossing the English Channel.

But the outnumbered British Royal Air Force fought off the Luftwaffe over weeks of fierce air battles, forcing the German dictator to abandon plans to invade England and turn instead to Russia.

The RAF's Battle of Britain victory -- which led to Prime Minister Winston Churchill's famous proclamation: "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few." -- exacted a heavy toll on the British air force. More pilots were needed, and quickly.

The United States, meanwhile, had not yet entered the war, but U.S. Army Air Force Gen. Hap Arnold devised a plan by which British pilots would be trained by "civilian" instructors at air bases in 11 Southeastern U.S. cities: Camden, S.C.; Tuscaloosa, Montgomery, Selma and Dothan, Ala.; Arcadia and Lakeland, Fla.; and Albany, Macon, Americus and Valdosta, Ga.

Albany, with its two locations, trained more cadets than any of the other sites, and the seven pilots who died while training here were, according to British tradition, buried in a place of honor in the land where they met their end.

RAF in Albany Committee member Van Yielding's father Walter was one of the American "civilian" flight instructors who came to Albany from West Virginia to train the British pilots.

"My dad actually met my mom at Radium Springs in the summer of '44," Yielding said. "He married my mom on Oct. 22 and was shipping out (for the war effort) two or three days later. I'm not sure when they had time to consummate their marriage."

In 1991, on the 50th anniversary celebration of the Battle of Britain, a group of Albany history buffs who had formed the RAF in Albany Memorial Committee contacted a similar group in England and invited members to mark the celebration in Albany.

"They counted up and originally had 20 people -- pilots, wives, girlfriends, family -- planning to come over," committee member Whit Gunnels said. "As the plans progressed, that 20 grew to 40, the 40 grew to 80, and the 80 finally became 150."

That reunion, and subsequent gatherings in 1996, 2000 and 2004, left RAF in Albany Memorial Committee members with plenty of memories.

"There were so many things about our culture that they wanted to share with their families," Sherman said. "They loved our food, and when we had a barbecue for them I deep-fried eight whole turkeys. I told them I was going to send them back to England with grease up to their elbows.

"And, being the guys they were, when they arrived at the airport in Atlanta and got a caravan heading this way, they'd been drinking and ended up heading for North Carolina instead of Albany. They made about a two-hour detour."

Drake said the flyboys were quite fond of their gin and tonic.

"We had a reception for them at our house, and we ran out of liquor," he said. "Fortunately, my neighbor owned a package store, so I talked him into opening up on a Sunday evening to restock."

The local memorial committee -- which now includes Drake, Yielding, Gunnels, Sherman, Lance Barnes, John Bell, Art Erickson, Harold Harden, British resident Kate Jefferson, Joe Kitchens, John Sperry and Marty Steiner -- has no established function other than keeping alive the role that Albany played in a pivotal part of World War II.

"We're into hosting the second generation (20 young British Air Training Corps members -- the equivalent of U.S. Civil Air Patrol -- came to a Crown Hill memorial in 2004)," said Steiner, a writer/aviation historian who lives in Moultrie and Atlanta. "It's great to honor the pilots, but it's the stories that are really important.

"If we don't keep the stories alive, when the people who lived them go, they'll be gone for good."