James and Grainne May from Great Britain took a sentimental journey to Albany recently, tracing James’ father’s history as a British World War II cadet taking pilot training at Darr Aero Tech and Turner Field in Albany. The journey began with the couple’s Internet discovery of Albany Herald feature articles.
ALBANY, Ga. — It was one of those eerie, unlikely moments that happen from time to time.
During World War II, British subject Denis May had taken his flight training in Albany, along with more than 5,000 cadets from Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa.
Around 70 years later, on March 30 of this year, The Albany Herald published an article relating the gift of a “photo compilation” of the period to the Albany Chamber of Commerce and the Convention and Visitors Bureau, given by the Albany Royal Air Force Committee.
Some two weeks after the article appeared, Denis May’s son, James, also a British subject, happened to be surfing the Internet on related topics. His search brought him to the Herald story, as well another article, also from The Herald, featuring the 50th Albany cadet reunion. The only photo published of a couple was May’s mother and father.
“There it was on the monitor,” James May said later. “There were my parents. I’d never seen that photograph in my life.”
Through additional searching, James May and his wife, Grainne, located the Albany Convention and Visitors Bureau and emailed CVB Manager Rashelle Beasley. Beasley forwarded the note to Bob Drake, an active member of the Albany Royal Air Force Committee. Drake was happy to take them around the city and the old aviation sites, he told them. James May and his wife were practically on their way to Albany.
Denis May passed away in 2006 at the age of 87, James May said. He’d been 22 when he took his flight training at the old Darr Aero Tech site, the present location of the Southwest Georgia Regional Airport, and in Montgomery, Ala., and at Turner Air Field in Albany.
Drake said the Albany tour was an emotional one for James May, who was walking in his father’s footsteps, or at least where they remained uncovered by changes through the years. Turner Field is mostly Turner Job Corps and the MillerCoors brewery now. The town “haunts” where a young Brit would go in 1942 are gone, the city almost unrecognizable from a time when Drake estimates only 20,000 people lived here.
“There are the three original hangars left from Darr and the revolving beacon,” Drake said. “Denis May would have known them, and James saw them just as his dad did in 1942.”
Drake was around 14 or 15 years old during the years of the “Arnold Scheme,” which brought air cadets from Britain and other nations to train in the United States, but he said he remembers that time well.
According to Drake, the young men were well-received and accepted in the community, their accents a source of endearment.
“The town just adopted them,” Drake said. “Most of (the cadets) had never been away from home. At that time in Britain, not too many people drove automobiles, so here they were, not ever having driven a car, and learning to fly those powerful aircraft. Denis May earned his British wings here in Albany, and because he learned to fly under the American system, he earned his U.S. Army Air Corps Wings, too.”
Drake said that James May told him his father was one of those who had never driven. According to Drake, a special section in Crown Hill Cemetery is set aside for cadets killed in flying accidents while training.
At the Albany Regional Airport, preparing to continue on to Montgomery, where Denis May also trained, James May and his wife showed pictures in their family album.
“There he is in front of the Albany Hotel,” James May said, “and there he is in front of Bob’s Soda Fountain.”
The Mays had gone to the Dougherty County Library to continue their search for pictures, the couple said, and scored another long shot.
“They had a lot of pictures of American cadets,” James May said, “but not so many of the British. There was only one of a British class — the one with my father. It’s an amazing coincidence, really.”
Denis May was never called to actual combat, James May said, but served as a trainer himself, teaching young pilots to fly a variety of aircraft for the duration of the war.