RAF Albany Committee member Robert Drake, left, and Arthur Erickson, committee member and World War II veteran pilot, pose next to a commemorative display honoring British Royal Air Force cadets that trained in Albany. The memorial is located in the new Southwest Georgia Regional Airport terminal that opened a few months ago. (Staff Photo: Brad McEwen)
ALBANY — A display memorializing cadets from the British Royal Air Force, who trained in Albany during World War II has an expanded home, front and center in the Southwest Georgia Regional Airport’s new terminal.
The display, which features pictures, news articles and other memorabilia, depicting Albany’s history with the RAF during the 1940s, was originally housed in the airport’s old terminal in a single display case.
When the airport opened its new terminal a few months ago, officials were proud to move the items into two double-sided display cases, roughly 8 feet tall and 9 feet wide, located in the middle of the terminal where they can be seen immediately by anyone entering the facility.
“It’s great, the history of this city that is in that memorial,” said Kenneth Johnson, deputy director of the airport. “When we built the new terminal we strived to find a place where it could get the most exposure, where people could learn about this important part of Albany’s history.”
That history includes Albany’s important role as a training area for RAF cadets. Early in WWII, while England was under heavy attack from Nazi forces, the United States had still not entered into the conflict.
With Britain pinned down by the assault of the German air force, know as the Luftwaffe, it had become treacherous for cadets to take to the air for proper flight training. Wanting to do something to help America’s ally, U.S. Army General Henry “Hap” Arnold, convinced U.S. officials to allow RAF cadets to undergo flight training at American airbases.
As part of this plan, dubbed the “Arnold Scheme,” from 1941 to 1943 some 5000 British cadets came through Albany for their flight training.
When the Arnoldians, as the RAF cadets were known, first arrived in Albany, they began training at the newly commissioned Turner Army Airfield and at the Albany Municipal Airport. Since the Albany airport was not designed as a military training base, the City of Albany approved funds to expand the airfield and Hal S Darr, the owner of a contract flying school, made an additional investment and the location became DARR Areo Tech.
During this time seven cadets were killed in training accidents and buried in Crown Hill Cemetery. Not wanting future generations to forget why those cadets were buried there, a group of concerned veterans and citizens, formed an informal group in 1991 that came to be known as the RAF Albany Committee.
In addition to having a memorial placed at the graves of the fallen flyers, the RAF committee members also began recording the RAF history and were instrumental in bringing renewed awareness to this time in the city’s history.
After visiting air fields throughout Europe and seeing monuments memorializing American airmen, WWII veteran Arthur Erickson, a pilot of the 8th Air Force’s 398th bomb group, 567th squadron, felt the airport in Albany should do something to honor the British cadets who lived and trained in Albany during the war.
For some time Erickson had been amassing his own collection of memorabilia concerning RAF cadets who trained in Albany, even obtaining correspondence with people who had known some of the cadets. After joining the RAF committee, Erickson and other members expanded that collection and obtained space at the Southwest Georgia Regional Airport to create a memorial display.
“When I first joined the service, we’d go to different towns and folks really accepted us, like we were family,” Erickson said. “When I got to England I noticed it was the same thing over there. Years later I visited airfields in the UK that had displays honoring American airmen, back over here there was nothing. I just thought it would be payback for them doing this for us.”
Depicting an important part of Albany’s and the airport’s history, the display became a focal point of the terminal, something that now continues in the new airport terminal.
“This airport has a distinguished history,” said Drake. “The new display case is really visible and looks great.”
When commenting on the importance of the memorial collection, Drake is quick to point out how much the RAF committee appreciates the support it has gotten from the airport and, in particular, Johnson.
“Ken was very instrumental in getting us this space,” Drake said. “He has been more than cooperative and interested. He was a big part of getting this organized. We’re very grateful.”
For his part, Johnson, who is a WWII history buff himself, said he was honored to help and feels the display illuminates an important part of Albany’s history.
“The younger generation needs to know about this history, this field,” Johnson said. “It’s important they know that Albany was a part of history, part of a world war.”
For Drake, the display not only preserves a rich part of Albany’s history, it also stands as a lasting reminder of a time in his life that made a substantial impact on his life. Drake, who was born in 1927, was just a teenager when the world was held in the grip of war, but his experiences with those who fought, especially the young British cadets who trained here, are still very vivid.
“I remember in the summer of 42 there were more British cadets in the 18-25 age group than there were Americans, because so many of our young men had joined the service,” Drake reminisced. “I looked at these British cadets, like a young boy would look up to an older brother. They were glamorous figures to me. I was a soda jerk at a drugstore downtown and they’d come in and talk to me and I was fascinated. I could hardly talk to them, I was tongued in awe.”
Drake continued by saying that during that time, local families would sort of adopt the young airmen and have them attend church with their families, have them in for dinner and take them out on the town. In return, Drake said, the cadets stayed involved with the community and became a part of the town.
“They were really mothered and fathered when they were here,” Drake said. “Families took them in and took care of them, treated them like their own. The cadets, were very active in the community. They would sing in church choirs. They actually had a cadet glee club and they would get together on Saturdays at WALB radio station and perform concerts. I was great having them here.”
Drake said the fascination the cadets and the citizens shared with each other had a lot to do with the era in which they lived.
“Back in those days it was rare for folks to travel across the ocean,” Drake said. “Only rich folks and diplomats were able to do that. When the cadets came over, they were amazed, by us. It was quite an experience for them. They were kids too. Some cadets didn’t even know how to drive a car and here they were getting their pilot’s licenses.”
Erickson, who grew up in New England before joining the service, relocated to Albany 35 years ago to start Erickson Forklifts, which is still in operation. For him the connection with the RAF reminds him of his days as a young pilot.
“Those kids were teenagers in training at DARR and I was in the same kind of program in the states too,” Erickson said. “I went through the same thing.”
In addition to the airport memorial and the memorial of the fallen cadets at Crown Hill, there is a commemorative marker and tree located in downtown Albany, between the government center and the school system office that shows that not only was this era of Albany’s history important to the town and its citizens, but also to the RAF itself.
The marker reads, “This tree was planted by British Royal Air Force Veterans who learned their flying skills in the USA AF Southeast Army Air Corps during 1941-1943. It symbolizes the esteem, affection and enduring friendship forged by these airmen and the people of Albany who so generously received over 5000 RAF cadets.”