14th January 2016 | Clearwater and Winter Haven, Florida. “I knew the men were pleased with the reading of their names,” remarked a gentleman attending The Royal Canadian Legion Post 144 event in Clearwater, Florida.
The evening of 11 January 2016 was dedicated to honoring the Floridians who voluntarily joined the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and Royal Air Force (RAF) during World War II. The following day at 10:00 a.m. a public plaque dedication ceremony was held at Winter Haven Municipal Airport.
The Royal Canadian Legion hosted the memorial dinner at the American Legion Post 7 in Clearwater, Florida. After the meal Karl Kjarsgaard of Bomber Command Museum of Canada and Halifax 57 Rescue (Canada) narrated PowerPoint presentation designed to inform the Canadian, American, British and Korean attendees.
Mr. Kjarsgaard explained that hundreds of Americans joined the RCAF and RAF before the United States formally entered the war in December 1941.
Many of the RCAF-Americans were posted to squadrons operating Handley Page Halifax heavy bombers. These mammoth aerial bombardment machines suffered heavy losses, and therefore numbers of Americans perished with their British and Commonwealth crew mates. Karl Kjarsgaard informed the legionnaires and others that “Of the more than 8,000 Americans who served in the RCAF, about 800 were killed. Many of them died while serving with Bomber Command.” (Note: See Americans in the Royal Canadian Air Force and the Handley Page Halifax for more information.) Additionally, several Floridians perished during service with RAF Fighter Command.
Later accomplished Canadian singer and songwriter James Blondeau, who produced and recorded the poignant video and song American Eagle and the Proud Maple Leaf several years ago, of Dunrobincastle.com performed the stirring and reverent new song he composed as a tribute to the RCAF Floridians.
Sometime afterward a Certificate of Appreciation was awarded to Post 144 Sergeant-at-Arms Joe Dubuc, whose diligent efforts to coordinate the event brought success.
Those in attendance at Winter Haven Municipal Airport (airport designation KGIF) included Mayor Bradley T. Dantzler (City of Winter Haven) and Mayor Timothy J. Pospichal (City of Auburndale), Winter Haven City Commissioner Nathaniel J. Birdsong Jr., and Airport Director Leo Treggi. J.R. Hafer of 20th Century Aviation Magazine served as the emcee. A reporter from WONN AM 1430 radio and photojournalists from The Ledger, and News Chief newspapers were additionally among those witnessing the festivities.
The Civil Air Patrol furnished a cadet Color Guard for the morning, and Lt. Col. Phil Zedonek eloquently spoke of his visit to Bomber Command Museum of Canada/Halifax 57 Rescue.
Quite ironically, a British pilot by the name of Peter Bartels happened to fly into KGIF in the midst of the proceedings. Having been previously unaware of the scheduled affair the man became emotional. It seems that in the Second World War his son-in-law’s grandfather (Flight Sergeant Donald Brown) had served with Canadians on Halifax bombers as a flight engineer. Upon J.R. Hafer’s request, the aviator provided an impromptu discourse.
Mr. Lon Cooper also offered stories of his experiences while training RAF pilot candidates at the now defunct Lodwick School of Aeronautics/60th Army Air Force Flying Training Detachment, which was located only a few miles from Gilbert Army Air Field (now designated as ‘Winter Haven Municipal Airport’).
A focal point of the displays was a large marble plaque that contained an aluminum RCAF Crest at the top. This metallic symbol was forged from metal recovered from a Halifax bomber that was shot down over Belgium. The crew had been killed. The remains of the men and their Halifax were recovered. They were subsequently buried with full military honors and the metal melted into ingots for future use. Some of the metallic bars were utilized to construct the Bomber Command Memorial in London.
20th Century Aviation Magazine and Military Aviation Magazine Photojournalist John Stemple commented, “Obviously, the seal makes the monolith even more meaningful. Brave airmen died in that airplane, and some say the Crest therefore has blood on it.” 20th Century Aviation Magazine is attempting to locate family members of the Florida volunteers noted Mr. Stemple. “Their relatives should know that the loved ones are not forgotten.”
John solemnly shrugged and added, “It is the least we can do. Although honors are being bestowed belatedly, it is fitting and proper to do so these 70 years after the end of the great and terrible conflagration that saw the world saved from the Nazism of Germany’s National Socialist Party and the Empire of Japan’s imperialism.”
Seven decades have passed since the end of the terrible worldwide nightmare, but for those in the audience who lived through WWII it seemed like only yesterday. The separate public acknowledgements in Clearwater and Winter Haven were like portals to the distant past. As a line from a 1969 Zager and Evans hit record (In the Year 2525 [Exordium & Terminus]) implies, “So very far away, maybe it’s only yesterday.”
In conclusion, John Stemple expressed his thanks to Karl Kjarsgaard of Bomber Command Museum of Canada/Halifax 57 Rescue (Canada) and James Blondeau of Dunrobincastle.com for their dedication to and pursuit of their meritorious initiative.
Mr. Stemple stressed the invaluable contributions provided by The Royal Canadian Legion Post 144, Post 144 Commander Gordon Bennett, newly elected Post 144 Commander Dann Oliver, and Post Sergeant-at-Arms Joe Dubuc.
John additionally expressed his gratefulness for the cooperation and support of the Winter Haven Municipal Airport administration, namely Airport Director Leo Treggi and Administrative Assistant to the Airport Director Kendra Wetherington.
Also, John Stemple noted that Leaynn Poole of HOVA Flight Services, which is administered at KGIF by Steven Brown, fueled one of the display airplanes and provided logistical ground transportation. Additionally, Tim and Peggy Preston of Preston Aviation kindly supplied their Stearman trainer to serve as a backdrop for a Bomber Command Museum of Canada video interview with former WW2 flying instructor Lon Cooper.
Notably, the RCAF Crest mounting onto the marble plaque was performed at Brown’s Seaplane Base by the Director of Aircraft Maintenance, and Florida Glass donated the labor and materials used to affix the plaque overlay.
Last but certainly not least, Violet M. Hogan provided critical financial donations which enabled the acquisition of the marble memorial plaque and provided necessary funds to support the ceremonies.
Representatives and/or members of the following organizations were in attendance at the events: Air Force Association, Bomber Command Museum of Canada, Calgary Mosquito Society, Civil Air Patrol (the U.S. Air Force Auxiliary), Commemorative Air Force, Florida Aviation Historical Society, Halifax 57 Rescue (Canada), Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels, International Society for Aviation Photography, Royal Canadian Air Force Association/de l’Aviation royale Canadienne, The Royal Canadian Legion/La Légion royale Canadienne and Royal Air Force Historical Society.
Three plaques will be on indefinite display inside the Terminal building at Winter Haven Municipal Airport.
Contributing writer (Susan Gale) thanks publisher J.R. Hafer and photojournalist John Stemple for their cooperation.
Bomber Boys, Lion Television, 2012 (DVD)
Bomber Boys: The Fighting Lancaster (DVD)
Bomber Boys: The Fighting Lancaster Episode #1 – The Lucky H
Bomber Boys: The Fighting Lancaster Episode #2 – Baker Flight
Bomber Boys: The Fighting Lancaster Episode #3 – Combat
Bomber Boys: The Fighting Lancaster Episode #4 – Reunion
The Belgium Forest. DVD. Dunrobincastle.com.
Suggested Readings: Citations & URL Links
Arch Whitehouse. The Years of the War Birds, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1960.
Caine, Phillip D. The RAF Eagle Squadrons: American Pilots Who Flew for the Royal Air Force, Golden: Fulcrum Publishing, 2009.
Freeman, Roger A. Experiences of War: The British Airman, London: Arms and Armour Press, 1989.
Gaffen, Fred. Cross-Border Warriors: Canadians in American Forces, Americans in Canadian Forces From the Civil War to the Gulf, Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1995.