Mitch Peeke has kindly sent the following report from the unveiling of the memorial he organised, for the crew of USAAF B-17 Serial 44-6133, lost in collision overhead Allhallows, Kent on June 19th, 1944. If you haven’t yet read Still with us, you may like to start there.
A Wing and A Prayer
by Mitch Peeke
So, the day finally arrived. Saturday June 22nd 2019 dawned clear and bright. A few fluffy cumulus clouds floating along on a gentle easterly breeze. Superb weather for a change!
I arrived at the Allhallows Holiday Park early, as I was organising everything of course! I got there just before 10am, with proceedings due to start at Noon. The Grounds Team were taking down the temporary barriers around the memorial as I arrived. My first task was to cover the memorial plaque with the Stars and Stripes. I simply put Velcro pads on the back of the plaque! The breeze held the flag flat against the support post. Perfect!
First to arrive were the Air Cadets, exactly on time, at 10:15. Two Squadrons of them. 213 (City of Rochester) Squadron, led by their C/O, Rick, all resplendent in No 1 dress. They were performing the Honour Guard duty. 1039 Squadron (Gillingham) in combats, led by their C/O, Kev (fellow Driving Instructor on the same driving school as me) were our helpers, car park marshalls and general behind the scenes bods. Kev gave me a walkie-talkie on their frequency. A great help!
Suddenly, a VERY distinct engine noise: Purposeful, slightly whiney. A cheer went up as two Willys Jeeps arrived. Queenie from nearby Cliffe and Jezebel from Maidstone.
The first an open Jeep, the second, covered. Jezebel had actually seen combat service in Europe, having been built in 1944 and taken to France after D Day. Queenie a 1943 Jeep had been a general runaround vehicle, but she certainly looked the part! Both Jeeps were parked at an angle behind the memorial, Jezebel‘s period-correct and battle-torn US flag, fluttering proudly from her aerial in the background.
The Public Address system was set up next to Queenie and duly tested. To everyone’s amazement, it actually worked! More D-Day enactors arrived and went with the Jeep crews into the Yacht Club for breakfast. An army marches on its stomach after all.
Next to arrive and set up was Medway Warbirds with their superb ground display of large scale RC model aircraft, and the team from nearby Slough Fort. The Fort dates from the Napoleonic Wars and sits within the grounds of the Holiday Park. It was in service as a Coastal Defence Fort during WW2 and the collision between the two B-17s is covered in the Fort’s War Diary. The Fort actually has a piece of the wreckage of 44-6133 that washed up on the beach two years ago. We have a display planned for the Fort’s museum that will feature it with pictures of the crew, later.
A growing crowd
As I looked around, some members of the public had already begun to arrive. From the corner of my eye I noticed a couple coming toward me, the man armed with a camera. I’ve never met him, but instantly I know who he is. We have spoken on the phone many times and we email each other daily. Enter Andy Laing, proprietor of the Aviation Trails website, where this whole, maybe slightly mad idea, began; and his even better half, Jen! They have driven all the way down from Lincolnshire just for this day. Now, after an online acquaintance of more than a year, we finally get to meet in person!
Andy and Jen are closely followed by David Lee and his Girlfriend. David is the ex-curator of the Duxford Air Museum and is no mean Aviation Historian himself. Having read my article on Andy’s website, he asked if he could come along. As if I’d say “No”!
My ATC walkie-talkie calls my name. We have a truck coming down apparently. Now there was talk of a WW2 3-Ton US Army truck coming. I get quietly excited! Then, appearing over the far horizon of parked cars, comes an Air Force blue, Citroen Fish and Chip van! Our supplemental caterers! The immaculately restored van is actually 47 years old and does not look out of Plaice (pun alert!) at all! The Army truck broke down a week ago I later discovered!
Next arrival is a Custom car. A silver Chrysler PT Cruiser that I chanced upon in a local car park a month ago. The second I saw it, I put a note on the car’s windscreen asking the owner to bring it to this event and to contact me. Thankfully he did both! He has driven it all the way from Dover, to honour 44-6133’s crew. This car, named Hell’s Belle, is truly unique. I have never seen one customised as the nose of a B-25 bomber before! Thank you so much for coming, Rob! It is a real eye-catcher!
All the way from California
I glance at my watch. It has gone 11am. The Medway Big Band’s musicians have been arriving singly for the last 45 minutes and are setting up their seats, music stands and instruments. There’s 15 of them. Most have come from Maidstone, others from Sheerness. When I first approached them about this event and told them what it was in aid of, they all agreed to waive their usual fees. All 15 of them have agreed to play here for two hours for the princely sum of £12 each, to help cover fuel costs; all in memory of eight American Airmen who died here 75 years ago.
And speaking of Americans; where are my special guests?! The local Vicar has just arrived for a sort of dress rehearsal, but no sign of Noel Tognazzini and Jeanne Cronis-Campbell yet and it is gone 11:30! Getting concerned! Almost on cue, my walkie-talkie crackles into life. There is a crew relative looking for me. I look up to the ATC checkpoint and raise my hand high. Three minutes later, I am meeting Geoff Burke from Derby (he came with Jeanne) and being warmly embraced by Jeanne, who has come all the way from California to be with us as we honour her late Father, “Teddy” Chronopolis: 44-6133’s Bombardier and the only one of the crew to get out of that plane alive. But where is Noel?
I can hear good-natured murmurings from the British D-Day enactors about the Americans being late again! At 11:45, and not a moment too soon, Noel arrives. He’d ran into some old friends and lost track of the time! (It’s a long story!). Five minutes later, my son, Mylo, arrives. He is my “official photographer”!
They gave their tomorrows
So; after six months of planning, publicity, begging, pleading to get it all in place; the moment had arrived. I picked up the mike to the PA system and called for order. No pressure! Have I written a speech? The short answer is “No”. I tried, but I was happy with none of it, so I threw it all away and decided to wing it.
Keeping it short, I explained why we were all here; that 75 years ago some American airmen whom none of us had ever, or would ever meet, died for us. “They gave their tomorrows so that we would have ours”. Not sure quite where that came from, but it certainly got to me!
I gave Medway Big Band’s Leader the nod: TAPS, played solo on the trumpet reverberated through the hush as everyone stood, heads bowed, in total silence. As the last bar of that emotive piece faded in the sunshine, Noel and Jeanne walked through 213 Squadron’s immaculate Honour Guard and stepped up to unveil the memorial to their family members and their crewmates, hidden beneath the Stars and Stripes. As they stepped back, the Reverend Stephen Gwilt prayed for the eternal remembrance of those lost airmen. Amen.
Grand bunch, they were
I then took the mike again and asked everyone to give generously during the remainder of the event, donating via the collection buckets that the Air Cadets would be carrying around. The cause: To help keep B-17 Sally B, based across the water at Duxford, flying. She flies as a memorial to the 79,000 allied aircrew who died flying B 17’s during WW2 and she is the only airworthy B-17 left in Europe. I then handed the proceedings over to Medway Big Band who immediately set about getting everybody “In The Mood”. Something they would continue to do for the next two hours, as they proved to be nothing short of brilliant!
Just as I put the mike down, an elderly man with shaky hands and a querulous voice literally appeared straight in front of me. “Are you the one responsible for all this?” he demanded. Taken slightly aback, I told him that I was.
“Well, I was 12 years old in the summer of ’44 and as a lad, I used to play with some of the American soldiers. Grand bunch they were! Just before they left for what we now know was D-Day, one of them gave me this”. He produced a pin bearing the emblem of the US Airborne. “I have had it all this time. Now, I am giving it to you, because of what you have done for them”.
With that, he pressed the pin into my hand, gripped it firmly, and then, simply left; as quietly as he came. I put the pin securely in my pocket. Later, I fixed it permanently to my motorcycle jacket, opposite another pin of the British and US flags, crossed. Anyone who knows me will know how much that means to me.
I spent most of the remainder of the afternoon in the company of Jeanne and Noel, Andy and Jen, Geoff Burke, the D-Day enactors, in fact as many people as I could, but I know there were others I simply didn’t get round to, as much as I tried to!
Looking around, I saw that our car park was packed. There were motorcycles there too. One, a red custom Yamaha called “The Mad Hatter” was owned by an ex Royal Navy man called Rob. My son Mylo had been talking to him and his wife about me and this event. Rob “The Mad Hatter” sought me out to shake my hand. There were two Hells Angels present also. One of them I know works on the Park. I saw both of them putting paper money into one of the Air Cadets’ buckets. Thanks Guys!
I did take Noel and Jeanne over to the Slough Fort tent and watched their faces as I passed them the piece of B-17 wreckage to hold. Jeanne got her phone out and took a picture of it. Suddenly, she put her hand to her mouth. I asked her if she was all right. She said: “Look at the time on the photo!” It was 2:22. “Dad’s birthday is February twenty-second!” Of course, Americans would write that as 2/22. I said; “Well, here’s another coincidence for you: The number of my house is 222!” She embraced me again; a warm, connective embrace that went beyond words. “Thank You SO much, Mitch” she whispered.
They WERE here
Later, Geoff Burke took me aside to show me copies of the photos he has of 44-6133’s crew. They are such fantastically candid pictures of young men at war. All were taken inside their B-17 on a training flight. Young, happy, smiling faces from the past, that bring personalities to the cold list of names on the memorial.
Noel said that he simply couldn’t believe that I had organised all this just to commemorate those lost airmen. He was overjoyed and so appreciative. He promised to buy me a beer when he is next over here. A promise I will hold him to! As for Jeanne, she left me with these words: “In their deaths, you have given these men life, Mitch; and I just cannot thank you enough for that”. I know we will all keep in touch. We now have far too much in common not to!
By 3pm, the event had finished; the stands packed away, the people gone. Just the memorial standing alone on the seafront, looking out as another tide rolls inexorably to the shore; Just as it has always done. The only difference now is that the crew of B-17 44-6133, neglected for 75 years, now, at last, have their own memorial.
They WERE here and they DID matter.