Great Chart Remembers 406th Fighter Group 70 Years 2014
Narrative Memoir by Craig Knowles
Great Chart is a village south of the city of Ashford in Kent, England. It has an old Norman church, a village hall, a school and a fair number of private residences. Across the street from the church is a War Memorial dedicated to the men of the village who fought and died in the Great War and the Second World War.
Great Chart is also the location of ALG 417, the Advanced Landing Ground used by three Allied air forces during World War II. ALG 417 is currently open farm land, although that is slated to change dramatically in the next 10 - 20 years. No real traces of the American presence remain, but there are several buildings in the area that were present during the war. The most notable of these is the home of Brigadier General and Mrs. Brian Parritt, charmingly named Little Chilmington, which served as 406th Group Headquarters. The second home is the residence of Ian and Carla Wolverson named Netters Farm, a beautiful old home built around the year 1430.
In the summer of 2008, I received a handwritten letter from Ian Wolverson, whom I did not know at the time, which said he got my name from the 406th Fighter Group web site. This got my attention as handwritten letters are a rarity now. He introduced himself, explained he was interested in the history of the 406th, and could I provide him any details. I was happy to oblige, and thus began a long email correspondence which continues even today.
In 2010, Ian contacted me with an idea he had been tossing around. He had told me in 2009 that the farmer who owned the air field had sold it, and a massive housing development was to be erected on the property. He also noticed that for years Britain’s remembrances on the local level of their war dead had become almost routine, and no one was cognizant of the level of sacrifice on a personal and national level Britain had made. I opined it was probably true for most nations. He had an idea that perhaps a proper memorial service was in order. He felt the men of the 406th who had died while the Group was stationed in Ashford should be included in the service. In other words, the twenty-one men of the 406th who died while stationed in Great Chart would be adopted as “Ashford’s own”. I was deeply touched by this gesture, and agreed to help in any way I could.
And this was how “Great Chart Remembers” was born, to be held on August 4th, 2014 which was timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary to the day of Britain’s entry into WW1. Ian spent the next three years formulating a vision of how the memorial service should be structured, and in organizing a team of individuals in the village who shared this vision and were committed to bringing it about. The idea was that Great Chart would honor all their own WWI and WWII veterans killed in action as well as those members of the Canadian and American air forces operating from ALG 417 who had also died. Ian asked me to provide photographs of the Americans who died, which I was able to do, and I also provided some supporting data. Regular correspondence continued on these lines during this time period.
My job was to alert as many individuals of the 406th and the Younger Generation of the planned memorial. I sent one large email blast to as many addresses as I had. Many responded but could not attend for reasons of health, finances, and previous commitments. One person who was very enthusiastic was Karen Burns, the daughter of Jack Robinson, and her husband Bob. I had never met her at any of the reunions, so this was to going to be really special to find someone else of my generation with a connection to the 406th.
Then, on September 30, 2013, I got an email from Bernie Sledzik of the 514th Fighter Squadron. He had initially stated it was doubtful he would attend but now, pending his and his wife’s continued good health, he now planned to attend. This was very courageous on his part, as he would turn 90 three months before the ceremony. An email notification to Ian was clearly not good enough so I phoned him and he was as excited as I was - to have an original member of the 406th in attendance would make the memorial service truly unforgettable.
Months went by with no real activity on my part, but in the spring of 2014, many travel plans were made with much coordination among the six Americans who would attend. We planned to arrive in London at slightly different times in the week before the ceremony, but we agreed to stay in the same hotel to allow better travel coordination. After we arrived at the hotel, we all met for breakfast on Saturday August 2nd, 2014. Following introductions and a meal, Bob and Karen by previous agreement, departed for Ashford to stay with the Parritts.
As Bernie and Brink Sledzik wanted an extra day in London, it was used to great advantage. Advance purchase of train tickets, was followed by libations at the Stanhope Arms on Gloucester Road. As we returned to the hotel, Bernie was by chance engaged in conversation on the sidewalk with another American, a complete stranger, a Korean War veteran. This episode turned out to be a hallmark of Bernie’s visit to the UK. It seemed as though everyone wanted to talk to Bernie, especially after our arrival in Ashford. He was gaining celebrity status right before our eyes.
The following day, the four of us took a cab to St. Pancras Station, and boarded the train. Only 45 minutes later, and after 2 stops, we had traversed the 70 miles to Ashford; that train is really fast. We shortly after arrived at the Wolverson residence. Carla greeted us enthusiastically as Ian was out trying to be everywhere else at once managing final details. Throughout our stay, Ian honored all of us by flying an American flag in his front yard.
An hour or so later, Ian arrived, introductions were made, and we all sat down for lunch and a good chat about the program schedule. I had little idea of what had been settled on, as I had resolved not to pester Ian to get details in the formative stages of the event.
We had a very pleasant dinner that evening at Netters, and breakfast the following morning, shortly after which Ian was off again. He later returned to transport us to the village hall. It was there that we finally got a glimpse of the scope of the ceremony. We saw the inside of the church, where two large video screens had been erected, and extra seating had been installed for the number of people expected to attend the service.
Across the street in the Village Hall itself were a series of very large corrugated black plastic support boards holding photographs and stories. The display boards were suspended from the ceiling, but tied together at the ends at right angles to one another. Starting with the WWI Ashford KIA, and winding around on both sides were the RAF and RCAF KIA at ALG 417, and at the end the USAAF KIA, was at least one photograph of every man, and other information such as copies of letters home, service records, etc. The setup at right angles allowed many people to be in the hall at once to see the entire display. Outside the hall was a small area for seating under the shade of a tree, and again, it was Bernie Sledzik who was the focus of attention of a good many people, particularly the RAF 5003 Engineering squadron men in attendance. Many cameras were in frequent use here.
The American contingent was loaded onto a small bus and, accompanied a second bus carrying the RAF contingent, proceeded to the ALG 417 airfield itself. We spent a few minutes there with Ian and a few others from the village. It was a beautiful warm day, and a breeze was blowing down the runway towards the sea. I stepped away from the group and just stared, trying to imagine the winds that blew down that runway from nearly 50 P-47s, some 70 years ago. And I recalled that it was exactly 70 years minus one day that the last remnants of the 406th had departed Great Chart for an airfield in France.
Finally, it was time to board our transports again. We had a quick roadside tour of the site where the 20 RAF men died from a bombing attack, and then off to a tour of Godinton House, the former home of a local noble featuring beautiful grounds and gardens, now held in trust for future generations. It was here that my wife, Terry, and I met the military air attaches for Canada and the United States. They were both fine young men, dedicated to their jobs, and enthusiastic about the ceremony.
We returned to the church and were guided to reserved seating near the front. The church filled up and by the start of the ceremony there was standing room only. At 6:45 the ceremony started with a welcome from Ian, and a 30 minute video presentation. The video showed in stark detail the incredible horrors of trench warfare in WWI: mud, rats, lice, trench foot, barbed wire, incessant shelling and machine gun fire, and the use of flame throwers and poison gas. It was not lost on anyone that the first and last shots of WWI were fired only 150 yards apart from one another in the Belgian village of Mons, attesting to the tremendous slaughter at so little gain. Portraits of every Great Chart man that fell followed. This was followed by the portraits of the fifteen RAF Engineering squadron men killed by a V-1 buzz bomb on May 20th ,1944. Next were the twenty one men of the 406th Fighter Group, adopted by Great Chart and honored and remembered by them. Last was a portrait of an RAF pilot killed in a Gloster Meteor crash at the airfield some months after the Americans had departed.
This was followed by prayers, additions to the Roll of Honour, a hymn (Oh God our Help in Ages Past), and a Bible reading by Brigadier General Parritt. Ian spoke again recounting of the events of 22 May 1944 for the RAF 5003 Squadron. Next was the Navy Hymn (Eternal Father Strong to Save), followed by Bernie Sledzik, who recited the poem “High Flight”. The rector of the church spoke for about five minutes, followed by the Archdeacon of Ashford, who exceeded his allotted time by over twenty minutes. Keep in mind that the ceremony was to end at sundown with the lowering of flags at the War Memorial, and so a strict timetable had to be observed. It was only a signal from Ian in the front of the church that kept things moving along. Ian continued with the story of ALG 417, and the Roll of Honour (music: Largo from Dvorak’s 9th Symphony).
Following the ceremony, the church emptied out as all proceeded the 75 yards down the road (which had been closed for two hours) to the War Memorial.
A crowd gathered in the street around the Memorial, and on a platform supported on scaffolding on the small hill above the road on the opposite side of the street. There were six flags flying at the Memorial, three along the right hand wall, and three on the left. On the right side were the national flags of Britain, Canada and America, and on the left side were the corresponding unit flags. As the 406th had no unit flag as such, the American Air Force flag substituted. Each flag was guarded quite professionally by a local Boy Scout.
The service began again with Ian’s and General Parritt’s words of remembrance and laying of the Village Wreath, followed by a beautiful audio recording of David Dorsey (brother of 406th pilot Ike Dorsey) reciting the poem “Flanders Fields”, in his slow and soft Alabama accent. Many later said this was the most beautiful moment of the entire ceremony.
Ian recounted the construction of RAF Ashford, and a RAF wreath was laid by 5001 Squadron Leader Mike Haygarth. A small 4” x 6” wooden cross with a poppy at its center was placed in the soil at the base of the War Memorial for each man honored in the ceremony. Ian invited the residents of the village to plant the flags for the men of Great Chart, followed by the RAF 5003 Engineering detachment for those killed by the buzz bomb in May 1944 (Music: Nimrod by Edward Elgar). There were more than enough representing both groups to allow for the planting of the flags. However, for the 21 Americans who perished, there were only 6 Americans present. After we had planted our crosses, Ian invited anyone from either of the other groups to plant the remaining 15 flags, and more than a sufficient number stepped forward. This was all accomplished slowly, solemnly and with great reverence.
The new memorial stone at the left rear of the War Memorial was unveiled by the RAF detachment, and it was to be followed by the unveiling of the American stone at the right rear.
Bernie Sledzik had been invited to perform that unveiling, and was guided up to the front of the stone, covered with an American flag. He stepped forward, and drew the flag up and over the back of the stone. He stepped back, snapped to attention, and saluted smartly. He held that salute while cameras clicked and flashes illuminated behind him in great abundance. I don’t think there was a dry eye within a hundred yards.
To me this was the pinnacle of the ceremony, and on a soft summer night in Great Chart, it took on an almost magical quality. Here was Bernie Sledzik, at age 90, saluting those men who were his brothers in arms of 70 years ago. In my mind’s eye, seven decades just dropped away, and as a 20 year old American fighter pilot stood there and saluted, I could almost imagine the ghostly spirits of the twenty-one Americans, whose names will forever be inscribed on that memorial, arising as one, snapping to attention, and returning that salute.
Bernie’s arm returned to his side, and the honored dead of the 406th returned to their Eternal Rest.
The ceremony then concluded with two minutes of silence, a closing prayer, and the playing of Last Post as the flags were lowered very slowly, culminating in sunset in the village.
Ian turned to me and I congratulated him on an absolutely superb ceremony. Most of us walked back up the now darkened street to the village hall, where many thoughtful conversations ensued. Many spoke to Bernie, and he received many thanks for coming such a long way and participating in the ceremony, and making it so memorable and moving. We all talked for a while, but eventually returned home and turned in for the night.
The next morning on Ian’s TV, we watched a recorded dedication ceremony by Prince Harry of a new archway in the city of Folkestone that had taken place the day before. This was significant as it was from this port that thousands of Allied soldiers embarked on ships bound for the war in France. It was suggested that this might be worth a visit, so Ian and Carla and their four American guests visited the town for the day. The arch was very impressive, as were the thousands of artificial poppies (mostly crocheted) that were mounted on the chain link fence that overlooked the harbor.
We returned to Great Chart, to the Parritt home, Little Chilmington, where the six Americans and our four English hosts sat outside in the back garden with drinks all around, and much conversation and reminiscence. After an hour or so, it was decided we would go our separate ways for dinner. Before we broke up, I got up and offered the following toast to Bernie and his comrades:
Here’s to the fighter pilots, wherever they may be
Aloft in lonely glory
At rest in Eternity
Or here, reliving thrills again
Rolling back the years, from now till then.
Here’s to the breed apart, to a dying art,
To the spirit that now binds them.
To the planes and the flak, to the brass and the crap,
And to battles long behind them.
To the fighter pilots, then, be they friend or foe
Let us drink, Gentlemen, and let us shout
We all retired to the front lawn where many pictures were taken as mementos of our last night as a group, with many handshakes, hugs and well wishes. It was decided that a dinner out in a pub was a fitting way to end Bernie and Brink’s visit. We returned to Netters, had one more celebratory nightcap, and turned in.
The next morning was a little subdued, as the Sledziks were packing up. Brian Parritt had to travel to London that day, and Bob and Karen Burns had already decided it was time to go. By very good fortune, they met up with Bernie and Brink at the station in Ashford, and were able to accompany them back to London. And so ended a wonderful few days in Great Chart, with great memories for all who participated, and a renewed sense of reverence for all whose lives were laid down that we may live in freedom.