Where’er the British flag is flown
With the Stars and Stripes above
You’ll find a kindred unity
of friendship and of love;
Each British heart beneath those flags —
Whoever it may be —
Says “Thank you” to America,
”For what you’ve been to me.”
Just as we civilians honor our deceased family or friends, Royal Air Force Sgt. Craig Martin wants the same for his kind.
The career airman’s obligation, his duty, he said, is to arrange a Remembrance Sunday for United Kingdom soldiers, sailors and airmen, those who had died serving their country.
But how to go about such things in America, wondered the RAF flight engineer based in Scotland.
Then things coalesced about a year ago when Sgt. Martin learned that his RAF unit was deploying to Florida. The crew was to come here, train in a $250 million military jet and return with it to Scotland around Christmastime. Coincidentally, that assignment to Naval Air Station Jacksonville timed with Remembrance Sunday, when the United Kingdom honors its service members killed in the two world wars. Americans call it Veterans Day, when WWI ended in 1918, or Armistice Day on Nov. 11.
And there it was … Sgt. Martin’s chance. It happens that 23 UK pilots lie buried in Arcadia, southwest of Jacksonville, where his No. 120 Squadron this month is testing a Boeing P-8 Poseidon before flies it back to Lossiemouth, Scotland. The unit hunts for submarines and other intruders.
Those WWII-era UK pilots died in Arcadia and Clewiston, either flight training or in off-field mishaps. These men — some having not yet driven when strapped into Stearman biplanes and Harvard trainers that roared around the skies — are at rest in the British Plot in Arcadia’s Oak Ridge Cemetery. Their gravesites in double rows are tidy in white gravel and fresh mulch, gray marble markers with their names, date of death, an RAF seal and a cross identifying them. The British Plot is among acres of others in their final rest at Oak Ridge.
Sgt. Martin, those with his RAF unit in Florida, the British American Club of Englewood, the Rotary Club of Arcadia, dignitaries, descendants and the curious gather Nov. 10 at Oak Ridge Cemetery for graveside services for the 23 RAF trainees. A 35-minute morning Remembrance Sunday ceremony includes wreath-laying, a bagpiper, a vintage warbird flyover, raising of the Union Jack, and a bugler’s mournful Last Post or Taps. Arcadia’s Rotarians since the 1950s have conducted something like it on Memorial Day. A marker commemorating aviator John Paul Riddle is also in the British Plot because of his affiliation with the privately run flight training schools. Riddle died in 1989 and his ashes were scattered over Biscayne Bay.
The Nov. 10 event begins at 10:30 a.m. Milling about and greetings follow the services.
“We knew we were going to be here,” Sgt. Martin said, phoning from Jacksonville. “But how could we get involved.”
Social media became that conduit. Sgt. Martin linked with Rik Sills with the British American Club of Englewood. Sills and wife Leslie had been motoring to Arcadia, backing their minivan to the RAF gravesites, lifting the decklid and playing a CD of “God Save the Queen” and a Last Post bugle tribute on Remembrance Sunday. He had posted these recordings on social media. Sgt. Martin found them, contacted Sills and hatched plans before arriving last week in Jacksonville with his mates.
The British American Club of Englewood co-hosts Remembrance Sunday with Arcadian Rotarians.
Before Pearl Harbor and as the Nazis grabbed what wasn’t theirs, establishment of British and United States flying schools took shape; south Florida and the state had some 170 training sites. Florida’s population nearly doubled in the years after the war.
Florida’s heartland became pivotal for two important schools; the British No. 5 at Riddle Field, Clewiston, and the U.S. School at Carlstrom Field, Arcadia. Carlstrom Field opened in June 1941; Riddle Field in September.
At the time of the first death of an RAF cadet at either school, July 22, 1941, by request of the British authorities, arrangements for a burial site in Arcadia’s Oak Ridge Cemetery were made by Paul P. Speer, Arcadia’s city recorder and manager, acting on behalf of the British. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission pays to keep the British Plot tidy, as it does for other such places where UK service members are interred. The Duke of Kent is its president.
By all accounts, Britian’s WWII cadets were welcomed with open arms in Arcadia, taken in as family. Cadets enjoyed rodeos, dances and were given home-cooked meals prepared by locals. Pilots training in Arcadia during WWI received similar welcomings.
The skeleton of Carlstrom Field remains along State Road 31. Its buildings following the war were for a state mental-health facility and later a juvenile detention center.
Vacant hangars, some housing and offices still stand. Today, you almost hear the lumbering biplanes, vintage oil-belchers even then, in Florida’s endless warmth, tools clanging in giant hangars, cars, delivery trucks and ambulances racing around the thrumming city-place, homesick boys on strange turf mass assembled into pilots like Model T’s, the airbase where thousands worked and lived, like Arcadia and Clewiston, awash in the money-machine of a war.
The elephant undercurrent was that daredevil pilots don’t always die naturally.
The Rotary Club of Arcadia for more than 60 years had honored the lost RAF pilots, staging a solemn Memorial Day ceremony of prayers, song and music, flowers and flags and a mournful bagpiper in the warm sun ... or under buckets of rain. Family, surviving pilots and family of their deceased comrades, diplomats, generals and others, each offered words since 1956, when the British Memorial Service began. Rotarian Judy Kirkpatrick had chaired the program for nearly 20 years, around the time courts ordered the Rotary to allow women members. She handed the volunteer job last year to Arcadia lawyer Paul Seusy, a ceremony with “lots of gravitas to it,” Seusy said. He co-leads the Nov. 10 event.
Several area British-affiliated clubs have taken part in the British Memorial, such as the The St. Andrew Society of Sarasota (providing a bagpiper from the Jacobites Pipe and Drum Band), Sarasota Scottish Society, Daughters of the British Empire, the British Car Club and others.
Many of those plan to be in Arcadia on Nov. 10.
“If it wasn’t for these blokes,” Sills, an English transplant, said of the fallen airmen, “we wouldn’t enjoy the lives we have,” adding that a childhood friend’s father from Leicester, England, is buried in Arcadia’s British Plot — RAF trainee Leonard G. Stone died in his plane in Florida in August 1943.