Seventieth Anniversary Commemoration at
Narrative Memoir by Craig Knowles
Great Chart is a village south of the
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
And this was how “Great Chart
Remembers” was born, to be held on
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.
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
As Bernie and Brink Sledzik
wanted an extra day in
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
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
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 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
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
spoke again recounting of the events of
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.
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
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
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
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.
Reunion for the 406th Fighter Group Association - 2007
The 406th Fighter Group WWII Memorial Association held its 14th
Highlights of the three day event attended by over 80 members — including 20 surviving veterans — included pilot JC Van Bloom donating his "Bloom's Tomb" flight jacket, featuring the nose art from his famous P-47 Thunderbolt painted on the back. This well-known and popular WWII nose art icon is a flying tomb with angel wings with an image of JC sitting atop and thumbing his nose at "Der Fuehrer".
Sgt. Danny Keay of the US Army was the guest speaker at the Saturday night Banquet. His very fine presentation detailed the archeological recovery of 406th pilot Paul Mazal — still in his P-47 — discovered under ground on a German farm in 2005. Paul had been MIA, "missing in action", for over 60 years. Many remembered their fellow 406th pilot — some not able to hold back the tears. Noted military artist DW Mueller came down from Utah to present his latest artwork, featuring Paul Mazal getting ready to take off as seen in a 1944 photo, to the 406th Association.
On Friday, April 27th, the Association visited the Pima Air and Space Museum. The Museum is the home for the 406th Historical Archive. In a ceremony, the design for the 406th Permanent Display at the Museum was unveiled. To be completed in the spring of 2008, Fitch Architecture and Design, a worldwide firm with offices in Scottsdale, donated the beautiful design to the 406th. We thank Fitch for their generous support to the 406th and the Tucson community.
The final reunion was held at the Sheraton Hotel and Suites on E. Grant Road. Many Association member brought items to be donated to the 406th Archive as well as donating money for the 406th Permanent Display. It was a particularly warm and friendly gathering with old friends sharing memories from the War as well as the past 60 years.
Members also brought along things to be displayed in and around the hospitality suite, including a beautiful and very large model P-47 done by John Rawson. As many as 12 Grossetta family members — spanning 4 generations — attended the Banquet Dinner.
The gathering was the last scheduled reunion. However, it was announced that there would be a "Ribbon Cutting Ceremony" once the 406th Permanent Display was completed at Pima Air and Space Museum sometime in 2008. That date will be announced later.