Falcon Field


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Bill McCash: It's a privilege for me to be here and to address all of you returning this annual memorial service in order to pay homage to our 23 Royal Air Force comrades who lie herein. But at the same time, I ask you not to forget the five Americans who served and died with them.

Narrator: Every year at this cemetery in Mesa, former British pilots return to remember the men who died while training at Falcon Field during World War II. It's a unique ceremony celebrating the bond between The United States and Great Britain in war and peace.

Bill McCash: We who were involved in this scheme will never, frankly, forget what -- what you did for us.

Edward Murrow: Hello, America. This is Edward Murrow speaking from London. There were more German planes over the coast of Britain today than at any time since the war began...

Narrator: Before the United States had entered the war, the British were desperate to train new pilots. What the United Sates did for Britain was to participate in the empire air training scheme.

Bill McCash: We didn't have the weather. We didn't have the air bases. We didn't have the airplanes. We didn't have the gasoline, of course, for it, and there always the chance of being shot down. General Hap Arnold came across just after the Battle of Britain and offered bases at the American schools, and the idea came up that you should have some British schools running to the British syllabus run by American instructors with R.A.F. supervision. It was exceptionally important that we got pilots from every source we possibly could because the death toll was pretty high in the early days, as you can imagine.

Narrator: British pilots began training in the Sonoran Desert at Falcon Field in 1941.

Ken Beeby: We arrived at the Mesa station, my course did, in August in 1942, and when those doors opened on the train, it was like walking into a wall of fire. And there were two Mesa school buses parked outside that had been there for a couple of hours, and we all had R.A.F. Uniform on, about half-an-inch- thick wool, and buy the time we got to Falcon Field six miles away, we'd all lost 10 pounds.

Tom Austin: I can't speak highly enough of the local population, how they accepted us. I mean, when we actually arrived, on the first Saturday that we were allowed out, we had exactly -- 200 cars came to the main gate to request us to join them for the weekend.

Narrator: Some of the recruits had never driven a car. Nevertheless, they were expected to fly trainers such as Stearmans and the AT-6.

The Very Reverend Jack May: I was taxiing rather too fast in an AT-6A, and I put on the brakes. And up went the tail and down went the nose, and I had to sit there and wait till they pulled the tail back down, having done quite a bit of damage to, I'm sure, the prop.

Narrator: Most of the aircraft maintenance was done at night and frequently by women, who played a large role in Falcon Field's success.

Tom Austin: We were invited over to the state teacher's college, to Tempe, for some formal dances, et cetera, and we met some very pleasant young ladies over there, which, eventually - we used to go out on a Saturday afternoon in the desert for a weenie roast. And we remember once that we were out there enjoying our weenie roast when we saw in the distance -- there must have been about six chaps who were at least 6'6". The girls said to us, "don't start trouble." I gathered that they were part of the football team. Anyway, in actual fact, we met them, and we finished out the best of friends.

Narrator: Today, Falcon Field Airport is home for nearly 1,000 aircraft and multiple businesses. Here at Falcon Field Park, very little remains of the site where the R.A.F. cadets lived and trained. The swimming pool was used in an initiation ritual.

Bill McCash: When you did your first solo on the PT-17A Stearman, oh, yes, into the pool you went, uniform and all, you know. Yes, indeed, it was a great thing.

Narrator: A hearth still stands, although the building around it does not, where cadets once relaxed and talked about their daily challenges. The old hangars are still at the field, although the area surrounding them has changed, and activity in the park today is more likely to be play rather than work. The training at Falcon Field helped defeat the nazis in World War II. It also formed a bond between American and English pilots and a bond between these British men and the Mesa community. That relationship continues to this day, reflected perhaps most poignantly in the annual ceremony honoring the fallen pilots. On this day in this cemetery, the pilots have, in a way, come home, for there will always be a small but significant piece of British history in the heart of the city of Mesa.