BRITISH HONO(U)R LOCAL MEN KILLED IN WWII CRASH
By Jim Hannah
As 8-year-old Derek Ratledge prepared for the 2.5 mile walk to school from his family’s English cottage, he heard the roar of the B27 bombers.
The noise wasn’t unusual. It was Nov.30 1943, and England was in the grip of World War II.
But Ratledge knew it wasn’t the normal routine on that chilly November morning after his father shouted, he saw flames coming from the plane and then a thunderous explosion shook the foundations of the cottage.
An American Flying Fortress had swerved to miss the farmhouses but crashed just beyond the tree line in Astwell, close to the village of Helmdon in Northamptonshire, England.
Now at the age of 74, Ratledge is spearheading an effort to honor the 10 Americans servicemen who died in the crash. The crew included Capt. Richard W Pugh of Pleasant Ridge and Sgt. Bill Freeman of Bellevue.
Ratledge, via e-mails from his home in Birmingham, said his lifelong quest to learn the names of the American flyers has led to a stone marker honouring the airmen. The memorial was recently unveiled in preparation for today, Remembrance Sunday in England. It is a day traditionally put aside to remember British who died in both wars.
In the days after the crash, authorities confirmed something Ratledge’s family already knew. Everyone on board the plane died.
Ratledge recalled his parents talking of mutilated bodies and an intense fire that sent exploding ammunition over rescuers’ heads. But no one told the local residents the identity of the airmen or where they were based.
“You have to understand that in the immediate period after the crash, there was a clamp on any wartime news,” Ratledge said.
It wasn’t until Ratledge retired and began researching the crash in 2007 that he learned the names of the airmen who died.
While the news was kept from the English villagers, Freeman’s death was announced in Northern Kentucky 11 days after the crash in a front-page article in the Kentucky Times-Star newspaper. It stated the 23-year-old radio gunner was “killed in action in the defence of his country” but gave no other details.
During his two years in the service, Freeman had received an air medal with three oak leaf clusters in addition to commendations from Gen. George Marshall, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Gen. Ira Eaker for outstanding achievements.
The crash came nine months after Pugh visited Cincinnati and told a local newspaper reporters of his exploits overseas. As co-pilot of the plane, the 24-year-old Pugh said he flew daytime raids over Western Europe, according to a Feb. 22, 1943, Times-Star article.
“We carried bombs up to 1,100 pounds,” Pugh was quoted saying in the article.
Pugh told a reporter that the Flying Fortress had numerous machine guns so that enemy planes attacking from any direction could be fought off. Some of his crew members were credited with bringing down two enemy planes.
Ratledge said his next goal is to track down relatives of the 10 Americans and invite them to England. He located Pugh’s great niece through a posting on an Internet bulletin board. It was the great-niece who provided him with a complete list of the men on board the day of the crash.
Ratledge has failed to find any living relatives of Freeman.
“It was hoped that some family members from the U S will be able to attend our ceremony one year,” he said.
The Cincinnati Enquirer – 8th November 2009
(An American newspaper)