Wings of War
by Christine Albert

From the book “Her Texas: Story, Image, Poem and Song”
A collection of work by 60 Texas Women….
Published by Wings Press - March 1, 2015
Editors: Donna Walker-Nixon, Cassy Burleson, Rachel Crawford, Ashley Palmer

As a child, I loved our family slide show night.  My dad would get the carousel out, unfurl the white screen, draw the curtains and we’d all settle in.  We kids would squeal with delight at the images of cutting down Christmas trees, 50’s looking New Year’s Eve parties, romping at the beach as toddlers and lining up in matching Easter outfits.  Even though most of the pictures were only ten years old, they already seemed like a bygone era. 

There was one slide that always brought a hush to the room…thousands of white crosses stood in perfect alignment on a carpet of green grass, and my uncle’s name—Richard A. Albert—was etched into the marble of one of them.  I was slightly confused by this; although I knew that my father’s brother had died in the war I didn’t understand where this place was and why he was buried there instead of close to us.   

A world away from his home in Niagara Falls my uncle fell from the sky in a Republic Thunderbolt P-47 on February 5, 1944.  He took his last breath in a pastoral field in the center of a small village a few kilometers from the coast of the North Sea in Suffolk County in England.  As was the custom, fallen soldiers were buried in the country where they died, so Uncle Dick was interred at the Cambridge American Cemetery.   

I couldn’t conceive of the loss my grandparents and father had experienced; I was too young and innocent and a lifetime away from their grief.  Over time, my uncle’s life became condensed into a few sentences for me, always with that slide as the accompanying visual in my mind.  “He died in a WWII plane crash while stationed in England.  He was 22.  He is buried in Cambridge.” 

If I hadn’t become a songwriter and moved to Austin, Texas, those three sentences are probably where Uncle Dick’s story would have ended—for me anyway.  But fate, or synchronicity, or perhaps Uncle Dick himself had something else in mind.  This is the continuation of his story—rich and complete—as it unfolded more than sixty years after his death.   

Friendships in Austin are formed and forged around music, collaborations, songs and gigs.  Slaid Cleaves is a songwriter I have always admired and respected and we played occasional shows together.  In 2006 Slaid and his wife Karen invited my husband/partner Chris Gage and me (aka “Albert and Gage”) to be part of Slaid’s fall tour of the UK.  We played 14 shows in 16 days; the company and the gigs were great, and I was energized by the kindness of the people we met along the way.  From Buckingham to Nottingham, Bristol to London we sang and ate our way across England.

 When we pulled in to Hitchin we found that perfect combination of venue, meal and accommodations all in one.  The next day we were off, so we’d get to stay here for two nights, do laundry and enjoy walking around this quiet village.  I was definitely ready for some downtime.   

While bonding with a young couple at the hotel pub after the show, I mentioned that my uncle is buried at The Cambridge American Cemetery and that if our tour took us close enough I hoped to visit his grave.  Before our glasses were empty, Andy and Sophy had informed me that we were only 50 kilometers away and a plan was struck for them to spend the night at the hotel, escort us there the next morning and put us on a train back to Hitchin in time to do our laundry.   

I almost wimped out when the alarm went off, tempted to roll over and go back to sleep.  But the image of my grandmother came crashing into my heart.  I could feel her all around me and I began to weep.  I knew that I had to get up and make this trip for her, because she was never able to travel to Cambridge and stand at her youngest son’s grave.  My music had led me to this moment and I was not going to turn my back on it.

When we arrived at the Visitor’s Building at the cemetery we were greeted by Arthur Brookes, a genteel British fellow who took charge and with great enthusiasm led us through a ritual for family members of the fallen, filled with reverence and respect. 

As we walked outside, Arthur motioned for us to stop and we stood facing the reflecting pool that leads to the memorial chapel.  He asked us to observe a moment of silence in honor of my uncle, pressed a button and “Taps” began to play from loudspeakers, filling the 30 emerald acres with its sad and evocative melody.  Once we found his headstone, to better see my uncle’s name Arthur rubbed the letters with sand from the beach at Normandy and planted small British and American flags. 

Standing in front of the white marble cross from the slide show created a profound shift in me and I experienced an unexpected blow to my heart.  In that moment my tears and the chills that were racing up and down my spine made my uncle, his death and our family’s sacrifice painfully real.  I am the mother of a son and my grandmother’s loss was unthinkable to me; my brother shares my uncle’s name and seeing it there brought home the deep grief that my father must have felt upon losing his only brother.

I suddenly understood the quiet sadness that was always present when my grandmother played piano and why she climbed the stairs to her bedroom on the anniversary of Uncle Dick’s death every year, grieving in private in her darkened room.  On February 5, 1965—21 years after my uncle died—she didn’t emerge from her afternoon’s seclusion.  My grandfather found her peacefully lying on her bed; under her pillow, wrapped in blue tissue paper and gold ribbon and worn thin from reading and rereading, was every letter my father and uncle wrote to her during the war.  She quite literally died of a broken heart. 

As we were leaving the cemetery, just in case his spirit was within earshot, I told my uncle that I would carry him with me now and honor him by writing a song.  Almost as confirmation that I was on the right track a nut from the towering oaks above us hit me in the head, hard!  “Okay Uncle Dick!  I get it!  I’m supposed to do something with this!”

When I returned to Austin I was pulled in other directions and the song for my uncle was put on the back burner.  But I knew it was a promise I needed to keep and two years after that October afternoon in England I began work on the song, hoping to have it done in time for my dad’s 90th birthday on October 31, 2008.  After circling around it for several incarnations, Chris, our co-writer Steve Brooks and I eventually landed on “Wings of War” and we recorded it in time for my dad’s birthday celebration in Florida. 

All families have myths—some based in fact, some stories that are so deep and complex that it is hard to know the truth from a subconscious fabrication.  One of our family stories is that Uncle Dick was the outgoing, popular one, the charismatic, charming and fun filled mother’s favorite.  My father, on the other hand, was shy and had a bad eye that strayed and made him self conscious.  He was the introspective artist who felt that he never measured up to his younger brother’s confident lust for life. 

Dad was stateside completing his own military training when he received the telegram from my grandfather stating, “Dick killed in plane crash in England.  Come if you can.  Mother needs you for a few days.”  However, his commanding officer refused to allow him to take leave and return home to comfort his family and grieve for his brother.  My father carried regret for the rest of his life that he didn’t have the “courage” to go AWOL and hop a train to Niagara Falls that night.  He always said that “Dick would have done that—that’s why he was my mother’s favorite.  He was that kind of guy.”  I tried to assure my dad that his parents wouldn’t have wanted him to break the law but he held on to that regret for a lifetime. 

Even as children, we learned to tread lightly around talk of Dick, knowing that my dad had mixed feelings about him.  It was obviously very painful to lose his brother, but then there was the lingering competition between them—even though Dick was gone—and my father’s insecurity.

I had been profoundly touched by visiting Dick’s grave and was proud to have put his story into a song for my dad.  But at that birthday gathering, I could feel the uneasiness in the room at making him listen to a song that calls his brother a hero.  We were all very practiced at avoiding talk of Dick.  There was a concern that I was rubbing salt in the wound, although I’m not convinced my father experienced it that way.  I know he appreciated the gesture and the gift, and I had fulfilled my promise. 

The compelling force I felt that day at the cemetery was still at work.  My uncle’s story was not complete and apparently I was chosen to be the vehicle through which it would be told.  At least that’s how it felt as the next two years unfolded.

In November 2009 I received an email from a music lover who had been checking out our website. He noticed the inscription on the cross marking my uncle’s grave, which included “The 56th Fighter Group.”  His father had served with the group and was stationed at the same base in England during the war.

In truth, Austin filmmaker David Grosvenor had more than just a passing interest in or knowledge about “The 56th.”  He had produced a PBS film—“The Last Best Hope: A True Story of Escape, Evasion and Remembrance”—about his father’s experiences during the war.  Together they retraced his steps from the moment his plane crashed in a field in Belgium through his release from a German prison when the war ended.  David had relationships with the curators of the Halesworth Airfield Museum and access to information about the soldiers who were stationed there, including my uncle. 

One morning, David emailed me a picture of my uncle that I had never seen before.  That afternoon, he sent a scan of the actual, handwritten accident report written by the East Suffolk Police and put me in touch with a woman who had witnessed it firsthand.  The true story of Dick’s last day was coming into focus. 

It was a cold February morning when a group of pilots took to the skies over the village of Wangford, England to train for an upcoming mission.  When a snow squall broke out they lost visibility and my uncle’s plane collided with one being flown by 2nd Lieutenant Roger Phillips from South Dakota.  Lieutenant Phillips’ plane came down outside of the village in a fiery explosion.  Uncle Dick’s plane was sliced in two and the front half landed in a field in the center of Wangford, just across from the general store. 

Joan Hunting was 18 years old and working at her family’s store at the time of the crash.  She ran to the site but it was too late; Uncle Dick was gone.  She said that he appeared unharmed, as if he was sleeping peacefully in the cockpit with a slight smile on his lips.  When the authorities arrived, Joan returned to the store and went into the back room, understandably shaken by what she had witnessed.  She cried for my uncle, lit a candle and said a prayer for him. 

Too many parents in 1944 received a simple telegram with just the facts.  “Report received states that he was killed 5 February in England as result of an airplane collision.”  There was no time for research, no Internet to facilitate it, and a war was raging.  My grandparents couldn’t easily get on a plane to visit the village where their son had died. 

It brought me comfort to know that a candle had been lit for Dick, that he had a peaceful expression on his face and that a prayer had been whispered for him.  I can’t help but think my grandmother would have taken comfort in that as well and I am grateful that my father lived long enough to hear those small details.

We also learned that a group of local citizens had recently been successful in their decades-long quest to create an official memorial to Richard A. Albert and Roger A. Phillips—to commemorate their sacrifice.  It was their way of honoring all the airmen who were stationed there and those who lost their lives protecting England and her people.  The plaque had just been completed and was in a temporary location, to be dedicated at a later date. 

One day we knew nothing of Uncle Dick’s death, and by the end of the week we were reading the accident report, the words of the first responders, and learned that he had recently been memorialized.  The words “we will remember them” on the plaque reinforced what I felt that day as we left his grave.  I was determined to keep his memory alive; I didn’t realize that it was not my responsibility alone.

Six months later my sister and I were immersed in the task of moving my parents from their home in St. Petersburg, Florida.  Boxes were unearthed from under the beds and we discovered one simply marked “Dick.”  We thought we had rummaged through all of our family archives over the years, but here were things none of us had ever seen…that painful part of my father’s past that had been kept locked away.  Something told us it was time to gently lift the lid with Dad by our side.  I’m glad we did.

Chris was back in Austin working on a video of “Wings of War” and here was a treasure trove of memorabilia—the actual telegram from Washington, the letters my grandmother had kept under her pillow, an interment letter sent from the Department of War describing where and when Dick was buried.  His story was coming to life not only in song but with visuals.  I noticed that my grandmother kept the letters written to her by my uncle as well as my dad.  In letters she had written to them, she offered her motherly love—in equal measure.  Her diary was filled with love for both her sons. 

We also found a poem entitled “To Dick,” written for my grandmother in December 1946 by John Aranyos.  John was my uncle’s best friend and they were stationed together at Halesworth.  The poem speaks to their shared love of flying and brings hope and beauty to Dick’s final flight.  What a sweet Christmas gift for my grandmother. 

I remember well that cold bleak day
On England’s Eastern shore
The “Great Commander” took you away
From all the hate and war.

 Perhaps He saw the silvery sheen
Of your wings as you did fly
He was thrilled to see a soul so clean
Cavorting through the sky.

(Excerpt from the poem “To Dick” by John Aranyos. c 1946)

There was a telegram announcing the arrival of my uncle’s namesake—John Richard Aranyos—in December 1945.  My sister Linda immediately got online and began a search for John Aranyos—senior and junior.  Within an hour I had them on the phone and I felt privileged to share with the elder Mr. Aranyos the news that Wangford had created a memorial dedicated to Dick and Roger, and more importantly, to all the men who had served there.  How odd it must have been to be reminded of words he wrote 63 years earlier. 

An opportunity to share his poem arose on October 9, 2010, when we took part in the official dedication of the memorial in Wangford –coincidentally, four years to the day after we visited Cambridge.  Dignitaries, Mrs. Hunting, the guys from the museum, and dozens of locals—we all gathered on that chilly, damp morning on a triangle of land at the crossroads of the two main thoroughfares that wind through Wangford.  “Wings of War” had truly come full circle from the moment of its conception at the military cemetery, to its birth in Austin, to being sung a stone’s throw from the spot where the plane came down. 

My sister Susan read Mr. Aranyos’ poem, and while she recited his words a P-51 Mustang did a flyover—an auspicious sign, as we later learned that Mr. Aranyos, who had gone on to fly P-51’s throughout the war, died that very day in Pennsylvania knowing that his poem was being read at the dedication in England.  I can’t think of a better tribute for a man who had carried on a lifetime love affair with flying. 

When that acorn hit me in the head I knew that it was a wake-up call to somehow bring my uncle home to our family.  His body had been left on a foreign shore and in some ways his memory as well.  The more our family learned about Dick’s death, the more he came to life for us.  The outpouring of genuine love and respect from the Wangford community made us realize that although we are one family, we represent thousands and thousands of families who were impacted by the war. 

I sat at the kitchen table with my dad the day he watched the video of “Wings of War” for the first time.  He was leaning into the laptop screen, watching the images of his mother, father, brother, beloved Niagara Falls, the telegram, Cambridge…float and fade in and out.  He died one year later.  I am hopeful that by shining a light on his brother we rekindled the connection with his entire family and he died knowing that he was loved unconditionally, not just by his wife and children, but by his family awaiting him in the great beyond. 

Wings of War
Christine Albert, Chris Gage, Steve Brooks

 
The fifth of February 1944
An airman’s plane came crashing
It shook the ocean floor
Upon the plains of England
He sleeps beneath his name
He never saw the falls
Of the Niagara again

 His father worked the city desk
Each day he read the list
He’d print for all the families
Of the boys who would be missed
He read one name a second time
Then walked ten blocks alone
To tell his wife her baby boy
Would not be coming home

 Rest your head fallen hero
Over on that foreign shore
May you wear the wings of angels
As you wore the wings of war

 The 9th day of October sixty years have passed
A fleet of marble crosses
Floats on a sea of grass
I’ve come to find my uncle
His name is hard to see
Till we rub it with some sand
From the beach at Normandy

 I wish that my grandparents
Were standing by my side
They never came to Cambridge
The water was too wide
Our name will rest forever
Upon this field of stone
But in my heart my uncle
Is finally coming home

 Rest your head fallen hero
Over on that foreign shore
May you wear the wings of angels
As you wore the wings of war
May you wear the wings of angels
As you wore the wings of war
 

Written in honor of Richard A. Albert and for John L. Albert on his 90th - October 31, 2008