Montgomery, AL – At Oakwood Cemetery Annex in Montgomery, there is a plaque that signifies the burials of 78 officers and men of the Royal Air Force and a cross has been erected as a memorial to these brave soldiers. Some were only eighteen, but all of them died in flight training at Gunter Field in Montgomery during World War II. Twenty French soldiers lay nearby, as does an Honorary Consul of France, Bernard Albert Auzias de Turenne (1915-1979).
The RAF pilots’ graves are maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, a non-profit-making organization that pays tribute to the 1,700,000 men and women of the Commonwealth forces who died in the two world wars. They have erected headstones over graves and, in instances where the remains are missing, have inscribed the names of the dead on permanent memorials of over one million casualties in some 150 countries.
In 1940, Montgomery’s Municipal Airport was taken over by the Army and renamed Gunter Field after Mayor William Gunter, an advocate of aviation. Converted into a basic flight school, Gunter Field was constructed on the northeast side of the city. By 1944, Gunter had a 3,500 hard-surface runway, seven satellite airfields in the area, and nearly four hundred aircraft were assigned there, including North American BT-14s, Vultee BT-13s (known to the pilots as “Valiant,” the basic trainer’s aircraft), and AT-6s.
During World War II, Gunter served as a flying school for not only U. S. Army pilots, but for British, French, and Canadian pilots as well. Training in the United Kingdom was difficult because of unfavorable weather conditions, shortages of fuel and aircraft, blackouts, and bombings by the Germans. Most of the 12,500 British aviators and many of the 4,110 French airmen who earned their wings in the United States passed through either Maxwell or Gunter Fields.
Basic training for flight school at Gunter posed challenges for the French airmen and for the instructors. The new recruits had to learn instrument flying, night flying, and cross-country flying – all without interpreters. Actually there were complaints from the British cadets as well – some had a really difficult time understanding the southern drawl, even though most of them admitted to really loving the sound of it.
We all owe our thanks to these brave pilots who died in training, just as we honor others who have died in wartime, and to those who have survived their fights for freedom.
Article by Melissa Parker
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