Exploring Alabama - Foreign Pilots

In honor of memorial day, a story about foreign fighters who came to the U.S.. and died training to defend their homeland. While the their homelands were under attack, thousands of British and French soldiers came to military flight schools in this country. They were young, student pilots who dreamed of going back home to fight the germans from the sky. Sadly, more than a thousand of them never had the chance to fight...or even go home. They were the casualties of flight training.

78 british and 17 french student pilots who had come to train at maxwell and gunter field are buried at oakwood cemetery annex. Dr.Silvano Wueschner is a historian a the Air University at Maxwell Air Force Base. He and I visited the gravesites a few feet from the burial plot for Hank WIlliams. "They were training to be fighter pilots," said Dr. Wueschner."It was easier for the British government to send them here to train them, because obviously the Battle of Britain was raging at the time and there wasn't any kind of neutral area where they could train their pilots. And this was a good place for them to come."

May 20th, 1942 was a particularly deadly day. Dr. Silvano recalled the circumstances of the ill fated mission. "34 planes, meaning 34 pilots and 9 instructors…well they made it to mobile, all right, but coming out of mobile they ran into some really nasty weather and 12 planes went down…nine pilots died."

60 years later their gravesites are metiuclously maintained. When I asked if these pilots are forgotten, Dr. Wueschner was emphatic in his reply. "No no, no, no, no," he said. "We have pictures over time of dignitaries coming to pay their respects and we have visitors coming all the time."

Etched in stone are their names and a few well-chosen words to remind the ocassional cemetery visitor of each man's love of family, God and country.

If you'd like to pay tribute to these foreign fighters - whose final resting place is so far from home, follow the signs to Hank Williams grave. The markers flank the Williams memorial.