Texas: Myths, Legends, and the Real Deal
The No. 1 British Flying Training School
The small town of Terrell is located on the prairie, 32 miles east of Dallas. It came into being in 1873 with the construction of the Texas & Pacific Railroad Line. The tiny community was named for Robert A. Terrell, a settler who had already established a farm nearby. He and his family lived in an octagon-shaped house of his own design and this wasn’t just an eccentric notion. The roundness of the building gave superior protection against attacks by raiding native groups.
Even with the commerce supplied by the railroad, little Terrell didn’t grow especially fast. It took until 1940 for the population to reach about 10,000. The main street was bustling and there were church socials, community dances, and school plays. Nothing really big ever happened in Terrell, but it was a pleasant town with pleasant, hard-working people.
That year also brought the start of war in Europe and from all that distance away, little Terrell, Texas, a pin-dot on the map, was about to change. The British military needed a safe place to train pilots and the decision was made to send recruits to the United States. Lo and behold, Terrell was chosen and a location just south of town was established as No. 1 British Flying Training School. Soldiers crossed the Atlantic by ship, arrived in Canada, and then rode trains south, all the way to Texas. The first class of cadets arrived in August, 1941.
They were just boys, most only 18, 19, or 20 years old. Any fellow who had reached the age of 21 was considered a mature man. The local citizens opened their homes to these British whose speech was often hard to decipher. “Blimey! That girl had a cheeky smile!” Meaning, “Wow! That girl might be up to mischief!” Or, following a long day of training, “I’m knackered!” Meaning, “I’m tired.” Or, after seeing a silly slapstick movie, “That was bloody awful!” No matter. The boys were polite to their hosts and were enthusiastic about their time in The States and flight school. Terrell residents really liked the boys and treated them as their own sons.
The school used civilian instructors and they had the young men whipped into pilots in twenty weeks. There was classroom learning in airmanship, navigation, meteorology, and instrumentation, followed by in-the-plane training.
It was a lot to learn in such a short time, but the fellows had some off hours. Did they pick up a few Texan words? “Y’all,” or “Howdy”? Did they come to like fried chicken and potato salad? Or enchiladas and tacos? Did they find girlfriends to take walks with? Or sit with at the soda fountain and drink root beer floats?
But during the school hours, did the instructors remind about the underlying dangers involved? Did any of the “aircraftsmen” listen? Maybe the more sober-minded did.
The first to meet disaster was Richard D. Mollett, age 24. On November 20, 1941, three months after arriving in Texas, he was assigned a late night flight. Minutes after take-off, he encountered some sort of trouble and crashed his plane. He was killed instantly. I’m sure this was a head-clearing moment for everyone in the school, but the war effort was of utmost importance and life had to go forward.
On January 18, 1942, William Ibbs, age 21, was one day short of receiving his wings. His last training assignment was to complete a solo flight that evening. He made it as far as the next county before, it was believed, he encountered engine trouble. He radioed back to the airfield, but then, even his radio went out. Rural residents called to report hearing a plane overhead and then a large explosion. From this information, personnel from the flight school knew where to search and the next day, they found the wreckage. Parts of the plane were scattered over a hundred yards, with the intact fuselage at the end of a long skid. The theory was that Ibbs had attempted to land blindly in the dark. The plane went down too fast and he had no time to jump out and utilize his parachute.
Three days later, George Hanson, age 20, was the next to crash. Two accidents so close together. It must have been deeply mournful for the other cadets, the instructors, the host families, and all the town residents.
Locals recognized that these were only the beginning of tragedies that would occur in their skies and there was no means to ship coffins back home to Britain. Thus, a particular plot was designated for British flyers in Oakland Cemetery, located on Terrell’s main street. All three, Mollett, Ibbs, and Hanson, were buried there.
Year after year, the British trainees kept coming and the townspeople continued to take every one into their community and into their hearts. As expected, more young men met their demise in the fields around Terrell.
By September, 1945, the flying school had trained 2200 British cadets and 138 U.S. soldiers. On the 10th of that month, the last British fellows climbed aboard the train and left the station, heading home. A large crowd of townspeople stood by, waving and calling their goodbyes.
Still, there were twenty who would never cross the Atlantic again. They would remain in Oakland Cemetery, forever to be residents of Terrell, Texas.
During the four years of No. 1 British Flying Training School, a number of women took on the job of keeping that cemetery plot beautiful. They brought flowers regularly and kept the grass cut and neat. The group was called the Terrell War Relief Society.
Seventy-six years later, it’s still that way. As the original caretakers died off, others stepped up and took the job as a labor of love. Last month, one of my sons and I made the short trip to Terrell, toured the very well-done No. 1 British Flying Training School Museum, (no cost for admission!), and easily found Oakland Cemetery on the main drag.
There they were on the first row, surrounded by growing flowers: Richard Mollet, William Ibbs, and George Hanson, along with seventeen others. Their stones were bright white, perhaps cleaned regularly, the writing on each sharp and legible. Every stone had a different epitaph. On Richard Mollett’s – “And so he passed over. A valiant young heart – his spirit lives on.” On William Ibbs’s – “A loving son, good and kind. A beautiful memory left behind.” And on George Hanson’s – “He had a nature you couldn’t help loving, And a heart that was purer than gold.”