Nov 14, 2022 - News

British Royal Air Force honors cadets who died in Arizona during WWII

American and UK flags in front of several gravestones.

American flags and Union Jacks adorn the gravestones of the 23 Royal Air Force cadets who died while trianing at Falcon Field during WWII. Photo: Jessica Boehm/Axios

Mesa's Falcon Field Airport, one of the state's busiest reliever airports and an aerospace hub for the East Valley, was originally built as a military air base for the British Royal Air Force to train pilots.

  • The U.S. government opened the base in September 1941, before the country actually joined World War II.

Flashback: In the year before the attack on Pearl Harbor forced the U.S. into WWII, Britain needed a place to quickly train pilots to combat Germany's air strength.

  • Congress established six air bases, including Falcon Field, and allowed the Royal Air Force to train there.
  • Arizona was selected as a training ground because of its dry climate and open spaces.
  • The first training flight was an American-made Boeing PT-17 "Stearman" biplane, according to the airport's website.

Driving the news: Local leaders and representatives from the Royal Air Force held their annual Remembrance Day ceremony Sunday to remember the 23 cadets who died during training accidents and are buried at Mesa Cemetery.

  • Two U.S. cadets and four flight instructors were also killed in accidents during the WWII training program.

What happened: Members of the Mesa Caledonian Pipe Band, Scottish-American Military Society, U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Band and others conducted a formal memorial service, including performances of both the U.S. national anthem and "God Save the King."

  • The Wings of Flight Foundation executed a missing man flyover with WWII-era planes.
  • Members of the Royal Air Force and the Honorary British Consulate General laid wreaths beside the 23 tombstones and Boy Scouts passed out paper poppies, a U.K. symbol of remembrance and hope for a peaceful future.
  • After the ceremony, the Daughters of the British Empire dedicated a tree at the cemetery in honor of Queen Elizabeth II.

What they're saying: Bill Quehrn of Commemorative Air Force Airbase Arizona asked the audience to imagine the young cadets who left lush England for the "cactus-spiked, sun-baked desert of Arizona."

  • "What a culture shock that must have been."
  • He said the men who died in Mesa showed courage and devotion to protecting freedom and deserve as much respect and gratitude as those who died during combat.

By the numbers: More than 2,300 cadets trained in Mesa from 1941 to 1945, according to the American Air Museum in Britain.

1 fun thing: Mesa city engineer E.B. Tucker came up with the name Falcon Field, saying it was an homage to the popular British hunting bird and symbolic of the "English fighting spirit," according to a 1941 Mesa Journal article.

  • Other names considered were Superstition Field, Saguaro Field and Sun Valley.

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