It Was A True Memorial Day
Shirley Wetzel lives in Houston, Texas, is a librarian at Rice University, and she is a treasure of knowledge on most things history. She’s also a writer and one of the few people I know who never lets me down when I ask her to write on a given topic. This week was no exception, and what I received brought tears to my eyes as I read the story of Shirley, her sister, and their Memorial Day 2005. May God Bless Them All.
In 2005, my half-sister, Gwen Robertson Scoggins, and I attended a Memorial Day service at the Cambridge American Cemetery in England. This is the resting place of her father, 2nd Lieutenant Hulbert H. Robertson, who died on June 4, 1943. He and three other crew members perished when their B-26 Martin Marauder, the Lil’ Lass, crashed into Carn Llidi Mountain in south Wales in heavy fog.
The Cambridge American Cemetery is near Madingley, on land donated by Cambridge University and dedicated by President Eisenhower in 1956. It is a beautiful, peaceful place, the acres of white markers surrounded by thousands of red roses in full bloom. All the crosses and Stars of David were perfectly white, shining brightly under the mild English sun.
There are 3,812 American servicemen buried in 3,809 graves; a high proportion of them were crew members of British-based American aircraft. By every headstone were small American and English flags. A few had floral arrangements brought or sent by relatives. Gwen placed a beautiful bouquet at her father’s grave, with a card saying “We miss you, love from your daughter Gwen and your wife Velma.”
How did we come to be in this place on that day?
It’s a long story, which began on that fateful day in June, 1943. Gwen was not quite two years old when she lost her father, too young to remember him. My father, Sterling L. Hornsby, married Hulbert’s young widow, Velma Ruth Stewart Robertson, later in the war, and raised Gwen as his own. She grew up knowing that she was a Robertson, though, often visiting Hulbert’s parents, Jim and Ilena, on their farm near Comanche.
When my brother and I came along, we were included in the Robertson clan. I came to realize that her first daddy was the smiling young soldier whose picture hung on the parlor wall of his parents’ old dog trot cabin in the country.
Gwen grew up, married, had children and grandchildren. They knew, in an abstract way, that they’d had another grandfather, but he was just a young man in a photo to them, a part of history they knew little about. After the war, his body was moved from a temporary site to the new Cambridge American Cemetery in England. Mother never said much about what happened to him. She knew only that the Army said his plane had crashed into a Welsh mountain and he had not survived.
This all changed in 2004, when a young Welshman named Steve Jones made contact, through a complicated set of circumstances, with Hulbert’s nephew, H.R. (for Hulbert Robertson) Helm. Steve is a firefighter and aviation history buff living in Port Talbot, Wales. He had been researching the crash of the Lil’ Lass and was hoping to exchange information with the crews’ survivors, and to learn about those young men who lost their lives in defense of his nation.
H.R. got in touch with Gwen, and we got in touch with Steve. In March, 2004, we made our first trip to Wales to see the crash site, and to the cemetery to visit Hulbert’s grave. Steve and his wife Sabina graciously shared their home with us and drove us around the country. He had gotten in touch with the two daughters of the pilot, Lieutenant Robert Lawrence, as well as relatives or friends of the other two crew members, and said he’d like to plan a memorial service at the crash site.
Fast forward to Memorial Day, 2005, Cambridge American Cemetery. The American Flag was at half-mast, as it was in every American military cemetery across the world. A few hundred people were present, both uniformed American and British servicemen and women and British and American authorities and civilians, all come to honor American heroes who gave their all sixty years or more ago.
Most of the burials had taken place in a few years after 1947, but only weeks before, an aircraft that had crashed during the war, hidden in a French forest ever since, had been discovered. The remains of the crew members were brought to England and interred at the cemetery.
After the ceremony, we visited the Memorial Building. A magnificent mosaic by Francis Scott Bradford of Connecticut honors our servicemen. On the wall above the altar, the Archangel trumpets the arrival of the Resurrection and the Last Judgment. The mural continues across the entire ceiling, with depictions of World War II aircraft flying into the arms of angels.
An inscription runs around the edges:
In proud and grateful memory of those men of the United States Army Air Force Who from these friendly skies flew their final flight and met their God. They knew not the hour the day nor the manner of their passing. When far from home they were called to join that heroic band of airmen who had gone before. May they rest in peace.
There was one final thing to do to honor the crew of the Lil’ Lass. On June 4, 2005, we went to the crash site and attended the memorial service Steve had arranged. Gwen and I and the two daughters of the pilot, Lieutenant Robert Lawrence, were there to witness the Stars and Stripes flying at the base of Carn Llidi.
More than fifty people from all over the United Kingdom, and officials from St. Davids, the closest town, the United States Army and the American Embassy, were there to honor four young American men they’d never known, and to thank them and their families for the sacrifices they’d made. The ceremony ended with a moment of silence at 4:15, the time of the accident. A vintage plane flew over, following the same path as the Marauder.
This time it cleared the mountain and sailed off into a clear blue sky.