The Story of
“Wings of War”
After more than sixty years my family recently reclaimed one of our own, through an uncanny convergence of timing, music, the internet, grace and the kindness of strangers.
When I was growing up in upstate New York, we would periodically insist that my dad pull out the white projection screen and slide carousel and treat us to a viewing of some of our favorite family moments, over and over...trudging through the snow with a freshly cut Christmas tree, all lined up and dressed in our Easter finest, our ‘56 Chevy in the driveway of the house I can’t quite remember from my toddler years, mom glamorously smoking cigarettes in a black dress from Paris at a New Year’s Eve party in our paneled basement.
We would giggle and squirm and laugh with delight at our younger selves, but there was always one slide that brought a hush and heaviness to the room that I didn’t quite understand as a young child. Rows and rows of plain white crosses were lined up as far as the eye could see on a carpet of lush, green grass. The next slide focused in on one cross and the inscription “Richard A. Albert”. My father’s younger brother was buried in this far away place in Cambridge, England. He died in a plane crash during a training mission in February 1944; the uncle we never got to meet, he was more a myth than a man to me. I was too young to grasp what his loss must have meant to my father and grandparents or to comprehend the magnitude of World War II. I tucked him away and he became part of my life story narrative – “I have no cousins – my mother’s only sister never married and my father’s only brother died in the war”.
Several years ago my husband Chris Gage and I were invited to join Slaid Cleaves on a tour of the UK. I mentioned to some fans after a show one night that my uncle is buried at the American Military Cemetery outside of Cambridge and if our tour allowed I hoped to stop by for a quick look. I hadn’t been paying attention to the map and didn’t really have a clue where we were. It turns out we were about an hour away and they offered to drive us there the next day.
Through their generosity I made my pilgrimage to Uncle Dick’s grave. When we arrived at the Visitor’s Building we began looking through the registers for his name and the location of his grave. Arthur Brookes, a genteel British fellow, was the only person working that day and when he realized that I was looking for a family member he took charge and with great respect, enthusiasm and reverence walked us through a ritual that I will never forget. He was bustling around printing out documents about my uncle, giving me booklets about the memorial, gathering a bucket, flags, some electronic clicker thing and answering all my questions with “all will be revealed”, in that thick and charming British accent. To this day, whenever I am unsure about something or what direction to take, “all will be revealed” is my mantra of choice.
As Chris, Sophy, Andy and I walked outside, Arthur motioned for us to stop and we stood facing the reflecting pool that leads to the memorial chapel and flows alongside the Tablets of the Missing, commemorating those who were lost but never found. He asked us to observe a moment of silence in honor of my uncle, pressed a button and Taps began to play from loudspeakers, filling the 30 emerald acres of this beautiful site with its sad and evocative melody. In that moment my tears and the chills that were racing up and down my spine made my uncle, his death and our family’s sacrifice painfully real.
At the grave, I stood staring at my uncle’s name carved in the marble cross and felt a profound sadness that I hadn’t expected. As the mother of a son, my grandmother’s loss was unthinkable to me; my brother shares my uncle’s name and seeing it there brought home the deep grief that my father must have felt. I had expected to visit this site as a tourist and instead I was experiencing a blow to my heart.
To better see my uncle’s name carved in the marble, Arthur rubbed the letters with sand from the beach at Normandy and planted small British and American flags in front of the cross. The gratitude that the British people feel towards the Americans is expressed in this ritual, in every blade of grass, and in the beauty of the stained glass replicas of the Seals of the States of the Union in the memorial chapel.
Visiting Cambridge that day made my uncle real to me. It helped me to understand the quiet sadness that was present when my grandmother played piano for me and it made me appreciate an entire generation. Glen Miller is one of the names of the missing; he was on his way to perform for the troops and his plane disappeared over the Atlantic. As a musician, it struck me as a different form of heroism. He was offering his talents to the war effort and paid the ultimate price.
When we were leaving that day I had a conversation with my uncle in my heart, in case his spirit was within earshot. I told him that I would carry him with me now and honor him by writing a song. Just then a nut from the trees above us hit me in the head, hard! It was if it was thrown at full force and aimed right at me. I laughed and said out loud, “Okay Uncle Dickie! I get it! I’m supposed to do something with this!”
Chris, Steve Brooks and I did just that. We wrote “Wings of War” as a tribute to him and to capture the personal transformation that took place for me that day. We presented it to my father on his 90th birthday and I thought I had fulfilled my promise to Uncle Dick and that was the end of it; but Arthur was right when he told me “all will be revealed”.
Chris is an avid photographer and he posts photos from our tours on our website. Last fall Austinite David Grosvenor was checking out our music and looking around our site before attending one of our shows. He found the photos from that trip to the UK in 2006 and was struck by the picture of my uncle’s cross and especially the words “56th Fighter Group”. His father also served with this group and had flown from the same base, Halesworth in Suffolk.
David produced a documentary, “Last Best Hope: A True Story of Escape, Evasion, and Remembrance”, about his father’s World War II experiences being shot down over Belgium, hidden by the Belgium Resistance and eventually imprisoned in a Nazi jail. Because of his research he had access to photos, film footage and relationships in the UK and wrote to me offering to see what he could come up with. He not only sent a photo of Uncle Dick that I had never seen, he discovered that in 2004 a memorial was erected by the village of Wangford in honor of Dick and the other pilot who died in that crash. It was an important piece of their history and perhaps a way of honoring all the airmen who were stationed nearby and made sacrifices on their behalf.
Our family didn’t know much about the crash but David led us to the people of the village and we learned that their planes collided during a training mission in the air over Wangford. My uncle’s plane came down in a field in the village, the other plane just outside of town. We now have the actual accident report filed by the local police, a newspaper article that appeared when the memorial was dedicated and have corresponded with an 84 year old woman, Joan Hunting, who was one of the first people on the scene. I was able to read her letter to my father – “I was at work in our local store when the crash happened and as I was in the Red Cross I went across to see if I could help. There were two men already there and we soon realized he was beyond our help but he looked so peaceful, as if he was about to take off again. The rescue crew came and I went back to the store, said a prayer for him and cried for him. They were very brave young men and the memorial is something of them always here in years to come.”
The family conversations about this have led to other revelations. In a box of papers from my grandparents I discovered a packet of letters written to my grandmother by my father and my uncle during the war. They were wrapped in blue tissue paper with a gold ribbon and had obviously been read and reread countless times. They were found under my grandmother’s pillow on the day she died – February 5, 1965 - 21 years to the day after Dick died. I can only hope they were reunited that day.
The story continues and we are now scheduled to perform in Wangford on October 9th this year – 4 years also to the day after we visited Cambridge. Our song begins with the lyric “the fifth of February, 1944” and the second verse begins with “the ninth day of October, sixty years have passed”. The timing just happened to put us in the area on that date.
Uncle Dick is no longer a myth to me. I have read his words in his letters; I will stand on the spot where he died and visit with the woman who said the first prayers for him at that moment. Many of the blanks have been filled in and it is in these small details that he has come alive. By telling his story in our song, on stage and with my family, we have infused his memory with life and love. When we wrote the line “in my heart my uncle is finally coming home”, I couldn’t have imagined how deeply and tangibly that would come to pass.
Copyright Albert and Gage L.L.C. 2010 All rights reserved