31 Oct 2012

Royal Air Force Pilots Trained by Spartan

The Eagle Squadrons are pilots, some trained by Spartan, who volunteered for duty in the Royal Air Force before the United States entered World War II. Their heroism is commemorated in this article.

Remembering the Eagle Squadron

Spartan-College-Eagle-Squadron…(The Eagle Squadron ) was a group of young men (who) were among the first to volunteer for service in World War II. In 1940, England stood alone-the sole bulwark of freedom facing Hitler and all he represented. And on June 16, 1940, Hitler issued the order for Operation Sea Lion, the invasion of England. The critical prerequisite for this undertaking was control of the air over the Channel so the invasion fleet could successfully cross. To secure that air superiority, Germany unleashed over 2600 planes of the Luftwaffe against the less than 1500 fighters of the RAF. During the ensuing Battle of Britain, British losses were very high and she emerged from that ordeal critically short of pilots. And while the members of the common wealth provided as many as possible, the great untapped source remained the United States, which, though sympathetic toward the British, remained shackled by various Neutrality Laws. Still, there were literally thousands of pilots in the U. S. and the British believed they could get some of them. And while the recruiting process was too complex (to relate in this writing), you can imagine just what kind of concept of courage, service, adventure and desire to fly the best aircraft in the world was needed for these young men to volunteer to join the RAF and fight in a war not yet their own.

The first Eagles signed up with an American soldier of fortune, Colonel Charles Sweeney, in the back streets of Los Angeles. Others went to Canada and entered RCAF pilot training, while the bulk of the young men volunteered through a group called the Clayton Knight Committee. This group used newspapers ads, word of mouth at airports and friend talking to friend to inform young American pilots, who had a reasonable amount of flying experience, about the chance to join the RAF. Several thousand pilots had been recruited for the RAF and RCAF by the time this organization ceased operation in 1942. Of the young men who signed up, 244, average age of 21 years old, served in one of the three RAF fighter squadrons that became known as the Eagle Squadrons, numbers 71, 121 and 133, Squadrons of RAF Fighter Command. These units were deactivated on September 29, 1942 when the Eagles transferred to the U.S. Army Air Forces to become the Fourth Fighter Group of the Eighth Air Force, the highest scoring U.S. Fighter Group in World War II with 1096 enemy aircraft destroyed.

It took something rather special to motivate them to sign up because it was not as simple as signing up and jumping into a Hurricane or Spitfire. After some training in the U. S. (at Spartan for example) or Canada, each of the Eagles had to make the treacherous journey across the North Atlantic braving both stormy seas and the German submarine “wolf packs.” Then it was a short transition into the Hurricane or Spitfire and off to combat. Each of these activities took their toll and by the time most members of the group transferred into the U. S. Army Air Forces, nearly a third had lost their lives and another 16 were companions of our General Clark in Stalag Luft III. Throughout the remainder of the war the number killed continued to rise and in the end 44 percent of those young men who had been members of the Eagle Squadrons lost their lives in WWII.
It is important to realize that the young men who volunteered were signing up for the unknown. Almost none had ever been to England, or very many places in the United States for that matter. With the exception of a few Eagles such as the late Bill Dunn (the first American Ace in WWII), who saw action against the Germans as a member of the Canadian Army, none had been to war nor did they understand what it entailed or the risks involved. Many had tried to join the aviation cadet program of the U.S. Army, but lacked the required two years of college, were too tall like Reade Tilley, or had a couple of teeth missing like Bill Edwards (Spartan trained)… So if they were going to get into the war as pilots, and almost all of them believed that war would soon come to the United States, the RAF was the only answer. So, despite the risk of losing their American citizenship for joining a foreign military force, they put service above self, signed up, went to England, fought and died.

Keep in mind that World War II was fought by young people, really kids. For the Eagles the average age was 21 years old. Those young American volunteers in their Spitfires engaging the Germans were often still teenagers…There were countless bombers flying the terribly costly missions over Europe on which every member of the 10 man crew was a teenager… When Danny Daniel (a.k.a., Gilmore C. Daniel, a native Oklahoman) walked into Stalag Luft III as a POW he was 17 years old…It was the optimistic and indestructible nature of youth that was partially responsible for the willingness of so many young men to sign up for duty with a foreign air force in a land they had never seen and to risk their lives to fly such airplanes as the Hurricane and Spitfire. But youth gives way rapidly in war and so it was in the Eagles…eagle-squadron

(Eric Doorly was a Spartan trained pilot who evaded capture by the Germans after bailing out in France.) After having made his way the length of France, Doorly found himself with a group, put together by the underground, attempting to cross the Pyrenees Mountains into Spain. The group had tried once and turned back for reasons known only to the underground. Several days later, the group set out again. Eric was doubly concerned this time, given his previous experience. He was also escorted by a resistance member who seemed uncertain what to do or exactly how to proceed. The train was crowded so there were six other people in Eric’s compartment, all Frenchmen. Still, the trip was uneventful until about ten kilometers before they were to get off, when the peaceful swaying of the car was broken as the train came to a sudden halt and a group of uniformed officials came on board. At the sight of the officials entering the train, Doorly’s underground escort simply whispered, “remember the plan” and departed. Eric was left completely on his own. There was nothing Doorly could do but sit and wait. Soon an official entered the compartment and began talking very rapidly in French. Each of the occupants produced their papers and the official began to carefully examine each as he conversed very rapidly with the person who owned the papers. The sweat was pouring down Eric’s back and he knew every occupant of the car could feel him shaking as the official worked his way toward the hapless American…”Papers, s’il vous plait,” the official said to Eric. He dutifully produced those that had been given him by the mayor of the small town of Aumale several weeks before, which seemed far less elaborate than those produced by the other occupants of the compartment. As Eric agonized the official looked at the papers, then looked at Doorly, said “Merci” and left the car.

The Eagle Squadrons became part of the U.S. Army Air Force after the U.S. entered World War II. During Spartan’s 50th Anniversary, the then Commander of the Royal Airforce, Robert Davis, stated in a proclamation, “In my opinion, had it not been for the Eagle Squadrons extraordinary skill and valor, we most certainly would have lost the battle of Britain and possibly World War II.” It is because of this great tradition and heritage that Spartan takes great pride in its association with the Eagle Squadrons!

Bill Edwards, President of the Eagle Squadron Association, with the assistance of John Brown, provided the following list of Spartan trained Eagles: “Those still active are John Brown, Charles A. Cook, Wilson V. (Bill) Edwards, Roy W. Evans, and William C. Slade.

Those that have passed away since WWII are: Forrest Cox, Gilmore C. Daniel, Eric Doorly, Selden Edner, Denver Minter, James Nelson, Roy Skinner, Murray Vosburg, and William Wallace.
Those that were killed on active service or in enemy action are: William Baker, Charles Barrell, Edwin Bicksler, Robert Brossmer, W. James Daley, Fredrick Gamble, Jack Gilliland, Cecil Meierhoff, Eugene Potter, Walter Soares, Robert Sprague, Roy Stout, Vivian Watkins, Samuel Whedon, William White and Glen Coates.”

Excerpted from A Talk for Opening of the Friends of the Academy Library Eagle Squadron Exhibit by Phil Caine.  Used with permission.