You couldn’t fail to be moved by the BBC’s coverage of #TonyGotAFlypast this morning. It was a moving tale of the great friendship and comradeship between the UK and the US and, in particular, the special bonds between our respective armed forces.
It’s also the story of one man whose personal dedication and sacrifice for 75 years was marked in a way that moved many a grown man to tears. That one man, Tony Foulds, neither sought not expected any personal recognition for himself. But he spent 75 years honouring the sacrifice made by 10 brave USAF airmen on 22 February 1944 with more love than you could ever imagine possible for a group of people he never met.
On that spring day in 1944, 8 year-old Tony Foulds and his friends were playing in a park in Sheffield, South Yorkshire. This park was tightly hemmed-in by the terraced houses of ordinary working families whose contribution to Sheffield’s heavy industry was so critical for the war effort.
A stricken B-17 bomber, limping back home after taking heavy fire on a bombing mission over Occupied Europe, approached low, losing height fast. With what they must have known was their very last act on earth, the crew fought to get their aeroplane away from the families in the tightly-packed houses nearby and at the same time avoid hitting the group of innocent children playing below them on the only flat open space for miles around.
Those USAF heroes took the decision to crash their plane away from the houses and the children, even though they might have saved themselves if they’d crash-landed in the middle of the park grass where young Tony Foulds and his friends were playing.
Those young airmen knew they were sacrificing their lives so that others might live. A gesture of bravery that’s impossible to put into words.
Tony Foulds has lived for 75 years with a deep sense of guilt that the 10 young men, all in their early 20s, who crewed the B-17 “Mi Amigo” that day had sacrificed their lives in order that he could live his.
He had the wife and family that they never would.
And his feeling of guilt for that, and his sense of awe for the sacrifice those young airmen made, means Tony Foulds has been tending to their memorial in a corner of that Sheffield park ever since.
Of course, it’s easy to say that the airmen were just showing the sort of bravery they should have demonstrated. But I can tell you, lesser men would have taken a different decision, and probably nobody would have blamed them for landing right in the middle of the park, even if some people on the ground would have been injured or killed as a consequence.
And I think that’s how Tony Foulds felt too. That’s why he’s been keeping their memory alive for 75 years (you can find out more under the #Remember TheTen hashtag).
This story could easily have remained a personal and private story of one man’s personal mission that nobody outside his immediate family would have known about. But one morning BBC Presenter Dan Walker (you can find him at MrDanWalker on Twitter) was out walking his dog when he came across Tony, started chatting, and listened to his story.
All credit to Dan Walker. He got the combined might of the BBC, the USAF and the RAF mobilised when he found out from Tony that today, 22 February 2019, was the 75th anniversary of that terrible day back in 1944 when 10 young airmen decided to sacrifice their lives so that others might live.
After, I’m sure, a huge amount of badgering within those massive institutions where not many things happen quickly, Dan Walker managed to convince both the USAF and the Royal Air Force to commit to a organising a flypast, quickly dubbed the #FlypastForTony, for today, the 75th anniversary.
And I’ve just watched 10 aeroplanes, one for each of the USAF airman who perished 75 years ago, fly over the park where they lost their lives. Each aeroplane carried the name of one of the fallen heroes as a mark of respect.
Thousands of people turned out in Sheffield to watch this, and I was in tears on my sofa watching the event on the BBC. I know countless other people in the UK were doing exactly the same.
There was such dignity from a man well into his 80s, who’s been keeping the memory of those airmen alive for 75 years. There was the fact that a big-name TV presenter had taken the time to talk to an ordinary bloke in the park and listen to his story. There was the love from those airman’s extended families for a man they’d never heard of, until recently, but who had spent the last 75 years giving so much love and attention to their fallen relatives.
And there was the fact that Dan Walker wasn’t even there as part of the BBC’s coverage. (In fairness, he’d booked long ago to do a charity climb of Mt Kilimanjaro and he kept to that commitment.)
Had he been there…which, let’s face it, most journalists would have done for their “scoop”…it might have meant the quiet, unassuming dignity of Tony Foulds playing second fiddle to the brilliance of his journalism.
So I’ve a huge respect for Dan Walker for discovering one of the greatest stories of our times, and having the dignity and decency not to make it all about himself, but to get out of the way and let the story speak for itself.
It was a truly wonderful couple of hours in front of the TV. At a time when division so often stokes the flames of hatred in the UK and around the world, the respect we all felt for an ordinary bloke from Sheffield, those 10 brave airmen who sacrificed themselves so that others might live, and mutual respect between the UK and US armed forces was truly humbling.
However nothing quite prepared me for the emotions of the “missing man” formation, the traditional air force manoeuvre to recognise a fallen comrade.
A group of four USAF F-15 Strike Eagles approached the Sheffield park memorial in tight formation. As they came close, one of them peeled off, straight up into the sky out of sight, leaving his three comrades to continue on their flight-path with an evident “missing” aircraft in the formation.
On a day full of moving moments, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything that’s touched me quite so much.
At that moment, I felt a sense of connection through the years to those 10 brave airmen which surpassed anything I’d experienced up to that point on an already emotional day. While it wasn’t the first set of tears I’d shed today, that set of tears were the most deeply heartfelt.
I said a prayer for the 10 young men who lost their lives.
And I said another one for an ordinary man who has spent the last 75 years living with a deep sense of guilt that, because they had chosen to save him and his friends, the 22nd February 1944 had seen the deaths of 10 young men who would never have families of their own.
It’s easy to say that, if they could talk to Tony, none of those 10 brave airmen would have wanted him to live a life full of guilt because of the choice they made.
But I am so humbled by the respect Tony has shown that I don’t think it’s our place to tell this dignified, ordinary working man how he should feel about the events in that Sheffield park 75 years ago today.
We should respect his dignity, not criticise his perspective.
But what, you’re perhaps wondering, does all this have to do with “Chattanooga Choo Choo”?
Well, as part of this morning’s events there was a USAF band in the Sheffield park. And at one point, in the background while one of the presenters was talking, I heard the very familiar tones of my own grandfather’s favourite song, “Chattanooga Choo Choo”.
My grandfather, who would be in his late 90s if he was still alive, was a great source of support to me when I was growing up. He was never short of an encouraging word, even when things were tough for me.
So much so, I’m not absolutely sure that “Chattanooga Choo Choo” was, in fact, really his favourite song. I’d appeared “centre stage” in a school performance which included that song when I was about 8 or 9 and he told me ever since then day it was his favourite song.
He was certainly a big Glenn Miller fan and I remember him taking me to a wonderful concert by the Glenn Miller Orchestra…by then without Glenn Miller himself who, in a poignant counterpoint to today’s events in Sheffield, was lost in the skies over Europe in late 1944…when I was about 11 or 12.
I absolutely adored that concert and the musicianship of the Glenn Miller Orchestra which, at the time, still contained a fair smattering of people who had actually played with Glenn Miller when he’d been alive.
If I was guessing, based on his reaction at that concert, “Pennsylvania 6-5000” was probably my grand-dad’s favourite Glenn Miller track, but I never challenged him on this and just accepted his oft-stated preference for “Chattanooga Choo Choo”.
My grand-dad was a lot like Tony Foulds. He had the same quiet dignity about him. I wasn’t about to let him think I’d somehow “caught him out”. He deserved better than that from me.
“Chattanooga Choo Choo” was written by two multi-Oscar-winning songwriters, Mack Gordon (9-times “Best Original Song” Oscar winner) and Harry Warren (3-times winner). It was originally composed for the 1941 movie, ‘Sun Valley Serenade’, which featured Glenn Miller and His Orchestra.
The song tells the story of someone returning from a long spell away from home, eager to get back to the girl who’s been waiting patiently for him all the time he’s been away.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, “Chattanooga Choo Choo” went to the top of the US charts in the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor, on 7th December 1941 as more and more sweethearts were realising they would soon be parted for months and years ahead as part of the fight against the tyranny which had just been unleashed upon the world.
We start off in New York’s Pennsylvania Station, with our returning hero stopping to get his shoes shined…yes, that was a thing back then…before boarding his train home. He wants to look his very best for the special girl who’s waiting for him back in Chattanooga, as you can tell from this opening conversation with the shoeshine boy…
Pardon me, boy, is that the Chattanooga Choo Choo?
Track twenty-nine, boy, you can give me a shine
Can you afford to board the Chattanooga Choo Choo?
I’ve got my fare and a trifle to spare
After boarding the train, we head south to Baltimore and through the Carolinas before heading west…
When you hear the whistle blowing eight to the bar
Then you know that Tennessee is not very far
Shovel all the coal in, gotta keep it rollin’
Woo, woo, Chattanooga, there you are
The reason “Chattanooga Choo Choo” was such an appropriate song for the USAF band to play this morning, leaving aside the Glenn Miller wartime connotations, was that it tells a story of someone going back to see a person they loved, but hadn’t seen for a long time.
“Chattanooga Choo Choo” is a very happy song. You can feel the joy in it, just as you would feel joy at the prospect of seeing someone you loved once more after many years apart.
And, in a sense, that’s what the #FlypastForTony was about this morning too.
The airmen’s extended families were represented at the anniversary event. They brought the love from all their families in the US to that little corner of a Sheffield park to make sure the fallen heroes knew they hadn’t been forgotten and that their families would love and remember them for ever.
None of which would have been possible without the 75 years of service, love and dedication shown by an 8 year-old boy whose life changed forever one spring day while he was out playing with his mates in the park and a stricken B-17 came across the horizon, looking for somewhere to land.
I salute the bravery of those 10 men today. I salute the dedication of Tony Foulds no less.
All 11 are heroes to me.
Here’s Glenn Miller and His Orchestra, with “Chattanooga Choo Choo”…(the sound quality is better on Spotify than on the YouTube track, but as ever, both versions are here, whatever your preference).
The video is below, but if you prefer you can listen to the track on Spotify here… https://open.spotify.com/track/1XogctkYSgvS6R4zSKRLkQ
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