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Monongahela airman killed in WWII revered in Holland

| Saturday, Jan. 4, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Anton de Man is shown by the grave of Flight Lt. Peter W. Bickford at the Strijen Cemetery in the Netherlands in a recent photo taken by his wife, Johanna de Mans.
This photo of Flight Lt. Peter W. Bickford and his crew of the Lancaster Bomber LM693 was taken on the afternoon of Sept. 16, 1944, only hours before their aircraft crashed near Strijen, Holland. The Royal Canadian Air Force group includes (left to right) F/O Arnold Ney Johnston, P/O Douglas Dawson, Bickford, F/Sgt. U.B. Butters, P/O Donald George Flood, P/O P.L. Dooley and F/O Wilfred George Scanlan. The picture was provided by Anton de Man, who is in charge of creation of a memorial honoring the men.

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“The Netherlands will never forget those who give or have given their lives for the liberation of the Netherlands. Name by name, person by person, their memory will live on with us.” – Queen Wilhelmina, in a radio speech in 1942 from England.

Tony Myers and his cousin, Peter J. Bickford, have a pretty good idea of where they will be on May 2, 2015.

They're planning to journey 270 miles from their homes in Bristol, England, to Strijen and Oud-Beijerland in the province of South Holland in the western Netherlands.

“No question about it, I've already circled the date on my calendar, and the good Lord willing, Pete and I will be there,” Myers said. “Strijen is a beautiful town, and I am eagerly looking forward to returning for what will be a very special occasion.”

Myers, 56, and Bickford, 58, are the nephews of the late Flight Lt. Peter William Bickford, who lived in Monongahela, graduated from Monongahela High School and worked at The Daily Republican newspaper there before enlisting in the military in World War II.

Peter W. Bickford was only 24 and serving with the Royal Canadian Air Force when his Lancaster Bomber M693 crashed near Strijen on Sept. 16, 1944. He and his crew were killed and are buried at the Strijen Cemetery. They and other airmen who lost their lives in World War II will be remembered with deep gratitude of the Dutch citizens when the monument is to be dedicated in their honor and memory on May 2, 2015.

Other members of Bickford's crew who lost their lives in the tragedy were F/O Arnold Ney Johnston, P/O Douglas Dawson, F/Sgt. U.B. Butters, P/O Donald George Flood, P/O P.L. Dooley and F/O Winifred George Scanlan.

“The reason we are building this monument for 87 Dutch and Allied crew members of these aircrafts is to emphasize that we will never forget what these young men, including Flight Lt. Peter W. Bickford, did for our freedom,” said Anton de Man, who is spearheading the memorial campaign in Strijen.

The monument will be erected in The Hoeksche Waard.

“During the Second World War, from 1940 to 1945, on or over the island known as the Hoeksche Waard, many crew members of Dutch and Allied aircraft were killed while fighting against the German occupation of the Netherlands,” de Man said. “Some were buried in villages in The Hoeksche Waard, the rest in other places either in the Netherlands or abroad. To commemorate these men, mostly young, who gave their lives in order for us to be able to live in a free country, we plan to erect the monument.”

Myers and Peter J. Bickford never met their uncle but have heard and read stories about him. They commended de Man and others involved with the the Hoeksche Waard memorial for “remembering and honoring our uncle and the other brave men who lost their lives.”

Myers' mother, Mrs. Barbara Laura Bickford Myers, of Bristol, is Peter W. Bickford's sister. She graduated from Monongahela High School in 1947 and returned to the United Kingdom shortly thereafter with her parents. Peter J. Bickford is the son of Pat Bickford, who also lives in Bristol, and the late Barrie Bickford, the brother of Peter W. Bickford. Like his siblings, Barrie attended Monongahela High School but left school before graduating to follow his brother into service with the Royal Canadian Air Force.

Barrie, who was 72 when he died Nov. 20, 1997, was trained with the Royal Canadian Air Force as a tail gunner. His duties in England were those of a trainer in that discipline.

Myers visited his uncle's grave in 2010 and took pictures of the site as part of his help with this writer's book, “Lost and Found: The Bickfords of Bristol.”

“It is a very serene setting that offers a sense of going back in time,” Myers said. “You can feel the spirit of the brave men that are buried there.”

Bickford is looking forward to a similar experience next year with a trip to Strijen well in advance of the 2015 memorial dedication.

“I intend to visit Uncle Peter's grave on or around Sept. 16, which will be the 70th anniversary of his death and the commencement of the battle of Arnhem,” he said. “I plan to be there a couple of days looking at sites associated with the battle, and I am hoping to make contact with Anton de Man to discuss the progress of the proposed memorial.”

Mr. de Man, 73, won't be lacking for information about the memorial and his passion for perpetuating the memories he has of living in the midst of the horrific fighting of World War II in Holland.

“For many years, I had been telling my story, what I saw as a child, about World War II to children of a basic school in Mijnheerenland, which is near where I live,” said de Man, a pensioner who worked as an electrical engineer for many years at Dow Chemical Co.'s office in Rotterdam. “The teacher of this group told the teacher of the school in Oud-Beijerland about the way the children of her class were impressed with these recollections and I took the program there.”

One of the most vivid stories de Man, who was born Nov. 16, 1940, in Strijen, has is of seeing the graves of Bickford and his crew.

“The cemetery is close to the house where I lived at that time,” he said. “Seeing those graves had quite an impact on me when I was a very young boy. I am still very moved when I visit the cemetery quite often, because my parents' graves also are there. And after visiting their graves, I pass the graves of the Allied crew members and those of two Dutch soldiers who also are buried there. Those graves will forever stand as solemn reminders of the gratitude we have for those men.”

Ron Paglia is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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