Memories of Monongahela airman killed in WWII remain vivid
Part 2 of 3
Part of Anton de Man's stories for school children in the Netherlands focus on the period from 1944 through May 5, 1945, and the plight of the Dutch people who were under the control of Nazi forces that occupied their land.
De Man is leading a campaign to have a memorial erected near Strijen, Holland, in honor and memory of Flight Lt. Peter W. Bickford of Monongahela and his Royal Canadian Air Fore Lancaster Bomber M693 crew who were killed in a crash there on Sept. 16, 1944.
“The situation in the western part of Holland was intolerable for our citizens,” said de Man, who has presented programs at schools in his area for several years. “There was no food during this period and some 17,000 people died because of that.”
He recalled seeing German soldiers “taking food away from a mother who had collected it from farmers as she returned to her home in Rotterdam.”
“I heard the mother calling to the German soldiers, ‘Please give me the food back … my children have had no food for a week,'” he said. “But the soldiers paid no attention to her and did not return the food. This distraught mother began walking home with her children again, this time with tears on their faces and without food to eat. It was a sight I can never forget, and I have vowed that we must never let this happen again in our world.”
He also has strong memories of seeing a Spitfire fighter plane crash not far from his home on March 17, 1945.
“A German soldier who was behind me fired his rifle at the Spitfire and hit the pilot, Warrant Officer Jack Dawson Green,” de Man said.
Green was serving with the No. 603 Squadron of the Royal Australian Air Force at the time of his death. He was only 21.
De Man's ongoing interest in what Allied soldiers did for his country during World War II heightened on June 17, 2008, when he discovered Green's grave at nearby Barendrecht.
A large war memorial was constructed there to honor Green; four United States Air Force crew members of a Liberator bomber who died on April 5, 1945, and 14 Dutch military personnel who gave their lives in fighting in various parts of the world during World War II. The Americans, members of the 446 Bomb Group of the 705 Bomb Squadron were 2nd Lt. Robert W. Lajoie, Staff Sgt. Darell A. Waas, Staff Sgt. Leo R. Coyle Jr. and Sgt. Raymond G. Teisen.
In August 2012 de Man visited the village of Ludham in eastern England. It is at this site where one runway of a Royal Air Force base remains.
“This is where Jack was based,” de Man said. “On March 17, 1945, with 11 other Spitfires, he left for a mission in Holland. He didn't come back.”
When de Man returned home in, he realized a need to create a monument honoring Peter W. Bickford and the others buried there.
“Other men in our village agreed to help with the effort,” he said. “We created a trust fund in November 2012 to raise money for the project. We also asked the mayor of Oud-Beijerland to provide space to place the monument. He agreed to this on Sept. 10, 2013, and we are moving forward.”
Raising money “in these difficult economic times is not easy,” de Man admitted.
Estimated cost of the monument is 83,000 euros ($112,557). The project is divided into two parts – the actual monument with metal plates carrying the names of the men being honored, 23,000 euros, and a replication of a Spitfire fighter, 60,000 euros. De Man and his colleagues have raised 13,000 euros for the monument.
“If we do not have enough money for the Spitfire to be unveiled on May 2, 2015, we will then present only part one, the monument, at that time and focus on the plane for a later time,” de Man said. “We are seeking donations for the monument from industries and businesses, as well as private people, and we will be grateful for any benevolence.”
Additional information is available by contacting de Man as follows: email – firstname.lastname@example.org; telephone – 0031 78 673 1990; cell phone – 0031 6 13 74 22 24; regular mail – Groene Kruisstraat 47, 3295 AH's-Gravendeel, Village Binnenmaas, The Netherlands; Skype name – antondeman1.
De Man said the committee is trying to contact families of the fallen airmen to be honored on the memorial and invite them to the 2015 dedication. Sponsors, dignitaries and other interested guests also will be welcome to take part “in commemoration of the fact that 70 years ago the Netherlands became a free country again.”
In seeking information about Peter W. Bickford, de Man learned that he was born in Bristol, England, on July 16, 1920, the oldest of three children of William C.S. Bickford and Elsie Chapman Bickford. He came to the United States in 1921 when his father, a clerk on the Great Western Railway in Bristol, left England for better work opportunities.
The family initially settled in Hopedale, Ohio, where Bickford's brother, Barrie Spence Bickford, was born Nov. 6, 1925; and their sister, Barbara Laura Bickford Myers, was born Nov. 20, 1929. They later moved to Castle Shannon, 6.5 miles south of Pittsburgh, and then in the mid-1930s took up residence at 431 Second St. in Monongahela.
Peter attended Monongahela High School, where he was active with several clubs and endeared himself to classmates, teachers and school officials with his writing skills, personality and keen wit. He was a key member of The Flame yearbook staff, and he also worked as a sports stringer (correspondent) for The Daily Republican hometown newspaper while still a student at MHS.
Barbara Myers said in an earlier interview that her brother “was recognized as a prolific and talented writer” in school and later at the newspaper.
“He always encouraged me to read and write little things,” she recalled. “Once, I wrote a fan letter to a movie magazine which was published, and Peter was extravagant in his praise. He gave me a lovely illustrated copy of the ‘Arabian Nights' one Christmas with a nice inscription. I still have it and treasure it.”
Bickford graduated from Monongahela High School in May 1939 and soon thereafter took a full-time job as sports editor of The Daily Republican. It was there that he worked under the guidance of managing editor Floyd Melville France, a highly respected journalist whose career spanned nearly 50 years.
“My dad always spoke very highly about Peter,” said Dr. Jack France, Floyd's son, who has practiced general dentistry in Tampa, Fla., for nearly 40 years. “He said he was a talented young man whose energy and commitment to the (newspaper) profession was excellent.
“Dad was very proud of how well and quickly Peter adjusted to the routine of deadlines and other pressures of a daily community newspaper. He loved covering and writing about sports, but my father said he could have handled any assignment with equal ability.”
Bickford's talents and passion — not to mention the proverbial “nose for news” — were not limited to sports.
“Peter just loved working at the newspaper and was always on the alert for news,” Barbara Myers said of her brother.
An incident that symbolized those qualities occurred on a warm summer afternoon in 1940.
“Peter was at his desk at the newspaper and eating his lunch when a passerby threw open the front door and yelled to those in the newsroom, ‘There's a fire you might want to cover,' ” Mrs. Myers said. “Peter asked where the fire was and the man replied, ‘At 431 Second Street … there's smoke coming from the kitchen.' Peter looked up and his eyes widened as he said, ‘My goodness, that's my parents' home!' He grabbed his coat and hat and notebook and ran all the way to our home, maybe setting a record for covering the three blocks from the newspaper office.”
The fire at the Bickford home was not serious, but Peter arrived just about the same time as the volunteer firemen from Monongahela.
“Mum had left a skillet on the stove and it overheated,” Barbara Myers recalled. “It was a matter of smoke more than anything. But Peter was concerned about Mum, Barrie and me; and of course he was looking for a good story.”
Ron Paglia is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.