Bickford's passion to serve during war took him to Canada
Part 3 of 3
Peter W. Bickford left home in Monongahela and his job as sports editor of The Daily Republican to enter the military only four months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, pushed the United States into World War II.
That commitment to duty ultimately led to Bickford's tragic death when his plane crashed Sept. 16, 1944, at Strijen in the Netherlands. He and the other six crew members of the bomber will be honored on a war memorial to be constructed at nearby Oud-Beijerland on May 2, 2015. Anton de Man of Strijen is spearheading the monument project.
Although he was born in Bristol, England, and still a British citizen at the time he lived and worked in Monongahela, Bickford attempted to enlist in the U.S. Army Air Force. He was unsuccessful twice and eventually went to Canada to join the Royal Canadian Air Force.
He went overseas in May 1943 after receiving his wings and sergeant's chevrons at Moncton, New Brunswick. His commission as Pilot Officer came a few days later while he was in Monongahela on furlough and his promotion to Flying Officer while he was based in England.
First hometown casualty
The first Monongahelan to lose his life in the uniform of an Allied nation in World War II, Bickford was the pilot of a Lancaster bomber during his service in Europe. He assisted in the aerial bombardment in support of the Normandy landing and also at the Battle of Caen after having flown a number of tactical bombing missions prior to D-Day.
Bickford and his crew members were assigned to the No. 115 Squadron of the Royal Air Force Bomber Command, which traced its genesis to Dec. 1, 1917, according to RAF History links on the Internet (© Crown Copyright 2004 and © Deltaweb International Ltd 2004).
The crew's flight log, part of the family archives maintained by Bickford's sister-in-law, Pat Bickford, and nephew, Peter J. Bickford, shows missions that began at bases in such areas as Woodbridge, England, and Valenciennes, Monadier and Biennais in France.
The signature of D. Dawson is shown as authorizing some of the early and mid-1944 information that appears on the two-page log. But because D. Dawson is believed to be the Douglas Dawson who was among those killed in the crash over Holland, the person who wrote “Missing 1 6⁄17/Sept. 44” remains a mystery.
The log reveals that Bickford and his RCAF crew mates flew a variety of Lancaster bombers on their bombing, surveillance and test missions. Bickford is listed as the pilot on all but one mission. The name of Commander Devas appears on a June 5, 1944, run from Woodbridge.
Bickford's service with the Royal Canadian Air Force is noted in an excellent website, www.lancasterdiary.net, which chronicles the training and tour of operations of Lancaster bomber pilot Bruce Johnston through the diary he kept during his service with the RCAF. The site, which is the copyright property of and administered by Johnston's sons, Scott Johnston and Mark Johnston, refers to Bickford as a “friend and colleague.”
Diary details attack
Of special note in Johnston's diary is Operation #27 over Kamen, Germany, on Monday, Sept. 11, 1944. Johnston recalled that 154 Lancasters participated in attacks on synthetic oil plants on the Castrop-Rauxel, Kamen and Gelsenkirchen (Nordstrem). Although none of the 115 Squadron airplanes was lost, Johnston's plane was badly damaged by flak. Johnston, who was later awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for getting his plane and crew back safely, credited Bickford for his help in that return.
“Bickford passed me just out of the target and when he saw who it was he came back and formatted (flew in formation) on me all the way back,” Johnston wrote.
Other entries in his diary making reference to Bickford include:
• August 12, 1944 (Saturday), Operation #20 – Falaise (France) – “Did an air test on ‘P' for Peter (Lancaster bomber with ‘P' as the final code letter) in the afternoon — waited from 2:30 to 6:15 to get airborne and then I turned it down as fit to be scrubbed from the Squadron (I'd hate to fly it with a load!). The W/C (Wing Commander) is flying it tomorrow for the final verdict. Got down about ten to eight p.m. to eat then back to bunk about 8:30. ‘Bick' came in just as I was settled and said with a great grin on his face that the W/C wanted two more crews for a special op. So I galloped up to the mess and phoned (and volunteered Bickford and his bunch in return him getting me) so we went to Falaise to help out the Canadians. The other boys went to Germany (Brunswick and Russelsheim).”
• September 16, 1944 (Saturday), Operation #29 — Moerdijk – “Bombed a railway bridge at Moerdijk in Holland. There were only forty-eight on the place. Not a great deal of opposition but we lost Bickford and (his) crew on it. Came as a bit of a shock to us! Saw a chop (plane that was shot down) right at the target which must have been Bick. At the time I thought it was a bit big for a chop but I guess it wasn't.”
Johnston went on to explain that the operation was a raid of 54 Lancasters bombing flak positions in support of Operation Market Garden, the landing of British and American troops in Arnhem and Nijmegen the next day. He said the raid on Moerdik “was less successful, with only near misses to the target, though the bridge was hit and main approach road was cut.”
He said Bickford's plane collided with one from 90 Squadron and crashed into the Dutch countryside with no survivors. Johnston said the loss “was not surprising as for every 100 airmen in Bomber Command, 51 were killed in action, nine were killed in crashes over England, three were seriously injured on operations, 12 became prisoners of war, one was shot down and evaded capture, and 24 survived unharmed.”
Most accounts of the crash that killed Bickford and his crew indicate that their bodies were recovered and buried by villagers.
Remembering the dead
Anton de Man, 73, a retired electrical engineer and lifelong resident of Strijen who is in charge of creation of a war memorial honoring those men and others who died in Holland, offers an extended remembrance through his research.
Bickford's plane crashed late in the evening of Sept. 16, 1944, near the Moerdijk bridge in the Maria polder (lowland) in Strijen-Sas, de Man said, but recovery of their bodies was delayed.
“The German commander did not immediately allow the mayor of Strijen, Mr. Bolman, to go to the crash location to take the bodies from there,” de Man said. “(Bolman) and five others from the village took two cars with horses in front to the site. They placed the bodies in coffins, which were placed in the cars.
“The men found six bodies but one of them walked around the wreckage and discovered the body of the rear gunner at the back of the plane. They put him in a coffin and into one of the cars and prepared to return to the road. As they were doing that, they discovered a parachute of one of the crew members under a small bridge. They must have been going into the ditch because Allied planes had come over the area and German flak guns were shooting at them.
“Mayor Bolman and his fellow villagers draped Dutch flags on the coffins and after two hours, they were back in the village. That same day, they buried the fallen airmen in the cemetery at Strijen.”
Today, nearly 70 years after his unforgettable childhood, de Man remains committed to perpetuating the memories of Bickford and his crew and the thousands of other Allied military personnel buried in Holland.
“They made the ultimate sacrifice in giving their lives for our country,” de Man said. “We owe them our everlasting gratitude and respect. They must always be remembered as honorable and brave men by my generation, the generations that have followed and the generations to come.”
Ron Paglia is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.