Remembering an American flier in the RAF

Douglas MacGillvary Brown

Douglas MacGillvary Brown in the Lehigh University Class of 1941 yearbook

Some stories just keep coming around for another turn.

Almost 12 years ago, The Morning Call ran a story about Douglas MacGillvary Brown, a young American flier who left Bethlehem to fight for England before the U.S. entered World War II. He was killed before he got the chance.

The story was written by Kathy Lauer-Williams, with me as the editor. It told how Brown, a 21-year-old Lehigh University graduate, was on a Royal Air Force training flight on April 5, 1942, when his Spitfire Mk1 crashed into a mountain in North Wales.

The story’s peg – the reason Kathy wrote it – had to do with a woman who lovingly tended the pilot’s grave in the village of Tubney, England, for 45 years until she died.

Kathleen Barner was a stranger to Brown. She was married in Tubney’s St. Lawrence Church the day before he was buried, and made it her mission to keep the grass around his grave neatly mowed and the headstone clean. She often wondered about Brown, the only serviceman buried in the churchyard.

After Barner died in 1987, church member Briony Blackwell and others in the congregation wanted to learn all they could about Brown to honor Barner’s memory. Their search led to details of his life, how he came to fly for the RAF and what happened the day his plane hit North Wales’ Cwmbowydd Mountain.

Blackwell hoped to preserve Brown’s story with the church parish records. “It’s so tragic,” she told Kathy. “It’s sad that he died away from his country. In this way, we can help a brave man to be remembered.”

Kathy’s story ran on Page 1 on Sunday, April 2, 2000, to mark the 58th anniversary of Brown’s death. Here’s the link: http://www.mcall.com/news/all-tubneygraves,0,3008866.story. It was paired with a story I wrote about another American who flew for England and also died in a training accident in early 1942, Robert Riedy of Allentown.

We haven’t had anything about Brown in the paper since Kathy’s story. But that could soon change as a result of an email we got last week, informing us of another U.K. effort to remember Doug Brown.

The message was from Mel Thomas in Blaenau Ffestiniog, North Wales, who described himself as project leader of a “loose group of enthusiastic historians and archaeologists” who plan to put up a memorial plaque near the site where Brown’s plane crashed. He emailed The Morning Call because his group found a photo of Brown on the paper’s website.

When I asked Mel what this was all about, he said his group is cataloging “the history of a now derelict community in a hidden valley above our town – a valley called Cwmorthin.”

“Earliest settlement goes back to the 1500s and the last resident left in 1948. Part of its timeline involved a crash of a Hawker Hurricane flown by a Canadian pilot who was killed in the crash,” Mel wrote. “We decided to do a plaque in his memory and then realized that others had died near the town during the war. Hence the move now on to remember Doug.”

I asked Mel about the other deaths, and he wrote that a twin-engine Vickers Wellington Mk1c bomber hit a mountain coming back from a raid on the German U-boat pens at Lorient in Brittany, France.

“Five of the six crew were killed. The tail gunner survived when the turret detached on impact. When he came to with the rescuers around him, he presented his pistol, thinking he was in France because he could not understand their language. They were in fact speaking Welsh!

“He was in the local hospital for five weeks with a broken leg and bad bruising, getting daily visits from local schoolchildren.”

Mel said the plaque for Doug Brown will be placed at the starting point of a mountain bike course that’s under construction and expected to be completed by April. Watch The Morning Call, http://www.mcall.com/, for an update.

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