Memorial Day

Memorial Day service at Fort Worth Royal Flying Corps Cemetery in Greenwood Memorial Park. (Photo by Carolyn Poirot)

British, Canadian and American pilots who lost their lives training in Fort Worth for military service in World War I, were honored in ceremonies at the Fort Worth Royal Flying Corps Cemetery in Greenwood Memorial Park, on Memorial Day.

The Remembrance Service honored the 39 pilots who were killed in flight training between November 1917 and April 1918 at the three airfields in Tarrant County where 1,500 pilots won their wings.

The Honorable Douglas George, acting consul general of Canada, reminded the 150 in attendance that “the U.S. and Canada have always been friends, partners and allies throughout our history.”

A total 67,000 flying hours were logged at the three Tarrant County airfields in the 17 months after the U.S., British and Canadian governments entered into a reciprocal agreement to train military pilots for combat duty.

Foreign troops trained in Texas during the winter and in Canada in the summer.

“Royal Flying Corps expertise and skilled instructors enabled large numbers of Americans to receive excellent flight training in a short time,” reads the Texas Historic Marker at the cemetery.

Of the 39 killed in flight school, 11 are buried here. Another veteran who trained in Fort Worth and went on to fly in World War I, requested burial with his friends when he died in 1975.

Highlights of the service included both a biplane flyover and an F-16 flyover by the 301st Fighter Wing, U.S. Air Force Reserves, N.A.S. Joint Reserve Base.

Special bagpipe music was presented by Jim Gibson, pipe major with the Texas Scottish Pipes and Drums.

Friends of the Royal Flying Corps Cemetery and Greenwood Memorial Park hosted the Remembrance Service, which is held in Fort Worth every two years.

If you don’t know the story of how and why those Canadians were in Fort Worth, you should. It is a vital part of how and why Fort Worth and North Texas continues to have a strong economic relationship with the aviation industry.

Texas started World War I with six army camps and no airfields. By the end of the war, Texas had 24 camps and 15 airfields, almost half of all the military operations in the United States.

That’s not a surprise, as there were few airplanes in the entire country at the beginning of World War I. Estimates are there were between 20 and 50 airplanes in the entire country and who knows how many of those were reliable? There were only 750 airplanes in the world at the beginning of the war in 1914. By the end of the war, there were more than 250,000 airplanes.

As Jim Hodgson, executive director of the Fort Worth Aviation Museum, recounted in 2017 on the centennial anniversary of the beginning of World War I, Ben E. Keith, founder of the food supply company, was president of the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce, which was started in 1913 by Fort Worth Star-Telegram founding publisher Amon G. Carter (who you may have read about recently).

Keith and others, like Carter, knew the city would be an ideal place to build a base and it might also be a good place to build airfields, according to Hodgson.

Keith headed for Washington to lobby for bases in Fort Worth, and he invited a military inspection team to visit. Fort Worth leaders had decided to offer the military the Arlington Heights area, a failed subdivision dating to the 1880s. Sewers and other infrastructure were already in place, according to Hodgson.

Fort Worth leaders were upset that the military inspection team visited in the middle of a huge rainstorm, causing flooding in Fort Worth and Arlington Heights. I bet I can show you were it was flooding then as it does now.

As usual, Amon Carter used his connections. Gen. Benjamin Foulois, who was in charge of the first airplane owned and used by the U.S. Army, had visited Fort Worth as a guest of Carter. No word if the general received a famous Shady Oaks hat, but he probably did. Keith had met the general then. Keith headed back to Washington for dinner with Foulois, who had been talking to Canadian officers about establishing a flying field in Texas, where the weather was more conducive to year-round training, according to Hodgson. Foulois had to leave the dinner early, but he took out a cigarette paper (thank the Lord for smoking) and, according to local historian J'Nell L. Pate, wrote a note on it to Brig. Gen. Cuthbert G. “Frog” Hoare, commander of the Canadian Royal Flying Corps. It said, “Do what you can for this Texan.”

He did. Waco wanted an airfield, as did some city to the east and Mineral Wells. But the Canadians decided Fort Worth was the bee’s knees. That is how the city got three Royal Flying Corps airfields as well as Camp Bowie. Construction started in the early summer of 1917 and troops began showing up in August. By the time the airfields were finished in the fall, Fort Worth had grown from about 70,000 residents to almost 130,000.

The total investment in the camps and airfields for the city was $11 million, about $206 million it today’s dollars, according to Hodgson.

Fort Worth had three of the six Texas airfields: Taliaferro One, which we know as Hicks; Barron Field or Taliaferro Two, off Everman Parkway; and Taliaferro Three, which was in Carruthers just north of Benbrook, according to Hodgson.

It was at the Benbrook field site where one of the most famous crashes took place. Vernon Castle, a superstar (along with his sister Irene) of music and dance in the early part of the 20th Century, was there, but not to entertain.

Castle, who had been raised in England, joined the Royal Flying Corps, and had flown 300 combat missions, shooting down two German planes. He was in Fort Worth to train other pilots

On Feb. 15, 1918, Castle’s plane stalled during a climb and roll maneuver as he was trying to avoid crashing into another cadet’s plane. Though only 75 feet in the air, he died when the plane fell nose first into the ground. According to the monument at the crash site, "Neither the other pilot, his student cadet, nor Vernon's pet monkey, Jeffrey, were seriously injured." Yes, Michael Jackson was not the only 20th Century pop star to own a pet monkey. According to Roadside America, Jeffrey's ultimate fate is unknown, but Irene's monkey, Rastas, is buried at the Hartsdale Pet Cemetery in New York.

There is a memorial in front of water tank on the site honoring Vernon Castle.

There’s a personal connection for me as my grandmother, Lillian Chitwood Francis, saw Vernon and Irene Castle on tour while growing up in Oklahoma. She was so taken with them that, after Vernon died, she named my father, born in 1922, after him – his middle name anyway – Billy Vernon Francis.

Robert Francis is editor of the Fort Worth Business Press.

Carolyn Poirot contributed to this article.

To see the Vernon Castle Memorial:

The address is E. Vernon Castle Ave., Benbrook. Take the I-20 exit 429 onto US 337/Benbrook Blvd. and go south a little over a mile, then left onto Sproles Drive. Take the third left onto Vernon Castle Ave. The monument is in front of the big water tank.

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