The Freckleton Air Disaster

“Little America” and the Largest Allied Air Loss

When dawn broke in the village of Freckleton on August 23, 1944, the United Kingdom had been at war with Nazi Germany for nearly five years. The small town in Lancashire, England, had avoided the ravages of "the blitz;" and viewed its location as a haven for a small number of evacuees, a means of escape from the wrath of German bombs. This protective perception became challenged as a little-known tragedy involving an American B-24 Liberator bomber resulted in "the single largest air disaster suffered by the Allies in WWII." Sixty-one people perished in the war accident: thirty-eight of which were small children. The village and the American 8th Air Force endured a sense of shared loss, and the need for remembrance assisted in supporting the healing process and preserving the perpetual commemoration of its victims through the society's collective memory. Adjacent to Freckleton stands the village of Warton, home to BAD-2, an American 8th Air Force Base Air Depot, where aircraft for the "Mighty Eighth" underwent repair and refurbishing. BAD-2 servicemen found housing throughout the two villages, and the locals often referred to the area as "Little America."

August 23, 1944 began as an ordinary day in very extraordinary times. Children prepared for their second day of school following summer break; teachers reviewed lesson plans; patrons and employees of the Sad Sack Café discussed the war's status. Even the weather report suggested an average day, "some early sunshine and light clouds followed by rain showers later in the morning." For the men of BAD-2, it was a routine day. First Lieutenant John A. Bloemendal of Minnesota was the Officer of the Day. His schedule included a test flight of a B-24 Liberator at 8:30 a.m. However, routine duties sidetracked Bloemendal and delayed his takeoff. This delay sealed the fates of Bloemendal and the citizens of Freckleton.

At 10:30 a.m., the control tower at Warton airfield cleared two repaired B-24s for takeoff on a test flight. Bloemendal, a veteran test pilot, flew the B-24, Classy Chassis II, and First Lieutenant Peter Manassero commanded the second aircraft. Upon warning of the approaching thunderstorm, the control tower recalled the planes. Amid the storm, Bloemendal attempted to land the Classy Chassis II at Warton airfield. Manassero decided not to land his B-24 and instead flew northward to escape the storm. As Bloemendal continued his approach to the runway at Warton, he realized the hopelessness of a successful landing at the field. He attempted to retract his landing gear and fly around the airfield to follow Manassero's path out of the storm. As Bloemendal struggled to bank his turn, he lost control of the aircraft. At 25 tons, with more than 2,700 gallons of fuel onboard, the plane barreled into the village of Freckleton. Along its downward path, the Classy Chassis II clipped the tops of trees and demolished three houses and the Sad Sack Café. The B-24 then cartwheeled, and the plane's momentum slid into the infants' wing of Holy Trinity School. The entire area erupted as the aviation fuel ignited, engulfing the building, teachers, and students. The impact of the crash immediately killed Bloemendal and his crew of two. The final death toll from the crash was sixty-one, including thirty-eight children. The time of the crash: approximately 10:47 a.m. In a fireball lasting minutes, an English village loses a generation, replaced with a legacy of loss that
continues to the present day.

A mass funeral took place on August 26, and immediately afterward, the question surfaced: What is the best way to permanently memorialize the victims of the crash, especially the children? Donations for a memorial begin arriving from BAD-2, local donors, and patrons across the United Kingdom. Instantly, American servicemen decided to build and finance a "living memorial," a children's playground, a tribute which Kirk Savage defines in his article, "History, Memory, and Monuments" as a "utilitarian memorial" a means of promoting community development through the construction of shared memory. The playground, dedicated in August 1945, bears a stone tablet with the inscription: "This playground presented to the children of Freckleton by their neighbors of Base Air Depot No. 2 USAAF in recognition and remembrance of their common loss in the disaster of August 23, 1944." Today, in a "contemporary culture," this tablet and playground successfully bear silent witness to a tragic accident.

Commemoration in Freckleton was not without controversy, especially between the Church Council and the Parish Council. The dispute: Should a new school or village hall be erected in memory of the victims? Sadly, the memorial intended to unite the village and comfort its sorrow divided the community. The division between Anglicans and Methodists exacerbated the clash between sectarian and secular interests. Three separate funds materialized for memorial projects: the American fund to provide playground maintenance, the Church Council fund for a new school, and the Parish Council monies for a village hall. Competition for donors and no clear memorial plans hindered the Parish and Church Council's appeals for donations. As a result, each organization's envisioned tribute languished for years.

The one idea everyone in the village agreed upon is a monument at the victim's communal gravesite financed by families and friends of the deceased. The village built a monument in front of the collective grave, and its dedication took place on May 24, 1947. The monument's design resembles an aircraft nose-diving into the ground, buried along with the victims of the tragedy. The two sloped panels on either side of the square pedestal contain the names of the teachers, students, and civilians who lost their lives in the tragedy.

During the next decade, the vision for a memorial school continued, with funding solicited locally and through the Church of England. A completed structure arose in 1970. In 1979, the remains of the old school were demolished, with its cornerstone transferred to the new facility. The demolition crew removed a tragic reminder of Freckleton's loss with the destruction of the old building. Still, the new school and its cornerstone afford the crucial hope for a brighter future for a new generation of children.

With the necessary finances and the need to modify the connection between public space and memory, the Memorial Hall became a reality in 1977. The hall's mission remains as intended by the Parish Council in 1944: provide a central landmark in the social lives of Freckleton for club meetings, concerts, and other community activities.

A monument also exists in the United States. The National Museum of the Mighty 8th Air Force in Pooler, Georgia, opened in May 1996. The following year, on August 23, 1997, the BAD-2 Garden was dedicated. This 25-foot-by-25-foot area contains two plaques. One commemorates the victims of the Freckleton crash and all servicemen who died at Warton during the war. The other provides a brief history of BAD-2 and a succinct description of the events of August 23, 1944. The garden contains a stone monument that reads, "To the memory of the following who died when an American B-24 crashed destroying the Freckleton Church of England School on August 23 1944." The memorial lists the thirty-eight children and the two teachers who died in the crash.

In 2007, the BBC produced a short documentary on the Freckleton air disaster. While the crew was filming, they questioned residents (who could not come up with a reason) as to why there was no fitting tribute at the original crash site. The Parish Council remedied the situation and erected a commemorative plaque on May 2, 2007, at the site of the old school. The plaque reads: "This is the site of the village school where, on August 23 1944, during a severe storm, an American bomber crashed with the loss of 61 lives. This included 38 children, 2 teachers and 21 civilian and service personnel. Always in our hearts."

In the 20th century, authorities referenced the unintentional war deaths of civilians as collateral damage. Statistics and serial numbers replace names and faces and anesthetize the public to the personal tragedy of war. Thus, the human toll of war can easily fade from society's collective memory without the dead having a personal identity. In turn, this collective memory provides the first line of a challenge to countries capriciously engaging in war. In Grider's article, "Faces of the Fallen," he affirms the process of healing and memorialization and the reassuring effect of "putting an individual human face and name to a victim of war." In Freckleton, the victims of the air disaster have faces and names. In Holy Trinity Church, there is a book that contains photographs of all the young children who died in the crash. The innocent faces of children instantly remind the viewer of the true horror and cost of war. In the adjacent cemetery stands the memorial cross over the communal graves. The monument's base contains the names of all who died in the catastrophe. Thus personalizing the suffering and loss of each victim, their families, and their communities.

The story of the Freckleton air disaster is not just a tale of loss, suffering, and pain. It is also the story of courage and understanding, and as Keith Lowe documents, "it is not the symbols of destruction that dominate, but those of rebirth and reconciliation." The story reminds us that life's journey comes with happiness and sorrow, despair and hope, and life and death. Through their suffering and sorrow, the people of Freckleton have honored the past while building a brighter future. Images of deceased innocents remain forever. The horror of war arrived in Freckleton with a sudden fury, and the GIs at BAD-2 responded with courage and valor. The air disaster is an outcome of the war, an unintentional accident occurring while the Americans and British were fighting the evil of Nazism. Allied victory over the Axis powers preserved freedom and democracy, and the air disaster victims paid a part of the immense cost of victory. The sacrifice of their lives was not in vain.

Today, the population of Freckleton is approximately 6,000, nearly six times the village's population when WWII commenced in September 1939. The sense of common loss and the need for remembrance has helped heal the wounds inflicted by the disaster while ensuring the constant memory of its victims. The critical element of the link is the victim tribute, a tribute seen both through traditional monuments and the living memorial. Their names are not only enshrined on monuments in Freckleton and Pooler, Georgia but also in the "living hearts of the people" who know their story. As long as their narrative continues and their memories are etched in stone, the air disaster victims at Freckleton will continue to live on into the future, a future they lost on August 23, 1944.

(edited by Laura Bailey)

Images

The Freckleton Funeral Procession US Soldiers serve as pallbearers for the children being laid to rest. Source: Funeral for victims of the Freckleton air disaster. 
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Creator: Unknown Date: August 26, 1944.
A Postcard of Freckleton Freckleton village, pictured before the war on a postcard. Details of the crash have been annotated onto the card by the late Sgt. Joseph M Elim. Source: Freckleton Before Disaster
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Creator: Unknown Date: circa 1943
The Classy Chassis II "Lt. Borman and crew of the 849th Bomb Squadron, 490th Bomb Group pose beside their Consolidated B-24 at an 8th Air Force base in England." Source: The Classy Chassis Five Months Prior to the Crash / Permalink Creator: Unknown Date: March 22, 1944
Consolidated B-24 Liberator U.S. 4-Engine Bomber (24) Source: B-24 Liberator Aloft 
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Creator: Unknown Date: circa 1944
Pilot of the Fateful B-24 Liberator Over Freckleton Pilot Bloemendal in the cockpit of an aircraft. Source: 1st Lt. John A. Bloemendal / Permalink Creator: Unknown Date: circa 1944
Devastation in the heart of Freckleton. The fiery inferno caused by the crash of the U.S. B-24 Liberator. Source: The Immediate Aftermath of the Crash / Permalink Creator: Unknown Date: August 23, 1944
Aftermath of Freckleton Air Disaster The town clears the debris and bodies of the aviation accident. Source: The Tangible Devastation is Removed 
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Creator: Unknown Date: August 1944
Freckleton Memorial The memorial, shaped like an aircraft, serves the memory of those lost that day. Source: Scott Loehr, President and CEO of the National Museum of the Mighty 8th Air Force Creator: Scott Loehr Date: Unknown
Freckleton Memorial Plaque A plaque detailing the events of August 23, 1944, in the Memorial Gardens - The National Museum of the Mighty 8th in Pooler, Georgia. Source: Scott Loehr, President and CEO of the National Museum of the Mighty 8th Air Force
A List of the Lost - 1 On this concrete slab are the names of the teachers, scholars lost on August 23, 1944 at the Freckleton Church of England School. Source: Scott Loehr, President and CEO of the National Museum of the Mighty 8th Air Force
A List of the Lost - 2 On this concrete slab are the names of the teachers, scholars lost on August 23, 1944 at the Freckleton Church of England School. Source: Scott Loehr, President and CEO of the National Museum of the Mighty 8th Air Force

Location

Lytham Road, Freckleton, PRESTON, Lancashire, PR4 1AA

Metadata

https://www.iwm.org.uk/memorials/item/memorial/10545
Deborah Eason, “The Freckleton Air Disaster,” Global World War II Monuments, accessed July 24, 2024, https://worldwariimonuments.org/items/show/16.