Each year, my church has what is known as “Homecoming Sunday”, a day to commemorate its history, welcome back former members who may have moved to other places, hear a great sermon and celebrate with that cornerstone staple of all church celebrations, the covered dish dinner. Having written on previous occasions about the wonders of this Southern church tradition, I’ll spare the details and suffice to say that it did, as always, live up to its name and I spent the remainder of the afternoon desperately needing a Sunday nap.
Visitors often will come to a Homecoming Sunday and today was one of those days where we had a few, one of which made an indelible impression on me. After finishing the meal, my son and I were sitting at the table having conversation with others at our table, including the guest speaker, our District Superintendent Richard Winn. Various members of the church came over to speak to the “D.S.” during and after the meal and one brought her dear friend over who was visiting our church today to meet him.
As far as visitors go, she was certainly unique for a small town Georgia church, and I deduced that before I had even heard what her story was, namely because she was British. Very British I might add. If her friend Barbara hadn’t told me she was from the United Kingdom, I would have known from the first minute she spoke because the accent was a dead giveaway. I can’t speak for everyone but British accents fall very favorably on my ear, the way Southern accents often do on those who aren’t from this part of the country. Behind every British accent is history, place and enormous heritage, all conveyed in the formation of words. I was about to find out the truth in this statement as she told her story to the D.S. and the rest of us at the table. She not only lived history but had survived one of it’s worst possible moments.
Growing up in a small village called Freckleton, on the Fylde coast in Lancashire, her youngest years should have been strictly centered around school, family, friends and whatever other pursuits a five-year old girl pursued in English villages around 1944. The reality, however, was that in that particular year, Great Britain and most of the rest of the world were engaged in World War II and Freckleton, ordinarily a small village, happened to be playing host to around 10,000 American Army Air Force soldiers stationed close by. Soldiers and airplanes coming and going were a way of life to the young Ruby Currell and in her short lifetime, had always been part of the backdrop of village life.
On the morning of August 23, 1944, Ruby went to school, dropped off by her father who had ridden her to school on a cushion placed across the crossbar of his bicycle. According to an interview given by Ruby last year to the Lancashire news media, she hadn’t wanted to go to school that day, preferring to stay home and play but her father had insisted that she must go and get her education. While she and her classmates were doing their lessons, it began to grow very dark outside as a tremendous storm started to build.
Unknown to Ruby or anyone else in the school that morning, a battle was going on out over the water, not one of war but one of man and machine versus nature, and nature was winning this one. That morning around 10:30 AM, two large B-24 Liberator bombers had gone out on a routine test flight when they encountered one of the severest storms many had ever seen. Wind speeds were reported to have reached 60 mph and waterspouts were also reported having been spotted in nearby areas. The two bombers were recalled due to the approaching storm but by the time they were nearing their home base at Warton airfield, high winds and torrential rain had reduced visibility to nearly nothing.
A decision was made to abort the landing and attempt to fly around the storm but by then it was too late for one of the B-24 planes. Coming in too low over Freckleton with its wings nearly vertical, the plane struck the village, pieces flying in every direction, striking trees, buildings and other structures. One of those buildings was a wing of the Freckleton Holy Trinity School, where Ruby Currell and her classmates had, just seconds before, been studying their lessons. What followed next would be a nightmare as the fuselage of the plane, still carrying nearly a full payload of fuel, exploded into a sea of fire.
Ruby saw one of her classmates fall from the desk as the world exploded around her and either her training or instincts told her to get under her desk. Her instincts are part of what saved her life that day. The other was an American solider who fought his way through rubble and debris to get to the young girl who was paralyzed from shock. She remembered that he wrapped her in a blanket and took her out of the remains of the school building where she was later given a sedative to put her under. Her next memory was of waking up in a hospital, bandaged up “like a mummy” as she recalled.
Ruby had suffered severe burns to her arms, legs and face but she was alive. She would carry the scars from that day with her from that day forward. During her convalescence, she recalled a very special visitor coming by to visit the survivors of the disaster, one who sang a song for them. His name was Bing Crosby.
When all was said and done, Ruby was one of only three children in that particular wing of the school who survived the ordeal. Thirty-eight other children did not survive, along with a number of adults on the premises or in a nearby snack bar that was also destroyed, bringing the total death toll to 61. The tragic loss of so many young lives in one moment deeply affected the village at the time and continues to do so 71 years later. I cannot imagine losing one child, much less a generation of them all at once.
After hearing Ruby’s story in short form and speaking briefly with her about it, I made it a point to research it and discovered much of the details that I included in this article because I think so much gets lost to history and even overlooked sometimes. When we think of Great Britain in the war, London was always what we Americans chiefly heard of and think about, as if the entirety of Britain’s impact during World War II took place in London. We know that not to be true but it is a perception that a lot of people have. This Freckleton crash was the single largest air disaster suffered by the Allies in World War II.
Great Britain suffered greatly during the war. Bombings took place all over the country, towns were leveled and destroyed, yet the shaking of those buildings never shook the resolve of the British people to prevail in that war. While the tragedy at Freckleton was not the result of an enemy attack, it was just as devastating and its very happening was as a direct result of warplanes having to be stationed close by. Those who survived close encounters with death in that war, be they soldiers or a 5-year-old child, would never forget those encounters, ever.
We should not forget them either. This is just one story of tragedy from that time but it is just as real and just as significant as any other from that period and it should be remembered. Today, Ruby remembers it and she often visits the memorial site near where the school once stood to pay her respects and remembrances to her lost classmates.
I couldn’t help but think after meeting her that talking to Ruby, even for just a few moments, would have to be akin to speaking with one of the handful of survivors that lived through the actual collapse of the World Trade Center, those fortunate few that were buried in pockets within the debris and were rescued later. Her eyes and their eyes bore witness to an event that would be incomprehensible to most of us and that makes her story much more significant because she was a witness to a tragic moment of history. There will come a time when there will be no more witnesses to history and their stories should be heard, told and appreciated while they are here to tell them.
All I can say is that I was so very honored to meet Ruby briefly and to hear her story. We meet people almost every day, sometimes only once and then they are forgotten about but we never usually know that person’s story or the things they have seen. Had I not been sitting where I was at the moment she came by, I would have never realized who I had missed or the incredible story that she had to tell. I would have missed out meeting a fascinating person who lived during a time I have only read about or seen in films. More than that, I would have missed out on meeting a living example of the fortitude and perseverance of the British people, whose will to survive overcame everything that was thrown at them during that war.
Ruby’s story was one I thought should be shared and I hope my readers will think so too. More importantly, the children of Freckleton need to be remembered.
To view the video of Ruby’s story made in August of 2014 at the 70th anniversary remembrance of the Freckleton Air Disaster, click here: