In one corner of Greenwood Memorial Park lies a section of graves that is an often overlooked piece of the city’s history.
To some, it may seem like a brief footnote, but to aviation enthusiasts like Bill Morris, its significance is far greater.
The arrival of Canada’s Royal Flying Corps in November 1917 gave Fort Worth its first taste of military aviation.
“Up until that point 99.9 percent of the people had never seen an airplane — let alone fly in one — and now the skies were full of them,” Morris said. “It did something to set this town on the path it is today.”
The two flying wings consisted of 10 squadrons and came to Texas for the mild winters and to train U.S. pilots, who were far behind their Canadian and European counterparts.
“The United States entered World War I ill-equipped at least in terms of aviation,” said Morris, a local historian and board member for the Fort Worth Aviation Museum.
A deal was struck for Canadian pilots to travel south in the fall of 1917 to train at 28 airfields across the United States. With mild Texas winters, three of the airfields were built in Tarrant County.
They were originally known as Taliaferro (pronounced Toliver) Field No. 1, which would later be known as Hicks Field, Taliaferro No. 2 in Everman, which became known as Barron Field, and Taliaferro No. 3 in Benbrook, which became known as Carruthers Field.
Up until that point 99.9 percent of the people had never seen an airplane — let alone fly in one — and now the skies were full of them. It did something to set this town on the path it is today.
Bill Morris, local historian and board member for the Fort Worth Aviation Museum
“They were here from November 1917 to April 1918 and while they were here they lost 39 members to aircraft accidents or other causes,” Morris said.
Vernon Castle, a captain in the Royal Flying Corps who was internationally famous as a ballroom dancer, was one of those who died during training. Castle died in February 1918 while flying near Carruthers Field as he tried to avoid a collision with another plane. His plane stalled and crashed.
Castle was a seasoned pilot. He had already experienced the war and gunned down Germans before being sent to Benbrook to train young pilots.
He was so popular in Fort Worth that his funeral procession drew thousands and a memorial was erected in 1966 at the crash site near the corner of Vernon Castle Avenue and Cozby West in Benbrook. He is buried in New York City.
They were all pretty remarkable heartthrobs and celebrities in town. No one was more welcomed in the bigger homes of Fort Worth than the Canadian fliers.
Fort Worth historian Quentin McGown
Castle wasn’t the only one. News reports say at least 101 and perhaps as many as 106 died during training.
But the Canadian pilots were the toast of Fort Worth.
“They were all pretty remarkable heartthrobs and celebrities in town,” said Fort Worth historian Quentin McGown. “No one was more welcomed in the bigger homes of Fort Worth than the Canadian fliers.”
McGown said his great-grandparents hosted the pilots and his aunt Evelyn Smith talked fondly of that time, including keeping a Canadian pilot’s wing pins that were given to her.
“She kept that souvenir all of her life,” McGown said.
The Royal Flying Corps presence was brief. With the end of the war in November 1918, the pilots didn’t return for a second winter.
By the end of 1919, Taliaferro and Carruthers fields had been closed while Barron Field was used to store surplus aircraft and equipment. It became Fort Worth’s first municipal airport in 1924 but lost out to the brand-new Meacham Field when Meacham opened in 1925. Taliaferro would later be renamed Hicks Field and would be used during World War II. It is now largely an industrial area and has no connection to the private Hicks Field that is nearby.
But that brief visit also planted a seed, Morris said, leading to Fort Worth’s pursuit of military aviation a few decades later.
“It was Fort Worth’s first experience with military aviation or aviation in general,” Morris said. “Following that, it led a number of civic leaders to be more attuned to aviation and the prospects for the future. In 1940, Amon Carter convinced the military to build Air Force Plant 4, which is now Lockheed Martin. Amon was also instrumental in getting Bell Helicopter to move to Fort Worth from Buffalo, N.Y.”
There would also be Carswell Air Force Base — now Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth — along with Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, which has become a huge driver to the local economy.
But Morris doesn’t want the Canadian aviators forgotten. The Memorial Day ceremony at Greenwood Memorial Park will begin at 10:30 a.m. Monday and include biplane flyover and one by F-16s.
“It’s a piece of Fort Worth that will forever be part of the British Empire,” Morris said.