In the years before World War I, Vernon Castle dazzled crowds with his ballroom dancing and popularized the foxtrot with his wife, Irene.
In 1917, Castle moved to Fort Worth, one of 1,900 pilots from Britain, Canada and the United States stationed in Tarrant County. Drawn by the warm weather and wide-open spaces, the pilots would learn to fly in North Texas.
Flying was still a dangerous venture then, and Castle, a captain in the Royal Flying Corps, was among the between 100 and 120 airmen killed in training accidents at airfields in Benbrook, Everman and Saginaw.
Monday morning, nearly 100 years later, scores of people paid tribute to the airmen and aviation pioneers who lost their lives during flight training mishaps. Twelve airmen and the infant girl of an instructor are buried at Greenwood Memorial Park in Fort Worth, which is where the ceremony was held.
Memorial Day observances were also conducted at Moore Memorial Gardens in Arlington, Mount Olivet Cemetery in Fort Worth and Dallas-Fort Worth National Cemetery in Dallas, among others.
At Greenwood, two vintage World War II planes roared overhead, and bagpipes played Amazing Grace as British, Canadian and American officers lay wreaths for the fallen airmen. Attendees sang The Star Spangled Banner, God Save the Queen and O Canada, as flags of all three nations fluttered in the wind.
“The Royal Flying Corps was only 5 years old, yet these brave young men stood forward to meet the needs of their neighborhood,” said Brig. Gen. Guy Hamel, of the Royal Canadian Air Force. “They were pioneers in a new kind of warfare.”
Castle’s crash in 1918
Castle, an internationally known dancer who had quickly become a favorite among the Fort Worth society members, was killed in February 1918 over Carruthers Field in Benbrook when he tried to avoid a collision with another plane, then stalled in the air before falling from the sky.
Castle had already flown — and shot down Germans — in the war, and had been sent to Benbrook to train young pilots.
His funeral procession drew thousands in Fort Worth and a memorial was erected in 1966 at the crash site near the corner of Vernon Castle Avenue and Cozby West in Benbrook.
At Greenwood, in memory of Castle and the others, World War I Flyers Club members built a stone monument with smaller headstones placed around it, and led a Memorial Day service every year until 1978.
Eight years later, in 1986, Griffin Murphey, a local dentist, was walking through Greenwood after his father died, when he noticed the monument. Murphey, a lifelong aviation enthusiast, decided to restore the Memorial Day service, which is held every two years at Greenwood.
“This is a neat piece of history, and history repeats itself,” Murphey said. “I found this story exceptionally interesting, and not a lot of people knew about it.”
‘We remember them’
Among attendees were Don Buckman, a retired Army Colonel who lives in Fort Worth, and his 9-year-old grandson, Thomas. Buckman, who served three decades in the Army, said military service runs in his family, and he looks for any occasion to pay his respects to fallen comrades.
“It is in our family’s blood,” Buckman said. “And my grandson is an amateur military historian, so I consider this his education.”
Father Allan Hawkins, pastor emeritus of St. Mary the Virgin Catholic Church in Arlington, said we remember the fallen through the stories of individuals and lives lost.
“How can we remember what we ourselves have never experienced?” Hawkins asked, before closing with a prayer from Laurence Binyon’s poem, For the Fallen.
“They shall not grow old as we that are left to grow old. Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we remember them.”
Together, the crowd repeated, “We remember them.”
Sarah Bahari, 817-390-7056