Tomorrow is the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor that led to America joining the war. But why did two US airmen, who lie in a Teesside Cemetery, join the Allies a year earlier? PETER BARRON finds out more

EVEN as a child, Ian Ferguson would look at the white headstones on the war graves in his local cemetery and wonder how men of so many different nationalities came to be buried there.

Today, as a respected historian and researcher in Thornaby, Ian is able to tell the story of two of them: American airmen, Flight Sergeant Edward Everett Hale, and Sergeant Gregory Manuel Georges, who lost their lives in separate incidents while flying over the North-East coast.

It wasn’t until December 7, 1941, when the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service launched a devastating surprise attack on the US naval base of Pearl Harbor, that the course of World War Two took a historic turn.

Until that momentous day, America had been neutral, but the attack in Honolulu – killing 2,403 and injuring 1,178 more – finally led to the United States joining the Allies in the war.

The base was attacked by 353 Imperial Japanese aircraft, unleashed in two devastating waves from 7.48am, and eight US Navy battleships were damaged, four of them sunk.

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Three cruisers, three destroyers, an anti-aircraft training ship, and a minelayer were also damaged or sunk.

More than 180 US aircraft were destroyed amid the bombardment.

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And yet, by then, Hale and Georges had already left America, and been fighting for the Allies for months, having crossed the border to enlist with the Royal Canadian Air Force.

“Even as a kid, I remember walking through the cemetery with my mum and dad, and being fascinated by the names on the war graves, and how they came from lots of different countries,” says Ian, a retired British Gas pipeline patrol man.

Born and raised in Thornaby, Ian lives on a housing estate on the site of what was RAF Thornaby, which opened in 1931 as a base for the Auxiliary Airforce.

When war broke out, it became an RAF Coastal Command station, with 608 Squadron focused on convoy escorts, and 220 Squadron engaged in anti-invasion patrols, shipping strikes, and reconnaissance.

The base was also known for its air-sea rescue expertise, and the development of what was known as the ‘Thornaby Bag’ – an emergency bag, containing food, drink and cigarettes, that was dropped into the sea for aircrew shot down in the unforgiving North Sea.

“People have a common perception of the RAF from watching films like Reach For The Sky, or The Dam Busters," adds Ian.

"But there was so much more to it than that. What went on here, at RAF Thornaby, was the unglamorous part of the war that’s only just starting to be properly recognised.

“Those who served here were the eyes of the Royal Navy – seeking out shipping and reporting back. It was vital work.”

Around this Teesside suburb, there are prominent reminders of Thornaby’s proud aviation history, not least a full-scale, fibreglass Spitfire that's perched on a roundabout near The Spitfire pub.

However, the choice of plane for the memorial has long since been a source of local controversy, because RAF Thornaby was far better known for being home to Avro Ansons and Lockheed Hudsons.

In another salute to the past, local children attend the Bader Primary School, which was officially opened in 1971 by legendary World War War Two fighter pilot, Sir Douglas Bader.

The irony in all of this is that Thornaby’s flying history dates back to 1912, when pioneering aviator Gustav Hamel – born at Hamburg, in Germany – used Vale Farm for a flying display.

The Royal Flying Corps then used the same fields as a staging post, between Catterick and Marske Aerodrome, during World War One.

Amid so much airborne activity, the government bought 50 acres of farmland from Thornaby Hall in 1920, and developed the site, before it was officially opened as an aerodrome nine years later.

Ian has been researching the history of the site for decades, and his latest investigations have focused on finding out more about the two American airmen.

How did they end up being buried in the cemetery on Teesside, alongside airmen from countries, including Canada, South Africa, and Germany?

This is what he found...


Ted was from Seaside, a small city in Oregon, and enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1940, the year before Pearl Harbor.

It remains unknown why he joined the RCAF, though the fact that his mother was Scottish may have inspired him to want to fight for the Allies.

Before that, he’d served for four years in in the US Marine Corps as a radio operator/air gunner. His former squadron lost 19 out of 20 aircraft in the bombardment of Pearl Harbor.

In October 1941, he joined 214 Squadron, and went on to be based at Stradishall, in Suffolk. On January 15, 1942, he was the pilot of a Wellington bomber, which crashed off Whitby while returning from a raid on Gustav Hamel’s home city of Hamburg.

The cause of the crash is not known, and his body was washed up at Redcar three weeks later. According to a newspaper cutting from the time, his wife was informed by cable.

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Aged 25, he was buried with full military honours, in Plot O, Row N, Grave 13, in Thornaby Cemetery. His epitaph reads: Ted rests with God, And God is love. In love’s care he safely sleeps.

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Gregory was a former truck driver from Whitman, Massachusetts, who joined the Royal Canadian Air Force in June 1941, six months before Pearl Harbor.

While Ted Hale’s decision to cross the border and enlist with the RCAF remains unclear, there is a more likely explanation for Gregory: he enlisted a month after the Germans invaded Yugoslavia, and his father was Serbian.

Records show he deliberately failed his wireless operator’s course because he wanted to be an air-gunner, and he served in 101 Squadron.

He was killed in a friendly-fire incident on December 17, 1942, when a Lancaster bomber was shot down by a Bofors gun at Dormanstown, near Redcar.  The plane had taken off on a mine-laying expedition from its base in Holme-on-Spalding Moor, in the East Riding of Yorkshire.

Gregory was 22 and is buried in Plot O, Row K, Grave 17. There is no epitaph.

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How sad that these brave young American men, who were fighting for our freedom before their country was even at war, should lie so far from home, in Thornaby Cemetery, on Teesside.

May they rest in peace.