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Inside Out: Surprising Stories, Familiar Places

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   Inside Out - North West: Friday January 26, 2007
Read the survivor's story
The crash scene
Freckleton - tragic loss of lives following an air crash

Freckleton air disaster

Like Aberfan, Freckleton in Lancashire should be a name on the lips of the nation.

The village's wartime tragedy is one of the best kept secrets of the Second World War.

An American B-24 Liberator bomber on a test flight crashed during a storm onto the village school and café.

It destroyed the Holy Trinity Church of England's reception classroom.

The children who were aged between four and six-years-old had only started school the day before.

Inside Out goes in search of the forgotten story of Freckelton, the victims and the survivors.

Never forgotten

August 23rd 1944 was the day when 38 infant school children died and 23 civilians and air crew perished in the village of Freckleton, near Preston.

The crash came as Paris was being liberated by the Allies.

Although it was reported locally that 61 people had died, many now believe the story was censored by the Government so that morale would not be affected and the Americans would not be blamed.

Grave
Those who died were buried in a mass grave.

The Liberator bomber demolished the Sad Sack Café and then struck the school.

Its 2,700 gallons of fuel erupted like a fireball.

The children and those who died in the café were all buried in a mass grave in the Holy Trinity church cemetery just yards away from where plane crashed.

The grave is looked after by local man Harry Latham.

He was also in the school that day but in another classroom.

Miraculously the children in the rest of the school were unharmed:

"I feel I'm doing this for the children," he says sadly.

Little America

At the time of the crash the small village of Freckleton was called 'Little America' with 10,000 Americans based there.

Less than a mile away was the former RAF Warton airfield which became home to the Americans Base Area Depot 2.

Air force crew at the base serviced and repaired aircraft.

Victims
Victims are carried away from the crash site

On August 23rd two Liberator bombers took off from Warton on a test flight.

But they were soon in trouble as a ferocious thunder and lightning storm swept in from the Irish Sea uprooting trees, plunging day into night, with heavy rain causing flash flooding.

One plane managed to head North but the other flew on into the storm.

In the skies above Freckleton First Lieutenant John Bloemendal began a desperate struggle to keep the Liberator, known as Classy Chassis, up in the air as the storm struck.

It was a battle he was tragically to lose with devastating results.

The plane broke up on impact killing First Lieutenant Bloemendal and his two crew.

Devastating scene

Young American airmen clawed at the debris at the scene of the impact with bare hands trying to rescue children.

It soon became obvious no-one else had survived.

Ruby Currell remembers the disaster and the moment the plane hit the school:

"I remember... all hell broke loose. I saw a girl fall over and I got under a desk.".

Harry also recalls the scene of total devastation, "There was nothing left - it was flattened all gone."

Ruby suffered severe burns to her body, and while recovering in hospital she had a surprise visitor - Bing Crosby, the legendary American singer.

He was entertaining troops in Britain and made a special trip to see the Freckleton survivors.

Crosby agreed to sing for them but broke down when he met Ruby.

Ruby still bears the physical and mental scars of the crash to this day.

And the village, which was left alone to grieve all these years, has never really recovered.

Poignant memories

Nick Wotherspoon and Russell Brown are members of the Lancashire Aircraft Investigation Team.

They've been investigating the Freckleton disaster for many years, and recently managed to obtain key witness statements from the U.S. Army Air Forces investigation into the crash.

The documents were classified and restricted after the War.

Funeral
A mass funeral for the Freckleton victims

The American investigation into the crash reveals that a local woman saw the plane hit by lightning and concluded by urging all American airmen in the future not to underestimate the British weather.

New housing was controversially built on the old school site a few years ago.

There is no plaque either to let people know what happened here.

However, there is a poignant reminder of the tragedy in the Holy Trinity Church - a book of photographs of all the children who died.

It is kept there for all to see…

John says, "Seeing the faces of the children is almost unbearable… and it's why Ruby's vowed never to forget.

"Every month she puts fresh flowers on the grave."

Although the tragedy was covered up at the time, for many in Freckleton they will always remember the the day their world caved in.

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A survivor's story

Ruby Currell
Ruby Currell today - she tells us her story

Ruby Currell was one of only three children to survive from the inferno that engulfed the classroom.

She recalls the experience as vividly today as she did 60 years ago - this is her story.

"It begins on a Wednesday morning of August 23rd 1944.

"The morning was a bright one, assembly had finished and we were at our desks receiving instruction of the lesson we were to do that morning.

"Suddenly the sky went dark so dark the lights in school had to be put on.

"It started to rain heavily and then the most violent storm started - that in itself was frightening enough but what was about to happen was a terrifying experience.

Ruby aged five
Freckleton survivor Ruby aged five-years-old

"During the storm an aeroplane trying to make it back to the airfield about a mile away was struck by a thunderbolt.

"It brought it down in the centre of the village, hitting the two infant classes of the school, a snack bar and two cottages across the road from the school.

"Although the rest of the school was still standing the older children had to be got out to safety quickly.

"On that fateful morning seven children and two teachers were pulled from the rubble of the infant classes, but as the hours and days passed, the teachers and four of the children lost their battle for life, their injuries too severe.

"The other dead were civilians and airmen, four of those being the crew of the plane."

After the accident

Bing Crosby
Bing Crosby - visibly moved by meeting the survivors

"I was looked after by American doctors after the accident.

"I was bandaged almost head to foot and had to sit with my arms out straight because of all the burns.

"One day not long after the disaster we were told to expect a special visitor, and then in walked Bing Crosby.

"I didn't know much about him being five but I know my mother loved him.

"He had heard about the disaster from the American Services - he was over here entertaining the troops, and he made a special journey to come and see the survivors.

"He said he would sing for us, but when he came to me and saw how badly injured I was, he broke down and said he couldn't sing in the same room as us.

"So he went outside into the hall outside the ward and sang for us there...

"I seem to remember he sang Don't Fence Me In and White Christmas, of course.

"It's a strange memory to have but a good one because he was a very nice man and he was genuinely saddened by what he heard of the disaster and seeing anyone who had survived."

Life today

"The death toll of the tragedy was 61, 38 of those being children aged between four and six-years-old, a whole generation of our little ones lost.

"Counting one's blessings is a daily routine for me and I consider myself to extremely lucky that I am alive to do so."

"Even now I have a dread of thunder storms that I cannot shake and scars I have learned to live with."

 

 



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