WASHINGTON _ In a forgotten moment of World War II, four pilots died when their training planes crashed near the tiny village of Moyers in southeastern Oklahoma.
Now, 57 years later, some of the area's grade-school children are honoring the pilots' memories with a monument and ceremony. The children's project has drawn the help of the Library of Congress, created ties across two continents and taught the students lessons about sacrifice and history.
“People's brothers died and it is very important to remember them,” said 12-year-old Robert Green, one of the sixth graders in Rattan.
Along with their research into the plane crashes, the students cleaned the crash site; worked with British newspapers, libraries, and other offices to find the dead pilots' families; and, with the help of a local artist, designed the 4 ½-foot tall, granite monument. The monument features the names of the pilots, a small picture of their AT-6 training plane, and the wings of Britain's Royal Air Force.
The dedication will be on Sunday, Feb. 20, the anniversary of the crashes. AT-6 planes will fly over the monument. At the ceremony will be British diplomats, families of the pilots and their surviving colleagues, and the students' guiding spirit from the Library of Congress.
The project began as simple research for the students' sixth grade reading class two years ago. When the class needed help, they called on Bradley Gernand, an archivist with the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.
“The students' mission was different because the information they needed they couldn't find in their public library, so helping them was warranted,” said Gernand.
For Gernand, the ceremony and project touches his roots. He's a native of Antlers, Okla. He spent 10 years with the University of Oklahoma Western History Collections before working for the Library of Congress. For the students, Gernand mapped out a strategy to find the pilots' relatives, unearthed documents about the crash, and put the students in touch with the British government.
With Gernand's help, the students learned several key facts about the crashes. In England, the skies were a combat zone so pilot training had to occur somewhere else. Training usually took place in Oklahoma because of the clear flying weather.
But on the morning of Feb. 20, 1943, a unit of 19 British AT-6 planes took off from their air base at Terrell, Texas. They ran into severe weather over the Kiamichi Mountains near Moyers, Okla. Three of the planes crashed, killing four of the Royal Air Force pilots: Maurice Jensen of Dorset, Michael Hosier of Wiltshire, Vincent Cockman of Essex, and Frank Frostick of Norfolk.
Gernand is proud of the students' work. “Despite what we often say about the young generation these students are quality people, and they are doing a quality job,” said Gernand.
Their teacher, Beth Lawless, agrees. “We had no idea when we started this that it would get so involved and spread so far,” said Lawless. The students have won even a bit of fame in England, where they have been interviewed on two BBC radio programs.
Students say they will never forget this project. They cleaned the crash site, got letters from England, and received gifts from some of the other pilots. They enjoyed cleaning up the crash site. “You could see the dent in the ground where the plane hit it,” said 11-year-old James Lawrence.
Now they hope people will come and help them honor those who died. “If somebody cares enough about their country to die,” said Lawrence, “we should care about where they died.”