(Editor's note: This is the first of a two-part account of John Raisbeck's life long journey to find information about his father who was a British flyer training here in Miami in 1944.)
OSWEGO, Kan. - While standing in a soybean field in Oswego, Kansas, John Raisbeck of England was overcome by emotion as a story that began 72 years ago in Miami came to a close on Tuesday.
This extraordinary story began in 1944 when John's father, Kenneth Raisbeck, just 26 years old, came to Miami from England to train as Royal Air Force cadet at the Spartan School of Aeronautics British Flyers Training School.
The former British policeman left his beloved young wife just weeks before his son, John, was born, in 1944 to serve his country and train to earn his pilot's wings here in Miami.
Kenneth spent a few months in flight school here and was soon chosen as leader of his squadron, a testament of his outstanding ability as a pilot.
During a training exercise at 10 a.m. on a hot summer day in Kansas on June 26, 1944, Kenneth was killed instantly in a plane crash four miles south of Oswego.
“It happened on their second wedding anniversary, and when my mother got the telegram she thought it was a wedding anniversary telegram and opened it and found out he had lost his life,” John said. “It was such a sad bit of news and it affected the whole family, not the least financially. My mother had to go out to work to support me, and my grandparents helped care for me until I was 7 until my Mum married again. We just never looked back and got on with life, but I’ve never forgotten.”
In 1944, the Oswego Independent newspaper's account of the crash written by the owner and editor W.A. Blair was vividly written, “The crash was one of the worst that has happened in the immediate community. Those who saw the tragedy think that the plane headed nose downward with its motor roaring full blast at an altitude of about 2,500 feet. It landed in a field of soybeans, and when it hit the ground there was a loud explosion which was heard by many people here in town, and apparently exploded from the impact.”
The editor wrote about the horrific crash scene, describing how the plane's motor impacted deeply 10 feet into the ground taking the pilot with it and of how the field was covered in scattered debris and the pilot’s remains.
The small Kansas town's sheriff, a local doctor and the Miami air base were notified and began the solemn task of securing the scene and recovering the body of the unfortunate cadet.
Several people in the community saw or heard Kenneth's plane go down and hundreds converged on the scene of the plane crash.
One farmer said that he saw the plane flying in a northeasterly direction and it appeared to be in distress when he saw it make a nosedive toward the ground. A couple was picking blackberries nearby and reported seeing the plane fall.
Kenneth's body was taken back to Miami late on the night of the crash and funeral services were held on June 28, 1944, and his burial was made in the G.A.R. Cemetery.
Blair wrote, “Tuesday morning while the work of recovering the plane and body was going on, another RAF plane appeared over the scene and did several acrobatic stunts. This is presumed to be a sort of airman's salute from one flyer to a fallen comrade.”
Yearning to know more about the father he never met, John began a quest to learn more. His search eventually brought him here twice to Oklahoma in 1995 for the annual British Flyers Remembrance Ceremony and once again this week.
John’s mother, Kenneth’s widow, is still living in Great Britain and never visited America.
When asked what his father was like John said, “You know I never met him and I asked my Mum that question the other day and she said he was fairly quiet and unassuming, but he was a very clever boy. He won a scholarship to the local grammar school and he wouldn’t have been selected for the training if he didn’t have a good academic education and he also had to be physically fit.
“Over five years 2,000 men came here to learn to fly, and for every 100 that arrived here, 500 applied to do that job. After the first interview they had, and they were all qualified, 50 percent got left behind, and then another 50 percent, and then the rest arrived on a train to Miami. And even then, another 20 washed out – and washed out means that they got sent back and retrained either as a navigator or something.”
The very best remaining British RAF cadets were trained to be pilots here in Miami.
“He was well into this course when this dreadful thing happened. We will never know whether it was a horrible G Force problem or there was a mechanical fault, we’ll never know that,” John said. “From the other pilot’s accounts before the crash, we know he was doing loops and flipping the plane and stalling it and maybe testing the plane to the limit. It was a dangerous situation to be in, but not like over the skies in the Battle of Britain, with other pilots firing and ready to shoot you down. My family thought that he was going to learn to fly in America and he would be safer and not like 50 percent of the boys who lost their lives in combat.”
John laid down his search to find more information about his father after this first visit, satisfied he thought then by visiting his father's grave, but in January of this year felt drawn back to Miami.
“I came 50 years after VE Day and I was happy to come to the cemetery, and the Dobson Museum and to the aircraft hangar, and I went home and I thought, ‘I’m pleased with that,’ and then 20 years later here I am on holiday in Miami and thinking what happened to this guy in this plane,” he said. “None of the pilots still living could tell where the plane came down and only these guys came up with the missing links and that’s exactly why we’re standing here today.
On Tuesday after a team of relentless locals, G.A.R. Cemetery Manager Nancy Bro, Oswego Historian Phil Blair, and Kansas farmer Justin Bebb, helped John painstakingly research archives, talk to locals and survey the land, a 72 year long quest for closure became reality.
Using the information gathered and with much help, John was able to locate almost the exact location where his father's plane, a T-6 Harvard trainer aircraft, crashed in the middle of a Kansas soybean field.
As Bebb led John and his wife Joan, Bro, and Blair toward the field Tuesday just outside of Oswego, the group first made a stop where an old farmhouse stood and a young girl who heard the explosion hid under the porch, John took out a notebook of information he has gathered about his father and shared with them all he knew. John even searched the farm out on Google maps and has scoured over the satellite image many, many times.
“I’m very familiar with this plot here,” John said as he saw the site in person for the first time. “But we still don’t know exactly, and if we never find out, then so be it because I’m more than happy to know that this is the field. If we find the very spot I’d like to come back and I’d get on a plane back here very quickly. I think that would be the absolute finale and then I think that’s the end of the story. What else is there?”
Still covered 72 years later in soybeans, John made his way into the farm ground and stood under a soaring, blue Kansas sky on the sacred ground where his father lost his life while serving his country so far away from home.
“It’s an ethereal experience,” John said, standing knee high in soybeans “I sat in the cockpit of a Harvard a month ago and I looked at the instrument panel and thought this is the last thing my father saw in the last seconds of his life and he came down right here.”
John’s wife Joan said it has been his obsession to find the exact place where his father died.
“It’s a passion. I would find him downstairs at 5 o’clock in the morning with all of his photographs and documents,” she said.
Finding the place John’s father last saw was very emotional, but something he said he needed to do.
“Why? I think it’s the closure thing really, that’s what it’s all about. I think there’s nothing more to do except find maybe a picture or piece of the plane, then I think we’ve done it,” John said. “It was a beautiful day with know wind, blue skies, whipping your plane around, what more could you want? He got to come all the way to America to learn to fly a plane, how wonderful that was.”
John is hopeful there are even more pieces of the event that locals may be able to fill in. No photographs, or pieces of the airplane have yet been discovered, and there must still be others who witnessed the crash or the recovery and may recall the event. John is hoping they will reach out to him.
“I think being here and with the additional publicity, there may be more information come out, I really do,” Blair said.
“The icing on the cake for me is on Friday I am going to be taking off in a Harvard to fly over the hill and we are going to do a little bit of a dive here, and how better of a finale can I have?” John said, looking out over a Kansas soybean field of sacred ground.
(Read the second part of this article in Wednesday's print edition of the Cherokee County News-Advocate about how John Raisbeck was able to locate the field where his father crashed.)