LEE COUNTY, Fla. - Six British pilots have returned to southwest Florida, where they learned to fly during World War II. They are among 1700 British men who attended flight school at a small, remote airport in Hendry County. The pilots later helped to defeat Germany and Japan in Europe and Asia.
"This place holds so many great memories for me," said Peter Heiles, who later flew for the Royal Navy. "It was away from the war, away from rationing, we had plenty of food and the people here were so friendly. It was a lovely time."
The six pilots are spending a few days in the Clewiston area. They trained in the early 1940's at Riddle Field, now called Airglades Airport, a few miles west of Clewiston off state road 80.
"I was determined to be a pilot," said Brian Spragg, who graduated from the flight school, and went on to fly 163 combat missions over Europe, and another 50 over Korea in concert with the U.S. Air Force. He became a wing commander, and one of the most decorated pilots in the history of the Royal Air Force.
"It was easy to be patriotic, when you had leaders like Winston Churchill making those great speeches. You just had to be patriotic," said Spragg.
Of the 1700 airmen who graduated from flight school near Clewiston, about half died later in combat. 24 men perished in crashes during training in Hendry County.
The British flag has flown at the airport since World War II, and today at a ceremony, the British National Anthem played as a tribute to the six airmen.
"These are true heroes and great men on top of that. And like most heroes, they do not talk about themselves or give credit to themselves. They truly were part of the greatest generation that defeated fascism," said Jeff Barwick, a Clewiston resident and former director of the Clewiston Museum.
The six men have come to the area before to renew old ties and just to see the airfield. They say, because of their age and declining health, this probably will be their last visit to southwest Florida.