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UNDERWOOD, Paul Derek (Revised 02/11/2018)

* = Not included in the Book of Remembrance for reasons unknown.
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UNDERWOOD, Paul Derek. Leading Aircraftman (1331732)

Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve
Died 3 February 1942, aged 20

Paul's headstone in the  Montgomery (Oakwood) Cemetery Annexe, Alabama, USA
Paul's headstone in the Montgomery (Oakwood) Cemetery Annexe, Alabama, USA.
Photograph (83385981) by William Fischer Jr via findagrave.com

Paul was born on 24 March 1921, the only child of Paul James Underwood and Gertrude Margaret (née Edwards). The parents' Q1 1920 marriage was registered in the Fulham District, as was Paul junior's birth. The family were still in Fulham, at 97 Edith Road, at the time of the September 1939 Register. This listed 48 year old Paul senior as a "Market Butcher", 44 year old Gertrude with the conventional "Unpaid Domestic Duties" and 18 year old Paul junior as a "Clerk Notary Public".

In the early years of the war, at least the parents moved to the Borough - perhaps because they had been bombed out of their home in Fulham. An August 1942 letter from Paul senior (of which more below) gave their address as "Osmington, 7 Shaldeford Road, Ewell" and it seems that this was a temporary arrangement of wartime "prefabs" in the Shawford Road area ("Shawford" being a derivative of "Shaldeford", a name with historic roots in Ewell) hastily erected to provide accommodation for those bombed out of their homes. (There were prefabs in many other locations, including the nearby Gadesden Road.)

While Shaldeford Road is found in the 1945 Electoral Roll for the Ewell Court Ward - with Paul and Gertrude Underwood now at No 26 - it subsequently disappears and, by about 1950, the Underwoods had moved to 7 Curtis Road, Ewell. (They then stayed in the area: both their deaths - Gertrude in Q1 1983 and Paul senior in Q3 1985 - were registered in the local Surrey Mid Eastern District.)

Paul junior - perhaps inspired by his father's WW1 service as a mechanic in the RFC and then RAF during WW1 - joined the RAFVR after November 1940 and was inducted for service at either Uxbridge or Weston Super Mare. Records describe him as 5' 11" in height with a fresh complexion, fair hair, blue eyes, and a neck scar. On 16 August 1941 he arrived in Halifax, Nova Scotia, to train as an RAF pilot in the USA, under the "Arnold Scheme" - named after the scheme's instigator General Henry H Arnold, Chief of the USAAF. The scheme, which was one product of the climate of greater co-operation between the UK and the then neutral USA following the introduction of Lend-Lease in March 1941, ran from June 1941 to March 1943.

Having been at No 1 'M' Depot, RCAF, Toronto, Canada, Paul entered America at the Detroit Michigan crossing en route for Darr Aero Institution, Albany Georgia. In Class 42C, he trained at Cochran Field, Georgia, Craig Field, Selma, Alabama, and also Maxwell Force Base, Alabama.

On 3 February 1942, 20 year old Paul and fellow trainee, 19 year old LAC David William Turner (1074254), took off from Craig Field, Selma, Alabama in a North American AT-6A Texan advanced trainer (41-756) of 92nd School Squadron USAAF. The aircraft crashed into hills near Rehoboth, Alabama, killing both on board. (It remains unclear who had actually been flying the aircraft.)

A North American AT-6A Texan advanced trainer
A North American AT-6A Texan advanced trainer
Photograph with thanks to Donald Chaplin

There are conflicting reports of the circumstances. One version is that the aircraft was flying at low altitude to allow the passenger to take photographs. Another is that the known to be difficult machine was brought down in a storm. Anyway, The Anniston Star of 5 February 1942 quoted the public relations office of Craig Field writing that "Two RAF cadets were found dead in the wreckage of their training plane near Miller's Ferry, Ala., approximately 70 miles south of here.."

Paul and his crewmate David were buried alongside each other in the Montgomery (Oakwood) Cemetery Annexe. This holds 78 Commonwealth WW2 casualties, all airmen who died while training in Alabama under the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. Paul's family took the option of adding a personal inscription to his headstone on Grave N.109.2,
"Loving memory / Mum, Dad, Muriel. / In life the finest / In death one of the brave."
(It is not currently known who this Muriel was: it is clear that Paul was an only child.)

On 11 August 1942, about six months after Paul's death, a local Montgomery, Alabama paper published the following article.

RAF Cadet's Father Grateful For Flowers On His Son's Grave

From Surrey, England, there came to the City Hall yesterday a letter written by the father of one of the six British cadets killed recently in south Alabama when their planes cracked up in ill storm while on cross-country flight.

The letter, written by P. J. Underwood, father of RAF Cadet Paul Derek Underwood, was prompted by a clipping from a British newspaper, telling of the death of the boys and mentioning that wives of RAF administrative officers left fresh flowers on their graves each week.

Addressed simply to "Town Clerk," Montgomery, Ala., the letter was delivered to Silas Cater, City Clerk. Written from Osminglon, 7 Shaldeford Road, Ewell, Surrey, England, the letter carried the following message:
"I found a cutting which I have enclosed from our popular evening paper which delighted my wife and I, stating that your good residents kindly visit the graves of cadets killed while training as pilots. Our only child, the sunshine of our lives, is buried at Oakwood Cemetery, Montgomery (Alabama). Having only seen him 48 hours in eight months, we feel so grateful to your people for putting flowers on his grave. So I could do no more than write these few lines of thanks for you to convey by press or how you can to these good people.

Trusting that after this terrible war is over and the victory ours, America and England, I may be able to visit my boy's last resting place, and hoping you may get this letter from his father, an old soldier of the Royal Flying Corps, 1914-19, and still hoping to have another smack when the time comes, I am

Yours sincerely

Brian Bouchard & Roger Morgan © 2018

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