GRAEME COUSINS joins visitors from the US as they attend the Belfast site where relatives lost their lives in 1944
Relatives of some of the US airmen who were killed when an American bomber crashed at Cave Hill have made a poignant visit to the site 75 years on from the WWII tragedy.
Six US citizens were part of a team which made the tricky climb up a rain-sodden Cave Hill from Ben Madigan Park to the site of the crash on June 1, 1944.
The News Letter was privileged to be invited along to speak to some of those family members who were moved at seeing for the first time the place where their loved ones died.
Ahead of our trip up Cave Hill the route had been made more accessible thanks to volunteers from Cave Hill Conservation Campaign who had cleared a trail and attached rope to be used as a hand rail on steeper sections.
Local men Will Lindsay and Alfie Montgomery had arranged the visit, having recently completed a book relating to the American bomber crash.
Alfie said: “I’ve been coming here since 1974. My father used to take me here to look for items at the crash site.
“In the 1990s I was coming here sometimes twice a week. It was in 1993 that I found the ring. I’d a pretty good idea it had come from the crash. When I got it washed I could make out the two names written on the inside of it and the date written in the American format. That confirmed it.
“It was pre-internet days and I spent maybe two and half years, writing over 100 letters and eventually traced the ring.
“Steven Moore covered it at the time for the News letter and came to Kentucky with us to give the ring back to the airman’s widow.”
A film was made about that particular story in 2007 called ‘Closing The Ring’, however some of the US visitors had been oblivious to the circumstances of the crash until they were contacted by the book’s authors.
Lawrence McGrane from Maryland was there with two of his four children: “I’m here to bury a memorial stone for my uncle. I was named after him – Lawrence Raymond McGrane.”
Lawrence’s father landed at Normandy on Omaha beach on June 8, 1944. Seven days previously his brother (Lawrence’s uncle) died in the crash at Cave Hill.
The family has a proud continuing military record with Lawrence having served in the navy and another of his sons reaching the rank of lieutenant colonel.
However, delving into the family’s military history has not been easy for the 71-year-old: “I was the youngest of four children. My father abandoned my mother after I was born.
“Another man basically raised me as a step father from two years old. So I never asked my mother too much about my father and his side of the family. It wouldn’t have been fair on my step father either. He was there for me my whole life.
“I really didn’t know anything about the plane crash other than that my uncle died in Ireland until Alfie got in contact earlier this year and told us the whole story.
“When I told my sons they said I had to go. Two of them are here with me today.”
At Cave Hill to see the place where his grandfather Robert Lee Graves died was Texan Steven Graves, along with his wife Sharon.
Steven said: “It’s surreal. I didn’t think it was that big a deal to begin with but the enormity of it sinks in when you’re here. In America they don’t tell us about how Ireland was an important part of the First World War. I never thought about where our troops would be before D-Day. It brings everything into perspective.
“I can’t say enough about what Will and Alfie have done to tell the story of these airmen.
“I’m just glad that somebody took the time to write about it and remember it and bring it to everyone’s attention.”
He added: “My father didn’t really know an awful lot about this. He just knew that his dad died in a crash in Ireland. We think he would have been about 26. We only have his purple heart certificate, not his medal, and the flag that was on his coffin.
“Alfie and Will know more about my granddad than my dad or I did. It’s been a real learning experience, especially what we found out through Melinda.”
Like Steven, Melinda Clary from Florida was in Belfast with an interest primarily in Robert Graves. It appears that having divorced Steven’s grandmother, Robert Graves had been engaged and possibly married to Melinda’s mother when the crash happened.
She said: “My mother joined the WACs (Women’s Army Corps) a month after [Robert] was killed on her 20th birthday. She signed her card as a widow and went in under his last name.
“I knew he’d been married before because my mum used to talk about his little boy.
“Meeting Steve has been a great experience. We’ve had something in common we never knew about. Robert was the reason mum joined the WACs. He’s part of our story. He’s part of Steve’s story too.”
Of the visit to the crash site she said: “I’ve been so looking forward to doing this. Just going up there and finding some tiny pieces of the airplane was just wow. I’ve felt a connection way before I even got here. There’s just no words to explain it.”