On September 3, 1939, Great Britain declared war on Germany. The British stood alone against the Nazi’s as the Axis powers overtook Poland, France, Norway and Belgium, and showed no sign of stopping. By 1941 two things had become woefully clear: Great Britain was in constant threat of attack and secondly, they had a desperate shortage of Royal Air Force pilots. The United States had not entered the war yet and was bound by certain restrictions, however a clever scheme was hatched to teach young British men to fly at certain U.S. airfields. Some of these young Brits had never driven a car, much less an flown an airplane. Between June 1941 and March 1943 a total of 7,885 were given training. Of that number, 3,392 ‘washed-out’ and didn’t complete the training, 577 stayed in the U.S. for a year as instructors, and the remaining 3,916 returned to Great Britain to fight for democracy. This very unique partnership meant the training facilities were owned by American operators, staffed with American civilian instructors, supervised by British flight officers, with training aircrafts supplied by the U.S. Army Air Corps. It was all a bit hush-hush to the point that all pilot trainees were required to wear civilian clothes lest they be detected.
By the end of the war, only twenty-four percent of the RAF air crews survived unscathed.
As a tribute to these brave RAF crews, Prime Minister Winston Churchill famously said: "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
With that history in mind, let me share a story about one special RAF pilot who endeared himself to my family during his training in California in 1941 and the legacy of friendship that continues to this day.
The early details are a bit fuzzy as it was eighty-one years ago and all of the original people are now gone, but this is what we have pieced together through vintage family photos and remembrances of conversations long ago:
In 1941 young, handsome Trevor Marsden was beginning his flight training most likely in Lancaster, California. For whatever reason he was traveling by train and happened to meet my young, beautiful mother, Virginia and her then-boyfriend, Jack. As they became acquainted, I’m fairly sure my mom invited Trevor to come meet her mother (my grandmother) and her step-father. They lived in a lovely cottage in the San Fernando Valley (west of Los Angeles) and had a swimming pool in their backyard, which was very rare in those days and quite a magnet for visitors. Trevor became a regular visitor, enjoying his new American friends and was treated like family.
(Side note: The British RAF pilots in Los Angeles became quite popular with the Hollywood crowd. Stars such as Mae West, Basil Rathbone, Betty Grable, and Ronald Coleman often socialized with the pilots, enjoying lots of photo opportunities. If you are too young to know these celebrities, Google them!)
Time passed and young Trevor Marsden graduated from flight school, and returned to England, with promises to keep in touch. The terrible war raged on, and the British RAF were needed more than ever. On December 7, 1941, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in Hawaii and the United States formally joined in the war effort. By now millions of lives had been lost, both military and civilian, all over the world. Eventually, the Allied powers proved too much for the Nazi’s and Adolf Hitler committed suicide on April 30, 1945. Peace was officially declared on September 2, 1945.
Several years after the end of the war, my grandmother took a trip to England and tried exhaustively to find the young pilot, but was told he had died in the war. My family was heartbroken as they carried many wonderful memories of the witty, charming Brit who spent so much time with them.
Our story now skips to the early 1960’s. Chubby Checker was dancing the twist, John Kennedy was president and several amazing inventions were taking the country by storm: Liquid Paper, bubble wrap, Sharpie pens, lava lamps and slurpees, but most important to our story, on March 2, 1961 BOAC (now called British Airways) Boeing 707 airliner began service to Los Angeles via the new ‘Polar’ route. We were now living in Woodland Hills, in the western part of the San Fernando Valley (about 25 miles from downtown LA). One afternoon my brother, Chris, answered the telephone (landline with rotary dial and curly cord) and spoke with an unknown gentleman. He handed the receiver to my mom who began shrieking and carrying on somewhat unintelligibly for what seemed like quite a while. To the best of my recollection, Captain Trevor Marsden, alive and well, was on our doorstep within a matter of hours, as was my grandmother who lived close by. A grand reunion began.
From that time on, Trevor would stay with us whenever he was in Los Angeles, and within a year or two brought his family–wife Betty, son Ian and daughter Karen, to visit for their vacation. Their children were close in age to my brothers and to me and we all got along quite well.
A year or two later, I was probably fifteen or sixteen, I had the opportunity to fly to England by myself for a stay with the Marsden family. Karen and I had the most marvelous time when she took me all over London with some lads who’s names I will never remember, and I had my first adventure riding the Underground.
In the meantime, Ian would come visit us in L.A. whenever time in his studies allowed, usually in the summer. By then, I was in high school and the only one left at home, so Ian and I had great fun going to the beach and hanging out. Can you imagine how my popularity soared when during the height of Beatlemania and all things British, I’m introducing a young, charming, good-looking British man to my friends?
Through the ensuing years our parents took many vacation trips together all over the world. Their friendship was lasting and deep, only diminished by death and the infirmities of older age. As a result, I lost contact with Karen and Ian for many decades, though I thought of them often. When my mother passed away several years ago at the beginning of Covid, I was going through her many photo albums and ran across dozens of pictures of their trips with the Marsdens. A sudden urge came over me to try to find Ian and Karen–not an easy task as I really had no idea where they lived or even if they were still alive. Google was not much help, and it wasn’t until my brother Chris reminded me that eons ago Ian worked for Heinz Corporation that I had a lead! Rarely do I have reason to use LinkedIn, but have an account and it was worth a try. Within a nano-second I was looking at a photo of Ian Marsden with all of his successful credentials and bio! Unbelievable! Not knowing if he was an active user of Linkedin, I went ahead and sent an email through the site not expecting a reply. In short order, I received a wonderful note back! Both he and Karen were indeed alive, doing very well and he was delighted to hear from me. Together with Karen, the three of us emailed as a group and shared our major life events–marriages, divorces, children and grandchildren, etc. Lots of photos were exchanged along with the hope of getting together. Unfortunately our email connection stalled for nearly two years, mostly my fault due to life’s complications. Last spring when travel restrictions began to lift, the desire to return to Great Britain was overwhelming and I booked a trip for September. We planned time in Scotland, a week in the Borders, and a week in London, with the primary focus of meeting with Karen and Ian. Unfortunately, our time in London coincided with Karen having a scheduled surgery on her wrist and she would not be able to make it. September 29, for the first time in fifty-two years, Ian Marsden and I, along with my husband Greg, met at Zedel Brasserie, an exquisite French café in the Piccadilly area of London. We recognized each other instantly as if no time had passed and were both stunned that we picked up where we left off all those years ago. It was an absolutely magical afternoon. We laughed and shared stories with Greg about our adventures. Our favorite was the time Ian drove us to the beach, over a very curvy Topanga Canyon in a borrowed Jaguar XKE with no gear shift knob. This was further complicated by the fact that Ian was accustomed to driving on the other side of the road. For some reason at the time we saw nothing wrong with this plan, and I suspect we did it more that once!
So what is my take away from this? I realized looking through those old photo albums it was as though the pictures came to life and I was right back to that space and time. Now, with the privilege of knowing each other as adults, with a shared history that goes back a full generation, I truly appreciatae what an astounding gift we have been given. It has been an unexpected connection to a happy time in the tapestry of my life. How delighted our parents would be!
A few side notes:
• This writing is mostly about Ian as Karen and I haven’t had the opportunity to meet in person and chat endlessly. I look forward to remedying that this year if all goes well.
• My love for all things British and Scottish was undoubtedly enhanced by time spent with the Marsden family. They have always embodied the best of Great Britain–enduring friendship, great charm, gracious hospitality and a tremendous sense of humor.