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ORDINARY HEROES

19-09-2007

A family funeral sees Dave Woodhall in reflective mood about ordinary people who did extraordinary things.

My aunt Dot was cremated last week. She died between Pavarotti's death being announced and the funeral of Rhys Jones. Her death wasn't on the news; she didn't have thousands attending her funeral. She never made any headlines; she was just an ordinary lady who had an ordinary life. She grew up, she got married, had children, and grew old. Except…..

Listening to the vicar during the service, it was clear that for one part of her life at least, my aunt was very, very special. Not that she would have ever admitted to it; it was just something she did. She was a member of the Womens' Auxiliary Air Force during the war, and if we ever asked about her war service, she said something about working on barrage balloons. The only thing she thought worthy of real comment was being mistaken for her sister, an officer, who had been stationed at one particular airfield a few weeks before her arrival.

In fact, my aunt was responsible during a long period of the war for maintaining and servicing RAF fighters. She was part of the forces who helped save civilisation. She was also the last person, except for the crew and passengers on his fatal plane journey, to see Glenn Miller alive. He flew out from the base on which she was stationed, she saw him getting into the plane and no-one knows what happened after that. A witness to one of the greatest mysteries of the twentieth century, she never thought it worth mentioning until towards the end of her life.

Similarly, the man who became her husband, Graham, was in the RAF in India. He also, eventually, mentioned that he spent a lot of the war doing low-level supply drops to the Chindits behind the Japanese lines. Not only that, but he was a rear-gunner, which gave him the unenviable task of having the most dangerous role in some of the war's most hazardous missions.

As with many of those who were at the sharp end, my uncle carried no great emnity into peacetime. He believed the enemy were just doing what they were told, same as him. He even drove a Nissan to his squadron reunions.

My aunt was a bit different. She continued to complain about the Japanese, she wasn't too keen on the Germans but if you really wanted to keep the peace it was best not to mention the American contribution to the war effort within her earshot.

Neither he, nor she, nor for that matter anyone else of their generation I've ever spoken to, would regard themselves as heroes or anything out of the ordinary. It was their job; they did it quietly, without fuss, expecting no great reward, then came home to carry on with their lives.

Their numbers are dwindling; every remembrance service sees fewer veterans present and more memorial crosses recalling those no longer with us.

We owe them everything, even if they don't think we do.

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