U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Melvin Rector long carried Britain in his heart after he helped defend it during World War II, but 70 years passed without him stepping foot in the country, Florida Today and the Daily Mail (UK) report.
The 94-year-old finally decided to leave his home in Barefoot Bay, Fla., to visit Britain earlier this spring. He signed up for a trip to visit the Royal Air Force station Snetterton Heath, Norfolk where he served with the 96th Bomb Group in 1945 as a radio operator and gunner on B-17 Flying Fortress bombers, flying eight combat missions over Germany.
Rector served as a gunner on the Memphis Belle, the first heavy bomber to complete its tour flying 25 missions with its crew intact. After both crew and plane completed their 25th mission, the crew received the Air Medal with three Oak Leaf Clusters and the Distinguished Flying Cross. They were then ordered to fly the Memphis Belle back to the United States for a cross-country tour increase morale back home and to sell War Bonds.
The B-17 Flying Fortress generated so much attention that two films were made about it: a documentary in 1944 and The Memphis Belle drama in 1990, starring John Lithgow, Matthew Modine and Harry Connick Jr. A-E includes a copy in his film library.
Rector was excited about his return to the place that made this great plane famous.
“He planned it for like the last six months,” said Darlene O’Donnell, Rector’s stepdaughter. “He couldn’t wait to go.”
On Rector’s long flight over the Atlantic, the pilot of his American Airlines flight summoned him to the cockpit so that the two could take a photograph together.
O’Donnell had become like a daughter to Rector after serving as his guardian during a 2011 Honor Flight trip to Washington, D.C., and she accompanied him on this tour.
On May 6, Rector stepped foot on British soil for the first time in 71 years. The group first visited RAF Uxbridge. O’Donnell told Florida Today that Rector died shortly after exiting the underground bunker in Uxbridge, just outside London, that was used as a command center during the Battle of Britain.
She says Rector grabbed her arm and said that he was dizzy, and then collapsed on the ground. “'He walked out of that bunker like his tour was done,” she said. “He had completed his final mission.”
Following Rector's death, a small funeral service was planned in England, until his body could be repatriated to the U.S. O’Donnell and Rector's family only expected three or four people at the London service, but once the funeral director heard about Rector's back story, he made sure that the ceremony honored his service.
“They just wanted something simple, and when I found out a little background about Melvin, there is just no way that we were just going to give him a simple service,” funeral director Neil Sherry told British ITV Network. “We wanted it to be as special as possible.”
The family was surprised when American Air Force servicemen, stationed in England, and members of the British Royal Air Force showed up at the funeral to bid Rector adieu with full military honors.
O’Donnell says she was humbled by the display her father received abroad.
“You go to a foreign country and they have the love and honor for a veteran. It was so nice that he had those participate in his service,” she said.
“He certainly got a beautiful send-off,” she added. “People everywhere, from Cambridge to London, heard his story.”
Rector's remains were repatriated to the U.S. on Tuesday and a funeral is planned for the father of six June 9 at First Baptist Church, Barefoot Bay, Florida.
Al Bruce writes a weakly column from his Canisteo hut.