Family’s search finds answers in Second World War airman’s sacrifice

News Article / November 9, 2018

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By Lieutenant-Colonel Chris Barnard, with Jolene Dyer

On September 15, 2018, some 80 people gathered in the Saint Nicholas Churchyard on Thorney Island, United Kingdom, for the annual Anglo-German Service. Under a blue sky, in the shade of an ancient oak tree beside a 12th-century church, the names of 52 Commonwealth and 21 Luftwaffe personnel who lost their lives during the Second World War and were laid to rest on Thorney Island were read aloud, one by one.

RAF Thorney Island is a former Royal Air Force station, located on the south coast of England. It was closed by the RAF in 1976 and subsequently reopened by the Royal Artillery in 1982. For the majority of the Second World War, it served as a Coastal Command airfield and, on August 20, 1942, saw the formation of the Royal Canadian Air Force’s 415 Squadron. It is also the location of the small cemetery, connected to Saint Nicholas Parish, where both Commonwealth and Luftwaffe aviators are buried and, since the end of the Second World War, remembered.

This year held a special importance for one Canadian family: it was the first time they were able to visit the grave of a family member. Their story began many years ago.

Clyde Ezra Coons volunteered to join the military and was sent overseas. He was eventually assigned to 415 Squadron on Thorney Island, where he lost his life on September 9, 1943, at the age of 33. He left behind his wife, daughter (10) and son (four). His family never knew what had happened to him; the only notification of his death that they received was a bundle of returned letters marked simply “Missing in Action (MIA)”.

Seventy-five years later, a whole new story was discovered.

In the spring of 2017, Pilot Officer Coons’ son, Michael Charles, began searching Canadian military veterans’ records for any information he could find about his father. To his astonishment, he found the death certificate and discovered his father was not, in fact, MIA, but had actually perished in a training accident and was interred in the Saint Nicholas churchyard in West Thorney. The family was stunned. Further research indicated Pilot Officer Coons and his crew were testing a recommissioned Hampton bomber when something went wrong. The aircraft was seen crashing a few miles from Thorney Island.

As soon as Michael Coons discovered this, he wanted to visit his father’s gravesite, pay his respects, and bury some of his older sister’s ashes with their father. As planning began, it was quickly determined the cemetery was located on an active military base and so some form of permission for access would be required. The search eventually lead to the station padre (chaplain), who told the family that their intended travel dates coincided with the annual Anglo-German Service, and they would be most welcome—even encouraged—to attend.

And so, Pilot Officer Coons’ son, now 79, his granddaughter, Jolene Dyer, and a family friend found themselves in a small English cemetery as the names of 73 fallen aviators, including Pilot Officer Clyde Ezra Coons, were read, remembered and honoured. After this year’s service, Ms Dyer intends to return with her own three sons, so they may learn more about their great-grandfather and all that he sacrificed for their present and future. Ms Dyer especially thanked the Canadian War Memorial Foundation for looking after fallen veterans.

“The West Thorney cemetery was immaculate,” she said, “and it gave us a sense of peace, knowing that our fallen heroes—my grandfather—are so well honoured and looked after.”

The 415 Squadron Association encourages everyone to learn more about Thorney Island, the squadron’s connection to the station, and the annual commemoration service.


 

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