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Note: this entry, originally from June 2005, is re-posted as part of Mudville's Memorial Day 2006 salute to the fallen.
This is the conclusion of Generations, by SFC Peter J. Crittenden, US Army Special Forces, currently serving in Germany. Part one of the story is here.
Pete's brother Jules Crittenden writes:
As Pete mentioned, we don't know a lot about Phil. He had a literary bent like a few of us in this family and was getting his start as a reporter, freelancing for small newspapers, when the war came along and he enlisted. He was the eldest of four sons, raised in a string of pubs his old man owned at different times in Melbourne and several country towns in Victoria. He played the piano. He was a sleepwalker as a kid, and broke his ankle falling out a second story window. Phil didn't have much luck with night flights.The Crittenden's story is everyone's story now, because a small group of people from all over the world have made sure it won't be forgotten.
I have an old leather-bound copy of the Rubaiyat of Omar Kayyam, returned with Phil's effects. It is inscribed "To Philip, on your 80th.'' Presumeably a joke when he turned 20. He didn't make 21. As is the case with a lot of families of our generation, his absence is something that can never be fully measured, not just one person we never knew, who died violently for all of us and lies in a foreign place, but also those he might have brought into the world and the things he might have done with his life.
My father tried to enlist while still underage, but his father, distraught over the loss of his eldest, refused to sign the papers. So my father went to work in the shipyard at Williamstown, repairing ships that came in from the Pacific War and taking them out on sea trials. Once there, they wouldn't let him leave. It was a vital industry. This may well be the reason Pete, myself and our brothers are here today. All of this on one family's loss in a long-ago war only serves to underscore the nature of sacrifice for all of them, past and present, and the importance of remebrance. Thanks again for posting our family's story.
P. J. Crittenden
I'm stationed in Germany so there was no question; I would go and visit the graves in Belgium. I contacted the Fitzmaurice family and we made a plan to link up in Charleroi on May 30, which is American Memorial Day. I explained the whole incredible story to my wife and children. Our two daughters, ages eight and nine, struggled to grasp the meaning of it all, the same as I had when I first learned about Uncle Phil. "Oh, he died... ...Oh..."
Our excursion took on the atmosphere of a holiday outing. It was Memorial Day; we were hitting the road like Americans do every year. We loaded up the VW Turbo Diesel Passat wagon and headed her down the mighty German Autobahn at an average speed of one hundred miles per hour. Next stop, Belgium! I told the kids we'd have chocolate-coated Brussels sprouts on waffles for dinner!
Arriving in Charleroi was a deja-vu unlike any other I'd experienced. Perhaps it was the extensive map-recon and the photos I'd looked over; the place was just as I'd imagined. A small city, a ring road, some dilapidated mining apparatus to the south and viola, we were at out hotel. While Wife and Kids got settled in I went in search of the cemetery.
There was some confusion. James Fitzmaurice had described the cemetery as being at Florennes. I believe this confusion comes from the R.A.F. Bomber Command website; the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website describes the cemetery as Charleroi Communal Cemetary and gives clear directions. This did not make navigating the maze-like back streets of Charleroi any easier, but I found the place after interrogating a few natives and stretching my grasp of the French language to the limits.
Everyone I spoke to made me as an American right away (I don't know how because my French is impeccable pied-noir). One of the locals told me how much he loved the American military, how happy his mother was on June 6th when the Allies landed, how much she laughed and jumped up and down. What do you say when somebody tells you something like this, shaking your hand and not letting you go? It's a great honor; they haven't forgotten, they will never forget.
Charleroi Communal Cemetery is a traditional European graveyard, something out of a Victor Hugo novel. Large family sepulchers featuring urns, statues of angels, and obelisks, spread out as far as the eye can see. There is a huge monument to the local war dead from 1914-1981; you go down into it and there are the crypts. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission sector lies in a little corner to the left as you enter the main gate. There are 333 graves there, mostly from the First World War, or as the Belge call it, "la Guerre de quatorze/diz-huit." The Commonwealth section stands quite out from the dark, gray civil tombs beyond; the sun shines on the white marble headstones surrounded by a carpet green, green lawn, neatly mowed.
The crew of FU-D are buried all in a row, up against the cemetery wall, next to the Great Cross which is a feature of every Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery I have ever visited. I found Uncle Phil's grave right away.
Sergeant P.G. Crittenden Royal Australian Air Force 20th October 1941, age 20
Loved Eldest Son
of G.W. and B.A. Crittenden
of Melbourne, Australia
There was a strange feeling, of course, as I knelt and looked at his grave. Beyond just seeing my own surname on a headstone in such a far away land; I was looking across the generations, across a vast gulf of time, at the monument of someone I had never known, someone who was loved by those who loved me.
When I first told my father I was going to visit his brother's grave in Belgium, his comment was, "I don't know what on Earth you're going there for." I've long learned to accept this sort of attitude from my Dad. It's a thing his generation seems to have about the past sometimes, a sort of denial, like a delayed stress thing about the war; that sort of thing haunts you for life. Later, after I returned from Belgium, I called Dad and told him about the inscription. I sensed a wonder in his voice. "An inscription," he said, "What do you know? So they did it right..."
* * *
The next day, Sunday, we were to meet with the family of SGT Brown; the Fitzmaurice's. I stressed to Wife and Kids that this was not a funeral, that the funeral had been conducted sixty four years ago; this was a memorial, and we weren't to get all worked up and over-emotional. Stiff upper lip, English blood runs cold, that sort of thing. I put on my uniform because it seemed the right thing to do. The little girls wanted to handle the wreath; they were very concerned about how to do it right.
SFC Peter J. Crittenden, with his daughters Charlotte (L) and Amanda.
We waited at the cemetery while the Fitzmaurice's made their way from the UK via the Channel tunnel. While Wife and Kids read all the inscriptions on the headstones, an ancient Belgian gentleman came up to me and told me of his adventures during the war; how he'd been a refugee, he and his family went to France. The French vaccinated him, and his vaccination became infected all up and down his left side so that he couldn't get on the boat to England, and how he eventually ended up a forced laborer for the Germans. He even had photographs to back up his story. The old man couldn't stop shaking my hand, telling me how great the Americans were, how great the Allies were, how much he loved us. We spoke for the better part of two hours. Funny thing with the French language, how it grows on you after a couple of days incountry; I understood every single word he said.
And then the Fitzmaurice's arrived. Wonderful people, a lovely family. Young James was the star of the show, of course, because it was his endeavors that had helped bring our families together at the graves of the crew of the FU-D. He had brought the items his grandfather had saved; the POW journal, photographs, badges of rank, insignia, and the incredible SATAN RIDES TONIGHT logo from the leather flying jacket. It was all so overwhelming.
Then one of those moments came where everyone looks at me because I'm the tallest, I'm the guy in uniform, and I realized it was time to say something. As verbose as I am I always choke when I'm put on the spot, but this was a historic moment for all of our families so I had to deliver.
I told them we were very grateful, that our family was so very thankful that they had all this information about our Uncle Phil and thankful that they'd come to honor the dead crewmen with us. I told them how the family of Peter Hamilton had been in touch, and that they were looking forward to hearing about the visit to Charleroi. I said how we had known nothing, nothing, for so very long; how it had been a great emptiness in the story of our family and now, thanks to them, our Uncle Phil was back with us again, in a way, forever.
In the middle of a speech like this you learn how to look away at the right moment, to time your phrases to keep from losing it. I looked to the sun shining down on this hot day.
Uncle Phil wrote this poem when he was in flight school in Saskatchewan, and it was printed in the local paper there:
The Two Australians
Their's was to die with laugher in their hearts,
In a clean land, fresh blown by snow-kissed wind,
Made sweet by early spring and sun.
This was their stage then, this their last sports field.
Their eyes made brave in southern lands
Had not yet looked on Death -and yet-
They chose that which was Death's playmate
And blithely played him out.
Some fool-made query- "such a pity 'twas so young."
They had not shirked, complained, nor asked
For aught but what their day might bring;
They held a pride within their hearts,
Australian pride, and strength of England's strain.
They died -'twas seemly so- their blood
Enriched the ground on which it fell;
They won't begrudge - their heads are in the sky.
He signed it "From a Comrade". He could have been writing about his own crew.
P. J. Crittenden
31 May 2005
What a gratifying story. Those are the kind of mysteries that should unravel.
I have to ask a question though, we had a Pete Crittenden in Okinawa 1st SF group in the early 90's and I wonder if this is he or if he knows him?
Great story regardless.
Uncle JPosted by Uncle Jimbo at June 4, 2005 01:02 AM
What a darn good story...how gratifying a way to spend a day.Posted by NOTR at June 4, 2005 04:36 AM
So interesting and endearing a story. That plane he went down in - GH those pics were unreal. To see what happened to that plane when it crashed! I don't know how anyone had the guts to fly that plane.Posted by Toni at June 4, 2005 01:00 PM
Another Great job. Thank you for posting this story.Posted by Grannylu at June 4, 2005 04:41 PM
Thanks to all who have responded for your comments. I'm the younger brother of Jules (Boston Herald reporter) and Pete (U.S. Army SNCO). I didn't know this story made it to the web. I just did a google search on "two australians poem by phil crittenden" and was led to The Mudville Gazette, which incidentally I have surfed previously.
This is the first time I've seen Uncle Phil's picture. The greatest generation really did gut a lot of grief, and my Dad was no exception. He very rarely mentioned his elder brother. In sorry contrast to them, a large percentage today prefer to bellyache about us actually fighting the enemy. The WWII KIAs must be turning in their graves.Posted by will crittenden at June 10, 2005 07:17 PM Hide Comments | Show/Add Comments in Popup Window(5) | (Note: You must refresh main page to view newly posted comments here)