In September 1941, an earnest young man from Hastings, Nebraska, headed off to join the Royal Canadian Air Force, eager to help defend the Western Allies against aggression by the Axis Powers in World War II.
Within months, Donald King Cameron was in England, one of the American volunteers flying for Canada as part of the Royal Air Force’s Eagle Squadron and standing with British Commonweath nations against the United Kingdom’s German and Italian adversaries in Europe. In February 1942, the Hastings Daily Tribune reported that Cameron had been one of 16 Eagle Squadron fliers to have tea at Windsor Castle with a grateful Queen Elizabeth, consort of King George VI, and their two daughters, Princesses Elizabeth (now Queen Elizabeth II) and Margaret.
In September 1942, the Eagle Squadron was transferred collectively to U.S. control as part of the Eighth Air Force. And on a mild, overcast Saturday afternoon, Oct. 9, 1943, First Lt. Donald K. Cameron, U.S. Army Air Forces, made the ultimate sacrifice, losing his life in the line of duty in a crash over Liverpool, England – the victim of an apparent mechanical failure on a new fighter aircraft he was ferrying from the U.S. air depot at Warton, Lancashire, to the American air base at Duxford, Cambridgeshire.
This is the story of Don Cameron, who grew up at 1131 N. St. Joseph Ave. and graduated with the Hastings High School Class of 1935 — a young man whose nickname in the high school yearbook was Sonny Boy, and is remembered for his love of art. Today, his name is saved for posterity as a “Fallen Hero” on the veterans’ monument in Parkview Cemetery.
This is also the story of Joseph E. “Eric” Barton, who as an 11-year-old was out for a day of recreation when, just for a moment, his youthful path crossed that of a nameless American flier who was just moments away from meeting his fate.
Watching the pilot’s P-47D Thunderbolt fighter fall from the sky, and later seeing the man’s lifeless body awaiting transport from the scene, made an indelible impression on young Eric, who went on to serve in the Royal Air Force in the 1950s before settling down, starting a family and making a career for himself as a government official in the city of Lancaster.
He never forgot about what he had witnessed, and years later — in 2005, well into his retirement years — he finally was able to connect the dots, learning Cameron’s identity, tracking down details of the crash that killed him, and then reaching across the Atlantic Ocean to share what he had learned with Cameron’s home community.
Finally, this is the story of Katherine “Kit” Cameron, Don’s niece, a retired art teacher from San Francisco and the last surviving member of the Cameron family of Hastings.
Through a connection made by Hastings resident Marlene Mullen, Eric Barton and his wife of 60 years, Beryl, were able to connect in 2019 with Kit Cameron and her husband, Peter Vacarro. Their circle of friendship also includes Mullen and her husband, Dennis, longtime active members of the Adams County Historical Society; and several other present or former Nebraskans who have helped along the way.
For Barton, now 87, it feels like the final chapter in a story that began when he was a boy and continued through his schooling, his military service, marriage and family life, a long career, and ultimately retirement.
“I now hope that I can lay this story to rest knowing that I have achieved the final full stop after so many years,” he said in a recent email.
For Cameron, it was the chance to understand a part of her own family history that no one had ever shared with her in any detail.
“My dad died when I was 16,” she said. “He would never talk about the war. It was very emotional for me to learn more about Don, and I was sorry not to have known him.”
Excitement, then horror
Along with his cousin, Len Barton, and a couple of Len’s friends, Eric Barton was spending Oct. 9, 1943, just being a kid along the River Mersey, in an area known locally as the “Cast Iron Shore” because of the presence of an iron foundry, where the riverbank turned red with ferric oxide residue from a nearby ship-breaking operation. Nearby was the busy RAF airfield known as Speke Airport.
The boys were entitled to a little relaxation. They had endured terrifying German air raids on Liverpool, a prominent port and industrial city, in the Blitz days of 1940-41, and still knew what it was like to stand in line for food. But their security situation had improved somewhat, and youngsters were allowed to move about the area a bit more than before.
School was “on holiday” just then, Barton said, and he had ridden his bicycle a couple of miles to Len’s house on Brunswick Street in Liverpool’s Garston district, next door to the place his own family had lived late 1940. Then, he and the other boys had walked to their old haunts along the river.
“Whilst living in Brunswick Street, trips down onto the shore were common, and we treated it as a playground,” he said.
With all the bombing they had experienced, Barton said, everyone in Liverpool was wary of aircraft passing overhead. But, while they were on the shore that day, the boys were delighted to see an American P-47D coming in low toward the airport.
He has estimated the plane’s altitude was no more than 250 feet. The pilot was clearly visible in the cockpit.
“Our first reaction once we identified it as an Allied aircraft, was to excitedly wave a friendly hello to the pilot,” Barton said. “Then disaster hit.”
The Thunderbolt Cameron was flying that day technically was known as a Republic P-47D, a fighter-bomber version of the P-47 that had been introduced in England earlier that same year and was the largest and heaviest single-engine fighter used in World War II. The P-47D was nicknamed “the Jug” in reference to its shape.
According to official reports Barton would not see until many years later, the airplane’s engine reportedly cut out, then restarted before stalling again, sending the plane dropping rapidly from about 500 feet altitude to 200 feet. Thereafter, the aircraft went into a deadly glide.
“The plane fell onto the shingle and disappeared in a cloud of spray and pebbles,” Barton told the Tribune. “When that subsided, the plane sat on its belly broken in two just behind the cockpit, and we could clearly see the pilot leaning forwards in his seat.”
The astonished children headed for the crash site to try to rescue the pilot before a fire broke out. But they quickly found themselves stuck in knee-deep yellow mud, and a crash crew from the airport beat them to the scene.
After Cameron had been removed, he was brought on a stretcher to the side of the road to await an ambulance. Not knowing if the pilot was alive or dead, Barton left his friends for a few moments to have a look.
“He was a handsome young man, neatly dressed in his uniform,” Barton said. His hair looked as if it had just been combed, and even his tie was straight, and I saw no sign of blood or cuts. In fact, it was hard to believe he had just been in an air crash at all.”
Soon shooed away by a crash crew member, Barton said, he left the scene suspecting the pilot was alive. But months later, after learning how a hard landing for a seated person can cause a skull fracture by way of the spine, he came to fear the worst.
The fear was well founded. As it turned out, Donald Cameron’s dead body — with fractured skull, humerus, and right tibia and fibula — was the first corpse young Eric Barton had ever seen.
“That hour in which I saw a young American pilot lose his life, a long way from home, who in my mind had come here to help us, is the reason I have been so determined to tell this story, and more so as I have got older with greater understanding of all those young men who gave their lives in the pursuit of peace,” Barton said.
It was a deeply affecting moment in Barton’s young life, already touched as it was by the pains of war. Nearly a decade after the crash, he himself would join the Royal Air Force, serving from 1953-55.
Barton never forgot the American stranger. But it was more than six decades after the crash, long after his retirement, that he finally stumbled across a book on WWII air incidents that, one step at a time, would him to the name of Donald King Cameron, who is buried in the Cambridge American Cemetery – a picturesque graveyard he had walked past many times while stationed at Suffolk during RAF days.
“I always took time to stop at the gate and look over the mass of white crosses and say a personal thanks,” he said. “I have never been a religious man, but I’ve always been thankful for what others do for me.”
He still remembers the day he and Beryl, and their oldest son returned to the Cambridge cemetery to find Cameron’s white cross in a field of green.
“That was a moving experience for me,” he said.
He learned that day from the cemetery superintendent where to write in Washington, D.C., for information about Cameron’s family. A year later, he received a complete package of information in the mail.
Before long, Barton was looking for a correspondent in Nebraska with whom he could share information. But after running up “many back alleys,” he finally made a connection with Leslie Fattig, executive director of the Nebraska State Historical Society Foundation, who in turn referred the matter to Jim Hewitt, a Hastings native serving on the foundation board of trustees.
Hewitt, in turn, contacted the Mullens – and by 2019, a digital line of friendship stretched like a flight path from England to Nebraska, Montana and California in honor of a Hastings man who more than 76 years early gave his last measure of devotion on Liverpool’s Cast Iron Shore.
FROM HASTINGS TO ENGLAND, AND BACK
Donald King Cameron was born in Hastings in 1917. His father was A.F.
Cameron, a Superior native who began his career as a coal broker in Denver and later moved to Hastings. Donald’s mother, Alma (King) Cameron, had grown up in Hastings where her family was in the retail coal business.
Don and his older brother, Wayne, grew up in the house still standing at 1131 N. St. Joseph Ave. The Camerons were members of St. Mark’s Episcopal Pro-Cathedral.
In a 2014 article published in Historical News by the Adams County Historical Society, historian Pierce Mullen cites Hastings resident Sally Pinney Smith, who grew up next door to the Camerons, remembering Don Cameron liked to draw and wanted to be an artist. She said her late husband, Dr. Robert Smith, who grew up just across the street, used to recall how Don Cameron was popular with the young boys in the neighborhood who would gather around as he read to them.
Mrs. Smith told Pierce Mullen that Cameron always had wanted to fly but had undergone a mastoidectomy and therefore was disqualified as a pilot for the U.S. Army in pre-war days. She said she believed that is why Cameron chose to join the Royal Canadian Air Force, which was actively seeking American recruits at that time.
(Pierce Mullen, a Hastings native and Dennis Mullen’s brother, is a professor emeritus of history at Montana State University in Bozeman who taught military history throughout his career. He and Jim Hewitt both have written articles about the Donald Cameron-Eric Barton connection.)
After being transferred from the RAF to the U.S. Army Air Forces, Cameron found himself assigned to the 87th Transport Squadron, 27th Air Transport Group, 302nd Transport Wing, Eighth Air Force.
Kit Cameron, Don Cameron’s niece, is the only child of Wayne Cameron and now in her early 70s. She said her grandparents and her father, who had a career as a hand surgeon in Upland, California, never spoke to her about Don Cameron, but that she understood her grandparents doted on both their sons and had been told her uncle’s death had left Alma Cameron devastated.
After her mother Patricia’s death in 2012, Kit Cameron came into possession of letters, photographs and other Cameron family artifacts. With no children for heirs, she now has returned those materials to Hastings in care of the Adams County Historical Society – where, curiously, they now reside under the same roof as Don Cameron’s R.A.F. Eagle Squadron uniform, wings and cap and a portrait of him in uniform.
Unbeknownst to Kit, the uniform and portrait were among items donated to the Hastings Museum by Alma Cameron in 1967 — the year of her own death. The portrait and uniform currently are in storage but were among items pulled from the museum’s collections in November 2014 for a public exhibit on WWII.
“I heard from Marlene that my grandmother gave Don’s uniform to the museum,” she said. “That seemed so poignant. I’m glad she had an opportunity to honor Don in his hometown. I think it must have been very hard for people in Hastings to have lost the numbers of young men in both world wars because so many people would have known them and their families.”
Kit Cameron and Peter Vacarro have been to England before and have visited Don Cameron’s grave in Cambridge, but nonetheless found Barton’s outreach illuminating. They traveled across the Atlantic again in August 2019 and intended to meet Eric and Beryl Barton in person in Lancaster. Those plans were scuttled, however, when Kit took a fall while visiting friends in Wales beforehand and suffered a broken hip.
Now on the mend and back home in California, she has high praise for Barton, who in recognition of his efforts to share Don Cameron’s story, in 2015 was honored with the first Friend of Nebraska History Award by the Nebraska State Historical Society Foundation.
“I was deeply moved by Mr. Barton’s story of trying to rescue the downed pilot and then his subsequent extraordinary efforts to discover who he was,” she said. “I was so very grateful that he reached out to Marlene and to the Hastings historical society to find a relative and so glad to get to know him.”
She has fond memories of visiting Hastings in the 1960s, albeit in connection with her grandparents’ deaths, and now is happy to count Marlene Mullen as a new friend in her father’s hometown.
“I think Marlene and the historical society team are amazing,” she said. “I am so impressed by the scholarly publications and the research into all kinds of Hastings stories. I am extremely grateful that they (particularly Marlene) followed up so thoroughly on Mr. Barton’s initial contact and delighted to have made a friend of Marlene through email.”
Barton, for his part, said he considers it a “great honour” to be called a Friend of Nebraska History and is gratified to have made friends among fellow senior citizens in places like Lincoln, Hastings, Bozeman and now San Francisco.
He also feels good about the honors extended to an American flier who would have turned 103 this year, had he not turned forever young on that long-ago Saturday on the Cast Iron Shore.
“I have never wanted anything for myself out of my quest, except the peace of mind that has now come from achieving my aim of sharing my memories with his family and expressing my personal respect for Lt. Donald K. Cameron and the part he played in World War II,” Barton said.
“I would have liked to have met him in better circumstances, but that was not to be.”