According to the National World War II Museum, 492 veterans of the Second World War die each day. With tomorrow being Memorial Day, we're going to look back on one of those deaths and the funeral that followed. This is the story of US Air Force Master Sergeant Melvin Rector.
Rector was one of the many airmen that took part in the bombing campaign against Nazi Germany. In the final months of the war in Europe, he flew eight separate missions, serving as a radio operator in the 96th Bomb Group, made up of B-17 Flying Fortresses. He was under fire on four separate missions, and according to The Washington Post, his Flying Fortress came back with bullet damage on at least one occasion.
Stationed at RAF Snetterton Heath in Norfolk, Rector had not been back to England in over 70 years. So, at 94 years of age, the retired Master Sergeant set out for the UK through a trip organized by the National World War II Museum, with the hope of visiting his former base. The crew of his American Airlines flight across the pond treated him like a minor celebrity, inviting him to the cockpit for a photo. And then, on May 6, entered the UK for the first time since the war ended.
The first stop on his tour was RAF Uxbridge and the Battle of Britain Bunker nearby. After touring the bunker, which acted as the RAF's nervous system during the aerial defense against the Nazis, Rector complained to his guardian, Susan Jowers, of dizziness. Jowers and a stranger steadied him, but he died right outside the bunker.
"He walked out of that bunker like his tour was done," Jowers, who was something of a daughter figure for Rector, told The Post. After his death, a short service was planned in the UK, before Rector's body was to return to the US. Then the funeral director, Neil Sherry, found out who Rector was.
"They just wanted something very simple. And when I found a little bit of background out about Melvin, there was no way we were going to just give him a very simple service," Sherry said. "I wanted it to be as special as possible."
What would have been a small service caused a groundswell of support among both British forces and American servicemen stationed in the UK. The US embassy in London donated an American flag to drape over Rector's casket, and there were members of various services in attendance.
"Representation from the Royal Air Force and the British Army I saw here was phenomenal," US Army Major Leif Purcell told ITV. "I was expecting just to see myself and maybe two or three other U.S. service members and a priest, and that was it. So it was very delightful to see."
You can see moving footage of the service in the video above.