LONDON (AP) — When Peter Brown died alone in London without any known family, neighbors made sure that the humble 96-year-old Jamaican man who had volunteered as a teen to fight for Britain in World War II was not forgotten.
Hundreds of people – mostly strangers — touched by his story answered the call Thursday, and packed St. Clement Danes Church to give the former flight sergeant a proper send-off.
The Rev. Ruth Hake said that when Brown left his Jamaican home at 17 in 1943 there was no promise he'd return home — like millions of others who gave their lives in World War II.
“The willingness that he showed then and the next seven years that he served in the Royal Air Force to put his life on the line on behalf of this nation ... is a debt that all of us who who have certainly lived our lives in freedom in this country have to honor," Hake said. “That is why there are so many people here at the funeral of such a modest and unassuming man.”
Brown was one of about 5,500 men from the Caribbean who volunteered after the RAF dropped its “colour bar” in 1939 and began recruiting in its colonies in what was then known as the British West Indies.
The largest group, some 3,700, came from Jamaica. Most of these recruits were ground staff; only 450 were aircrew.
Brown trained in Jamaica and Canada and became a radio operator and gunner, flying five missions on Lancaster bombers in the final year of the war.
He was one of the last of a generation that is rapidly disappearing and likely one of the last of the group dubbed the “Pilots of the Caribbean.” The youngest of those who served are in their 90s.
When Brown died at his home in December, the Westminster City Council tried to find his family. As news of his death spread, historians, military researchers, genealogists, and community groups took up the cause, and interest grew.
What had once been planned as a modest service at a crematorium had to be postponed and relocated to the spiritual home of the RAF, the expansive church dating back 1,000 years that had to rebuilt after being mostly destroyed by a German incendiary bomb in 1941.
Susan Hutchinson, who has spent the last four years trying to get recognition for troops from the Caribbean who fought for England in both world wars, said that, if Brown's neighbors hadn't drawn attention to his life, she fears that he would have been another Black service member buried in a pauper's grave and forgotten.
“Our Black soldiers who have fought for this country in World War I, as well as World War II, have had no recognition,” she said. “They have not been given a proper grave with a proper headstone. They’ve been buried in pits, mass graves, our soldiers, our Black soldiers. … Our ancestors are not represented. We seem to be ignored everywhere, every time, so that’s the reason why I’m here today.”
Six RAF pallbearers carried Brown's flag-draped coffin on their shoulders as Edward Elgar's “Nimrod” was played on the pipe organ during the procession. A spray of red and white roses, two of his medals and an RAF dress cap sat atop the Union Jack at the front of the church.
Some 600 seats were reserved for the public and most were filled, many by people with Jamaican roots, as well as a few distant relatives who learned of his death and several others who thought they might be related. Dozens of RAF officers and enlisted personnel wore dress blues.
Leonie Gutzmore, who lives in England, said an aunt saw the news about Brown's death, recognized he was a relative and notified family back in Jamaica.
Her grandmother, Myrtle Gutzmore, whose husband is Brown’s first cousin, had been due to visit England, so she attended the funeral with other family. She was happy so many people honored him.
“All of it is very touching,” Leonie Gutzmore said. “His age, that he got so far, that there were no known relatives. Had we known who he was we would have been able to support him. But it was really nice to hear that his local community looked after him in a place where we weren't able to do so.”
Brown was remembered by a neighbor, Melvyn Caplan, as a gracious person with an old-school charm who lived a very private life. He liked to tell people that he'd lived longer in the Maida Vale neighborhood — some 50 years — longer than anyone else.
He rarely spoke of his time in combat, Caplan said. After the war, he returned to Jamaica to work with family in the coconut industry in Kingston but returned to England, where he re-enlisted, rising to the rank of flight sergeant. He flew missions in Tripoli, Egypt, and Malta and left the forces in 1950.
He later became a civil servant in the defense department.
In the neighborhood, he was known for simple things he liked: cheese, onion crisps, Cadbury’s Dairy Milk chocolate bars, Bell's Whisky with a splash of ginger ale and the sport of cricket.
With his self-deprecating bearing, Brown would have complained about people making a fuss over his death, Caplan said.
“He was a proud and dignified gentleman,” Caplan said. “His resilience was astounding until the very end, adamant not to inconvenience those that showed any care or concern. We will miss his smile and the customary sign off: ‘Cheerio, my dear, have a good day!’ With that, we would rush off back to our lives, and he to his.”
After the mournful notes of Last Post on trumpet echoed in the church, there was silence. Then Reveille, one more hymn and a blessing, and Brown’s casket was carried back out of the church and driven away in a hearse.
In keeping with his personality, his burial was private.