After Over 25 Years Tending To This Mystery Vet’s Grave, A Stranger Has Finally Dug Up His Story

Image: YouTube/Caters Clips

When Wayne Hartshorne from Staffordshire in the U.K. saw that the grave of an Australian airman was untended, he felt that he should pay his respect. So for years, he kept the plot tidy without knowing the story of the hero whose last resting place he looked after. Then some friends made a breakthrough, and the tale of the young flier miles from home was revealed.

Image: Snap Cannock

Hartshorne lives in the town of Cannock in England’s West Midlands, near the Cannock Chase Cemetery. And the wartime navigator whose grave he looks after in that cemetery is a complete stranger to him. But that didn’t stop him restoring and caring for his grave.

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Meanwhile, it was during one of his regular visits to his grandparents’ graves in 1992 when Hartshorne noticed another burial place. This was the grave of wartime airman John Benjamin Burrows, who had been a pilot warrant officer in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). And despite not knowing Burrows at all, Hartshorne decided to keep his plot in good shape.

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Hartshorne explained to local newspaper the Express & Star in April 2018 why he had decided to care for Burrows’ grave. He explained, “I noticed he was from Australia, thousands of miles away, and thought it was a shame that he was buried so far from home. I did it out of respect.”

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Indeed, that Burrows had been an Australian struck Hartshorne as odd. And the poignancy of being so far from home also resonated with him. He told Australian website News.com.au in May 2018, “There was just something about this grave because, I’ve no idea the distance between England and Australia, but it was just this young man, 21 years old, had come all this way to fight a war and never got the chance to go home.”

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So Hartshorne decided that he would pay his own homage to the fallen airman and his sacrifice. Consequently, for more than 25 years, he has looked after Burrows’ grave. And there couldn’t have been a better man for the job, since Hartshorne works as a greenkeeper for a local golf course.

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Hartshorne set to work with a will, and the grave needed it, because as he noted, the churchyard “wasn’t exactly the tidiest…” He made the plot level and stripped it and put up a border. To decorate it, he now puts in bulbs to match the season. All that done, twice a month, depending on how fast the grass grows, he gives the grave a visit.

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Naturally, in more than two decades of helping preserve the airman’s memory, Hartshorne felt curious about who he had been. All he had to go on was that he had served in the RAAF and had lost his life on April 5, 1943. But that didn’t explain why his grave was here in Cannock, seemingly many miles from home.

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Consequently, Hartshorne resolved to find out what he could about Burrows. But despite trawling through local news and searching the internet, he could find only the most elementary information. Even the Commonwealth War Graves Commission could reveal only the barest details about him and his life. Indeed, the mystery of Burrows’ life – and demise – remained unresolved.

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Luckily, two men that Hartshorne was acquainted with were able to go a step deeper. Local military researchers Richard Pursehouse and Lee Dent looked into Burrows for him. And as a consequence, they revealed the tale of the young Aussie airman who had lain in Cannock cemetery since 1943.

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Image: Herald Sun

And what he, Pursehouse and Dent had been able to find certainly had an impact on Hartshorne. He told BBC Midlands about one of his discoveries. He said, “It was a bit emotional when I discovered a photograph of [Burrows], and I knew what he looked like, and that was a bit… emotional.”

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It turned out that Burrows had been serving with the 297 Squadron of the British Royal Air Force (RAF). Originally formed to be part of the parachute arm of the air force, the squadron had become a home for Whitley bombers and had shifted base until ending up at RAF Thruxton.

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Although it was primarily a base for fighters, RAF Thruxton also provided a home for bombers. Set a few miles from Andover in Hampshire, both the RAF and the United States Army Air Force used the base. And it is from there that Burrows set off on his final, fatal mission.

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Burrows’ life had begun in July 1921 in the Melbourne, Victoria, suburb of Coburg in Australia. Mom Ada Frances and dad Alexander would welcome him into a family that also featured two sisters. Meanwhile, not much is known about Burrows’ early life, but his family home was in the well-to-do seaside suburb of Brighton.

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However, although Burrows had volunteered to fight back home in Brighton, he had come to the U.K. And there he had found love with local lady Marjorie Preece. At the time that they married, Marjorie lived in Dartmouth Road in Cannock, and they would wed there in August 1942.

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As it happens, though, Burrows’ wife Marjorie was from Staffordshire. She hailed from Salisbury, further south in Wiltshire. She’d been a clerk in the Auxiliary Territorial Service, the women’s part of the army. Meanwhile, at that time Burrows’ 297 Squadron had been based at RAF Netheravon, nearby on Salisbury Plain.

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So the young lovers may well have met somewhere around Salisbury. Whatever the truth of that is, though, they ended up in Cannock. And the belief now is that Burrows found his resting place in that town, rather than being shipped home, so that he could remain close to Marjorie.

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Certainly, Burrows did have his wedding at St. Luke’s, Cannock’s 900-year-old church. And once married, the pair celebrated at the nearby Stanton’s café. The happy couple would then enjoy a honeymoon in Scotland. But little did they know that months later, Burrows would be gone.

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Indeed, it must have seemed that Burrows had the whole of his life ahead of him. However, six months later, it had been snatched away, and Hartshorne told News.com.au about a personal reason for his sympathy for Burrows’ relatives. He said, “I’ve got a daughter who is 21. Losing him at 21, I’ve no idea. It must have been traumatic for the family.”

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It turns out that the tragedy happened as Burrows returned from a mission over France. The aircraft that he flew in was one of six which dropped pamphlets onto towns and cities there. Indeed, since the very first night of World War II, missions had taken place to spread propaganda by bomber.

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For their part, these nickel raids demanded a lot from aircrews and provided ongoing training in day and night flying. And they required a great deal of skill from those involved. Burrows operated as a navigator, and once his pilot had taken the plane to the general area of the target, it was his job to find the exact spot to drop the leaflets on.

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Burrows had flown over France in an Armstrong Whitworth Whitley. This British-made medium bomber had the unfortunate nickname of the “Flying Coffin” because it flew slowly and didn’t offer the most comfortable ride. And while over France, Burrows’ Whitley had taken a lot of fire from anti-aircraft batteries, and leaking fuel was becoming a concern.

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However, that concern over fuel dictated a fatal decision. As the plane returned, its home base was shrouded in fog. This lead the leading ground controllers to advise the pilot, Louis Sproule, to take a diversion. However, Sproule believed that it wouldn’t be safe to change course, and he could get the plane down at RAF Thruxton.

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Perhaps confused by the fog, Sproule crashed a mile away from the base. The plane smashed into the ground near to Weyhill train station in the early hours of April 5, 1943. Burrows lost his life on impact, and Sproule would also later die. Fortunately, however, the three other aircrew survived the crash.

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Investigators found that the crash had been the outcome of “pilot fatigue” and the stress on the mind of a pilot exhausted after a dangerous mission to France. They could not tell whether fuel had been low enough to make the risky attempt to land at Thruxton necessary. That was because the aircraft was completely wrecked, having hit the ground hard enough to expel its engines.

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Be that as it may, Burrows had met his end on that foggy night. His coffin, resplendent with the Union Jack that he had fought for, was proudly borne into the church at Cannock. Among the bearers were three fliers from his squadron. Afterwards, he was laid to rest among the civilians in Cannock’s cemetery.

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Indeed, Burrows lays alongside 37 others who served. And although far from home, a poignant headstone marks his resting place, showing that he has not been forgotten. On it, his grieving family had demonstrated that for them he was still a real presence. The words that his parents had picked were “Still living, Still ours, Father and Mother.”

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Meanwhile, his widow Marjorie had to try to get on with her life. She would go on to find new love and would remarry after the war. As Mrs. Bungam, she set off for the United States, finding a home in New Jersey. She would live there until her passing in around 2007.

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As for Hartshorne, now his visits to the graveyard have a deeper resonance. The grave that he tends belongs to a man whose story he now knows. Throughout the winter, he goes there each fortnight, while once the grass gets taller in the warmer months, he turns up each week.

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Hartshorne explained what he felt about what he’d found out to the Express & Star in 2018. He said, “What happened was a tragedy. He was only 21 and had been married for just six months. I was 26 when I started looking after his grave, and I’d like to think I will carry on doing so.”

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Meanwhile, Hartshorne’s efforts had not gone unnoticed. And as part of the 100th Anzac Ceremony on Sunday, April 29, 2018, at which the service of Australian and New Zealand veterans was remembered at Cannock Chase, the local Royal Air Forces Association branch honored him. The charity also gave him a certificate of appreciation in recognition of his work.

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At the same time, an Australian flier had come to pay his own tribute to Burrows. Hartshorne told News.com.au, “He must have been the first person from Australia to visit in 75 years – it was very moving.” And it had left him full of emotion, as he continued, “I was overwhelmed, gobsmacked. It’s all very humbling. It’s part of my life now. I’ll always tend to it.”

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Finally, after Hartshorne’s story had enjoyed some coverage, Burrows’ family were able to get in touch with him. The latter’s niece, Cath Foster, said that they had been stunned when a Melbourne cemetery had contacted them. This cemetery was the airman’s sister’s resting place, and it had in turn heard from a local genealogist who had learned about Hartshorne through the BBC.

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It turns out that Howard, Burrows’ nephew, had gone to see the flier’s grave twice some years ago. But even though the family had spoken to the cemetery in Cannock and offered to help with costs, they hadn’t had any luck. It may be that this was because Hartshorne had kept what he was doing quiet.

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Meanwhile, Foster had been blown away by Hartshorne’s dedication. She told Australian newspaper the Herald Sun how she felt in October 2018. She said, “He is a wonderful man with a great heart, and he’s so humble about it as well.” And that wasn’t the end of what Hartshorne did for the family.

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Burrows’ niece went on to share more of Hartshorne’s exploits. She said, “With each season changing, he sends me a new photo – ‘Here you go, this is what’s blooming at the moment!’” Needless to say, this generosity of spirit had an effect on Foster. She explained, “It has definitely restored my faith in human nature.”

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And Burrows’ descendants were not the only relations to praise Hartshorne. Marjorie Burrows’ niece, Gill Collier, lauded the greenkeeper to BBC Midlands. She told the news channel, “I come up here often and have a look, and it’s always so neat and tidy.” And she had some kind words about Hartshorne himself, “He’s amazing.”

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Collier’s words were also echoed by an Australian commenter on News.com.au’s story about Hartshorne. The reader wrote, “What a bloody fine example of a human being.” And the commenter suggested, “If there were a lot more people in the world like you, this man wouldn’t have died at 21.” Furthermore, he urged readers if they come across Hartshorne to, “Buy him a beer.”

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Adding to the praise, on Twitter, BBC reporter Ben Godfrey gave his opinion of Hartshorne. He hailed him by saying, “What a top bloke!” And many shared that sentiment when a video about the greenkeeper was posted on Facebook, with more than 80 users queuing up to leave warm comments. And on that site alone, the video acquired in excess of a thousand likes.

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Meanwhile, the man himself has an eye on the future. Hartshorne hopes that when he can no longer tend Burrows’ grave, he can find a family member to do the job. He told Caters News, “When I’m too old to continue, I don’t know who will look after it. I’ve got two daughters and a son – I suppose I could twist their arms.”

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