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The unknown Dam Buster: Harold Jellicoe “Coe” Percival (1914-2013)

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By 1943, England had survived intense German bombing and needed a much-needed victory. Thus was born Operation Chastise, a daring air raid in which a handful of British Lancaster bombers flew into Germany and dropped specially designed bombs on several important dams. Once breached, the dams would flood the valleys below, hopefully causing vast industrial and agricultural damage. The raid was a success, gave the United Kingdom a morale boost, and instantly became a part of British military legend. A successful 1955 movie adaptation, “The Dam Busters,” followed, and the theme from that movie became iconic of the raid itself. It has since become a favorite British military theme, often played during military flyovers.

Harold Jellicoe “Coe” Percival worked on the ground crews serving the Second Bomber Command at the time, and worked on the Dam Busters bombers. He was very proud of that, and made a point of mentioning it to people later in life. He also expressed regret at leaving the Royal Air Force. After the war, in 1945, Percival left England and traveled extensively in Australia, often moving from hotel to hotel, never staying put for long, never starting a family. He was a loner, often living out of his backpack. He eventually did return to England, living on the Fylde coast. At one point later in his life, after he fell and fractured his hip, he moved into the Alistre Lodge Care Home in St. Annes, England in April 2012, where he was known as spirited, independent and likable. On Oct. 25, he died peacefully in his sleep, at the age of 99.

Percival’s obituary noted that he was a WWII veteran with no family or friends to attend his memorial service. Percival did have a single nephew, David Worsell, who was unable to attend the ceremony. Worsell, who only got to know Percival in his later years and described his uncle as an intensely private man, would send his own son to represent the family. But that would have been it. A single person for one of the Dam Busters.

Thus, the obituary went on to ask anyone in the public to attend. This being the age of social media and viral news, the obit was soon noticed by, among others, Sgt. Rick Clement, a UK serviceman who, in 2010, lost his legs in an explosion in Afghanistan. Clement went to Facebook and asked his network of veteran friends to spread the message.

And spread, it did. By the time of Percival’s funeral — fittingly on Nov. 11, or Armistice Day — more than 300 people showed up to attend Percival’s service at the Lytham Park Crematorium. A good number of these were fellow veterans, there to give one of their own a final salute. Many were perfect strangers, young and old, there to honor a man who had nobody else to mark his passing.

Percival’s funeral ceremony made mainstream media coverage, and became the Internet’s feel-good story of the moment. Video of the ceremony itself shows Percival’s casket draped with the Union Jack. Appropriately, the “Dam Busters” theme plays as the casket enters the chapel. Many of those who came to pay their respects stood outside in the rain during the ceremony, as there was not enough room to accommodate them inside. By then, it did not matter.

Percival himself did not ask for others to remember him. His memorial really was about those he served so long ago, rather than about the man who did the serving. For Percival, the work that most defined him was its own reward, and sometimes, that is enough. That is often lost on today’s more mercenary culture, so often driven by a sense of entitlement and instant gratification. But at the very least, it was not lost on those who gave Percival his farewell, which was richly deserved, indeed. 


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