BY now the whole world knows of Tony Foulds, the 82-year-old Sheffield man who almost daily tends the memorial to the crew of the USAAF bomber Mi Amigo which crash landed in Endcliffe Park in February, 1944.
He believes the pilot of the Flying Fortress tried to wave him and other children playing in the park that day out of the way before it crashed. All 10 on board died.
He says he has felt ‘guilt’ ever since that day.
When his story was aired on BBC Breakfast by show host Dan Walker in January as a result of a chance meeting there was an unprecedented reaction. The world was touched by the story of a man who had, in the words of the BBC, tended to the memorial ‘almost every day for decades’ or ‘since 1944’ as the Guardian reported.
His efforts were honoured by a flypast over the memorial this February on the 75th anniversary of the crash. Tony has been feted, local people want him to be awarded an honour and city council leader Julie Dore has called for him to get a ‘star’ in the pavement outside the Town Hall.
But does Tony’s story stand up?
Here he is in a YouTube video recorded in November, 2018, and uploaded the following month, filmed by Sheffield University journalism student Harry Gold https://youtu.be/KEUJfLEaWco in which he says that two years ago he broke from his usual routine and, instead of meeting friends, he visited the memorial. He noticed ‘ how dilapidated the memorial was. From that day on I put flowers on, swept it, made sure that it was clean.’ That’s commendable but hardly very long. And it was recorded before he met Walker.
I am not the only one to wonder whether Tony has been doing this for half or all of his life. Local journalists who have written about the Mi Amigo over the years, have never met him.* By his own admission he never turned up over the years for the annual service at the memorial on the anniversary of the crash, which seems odd.
His devotion was missed by the Friends of Porter Valley, who tidy up the park, including the memorial. I was told: “We had not come across Tony before Dan Walker brought him to everyone’s attention. We have undertaken some volunteer work day activities at and around the memorial over the years but presumably not at the time or times Tony has been there.”
Tony’s work at the memorial might have gone unnoticed but for that chance meeting with Walker, who stopped to talk.
Walker tweeted excitedly on January 2: “Just met an amazing man in Endcliffe Park. Tony Foulds was an 8-year-old playing in he park when a US plane crashed in February 1944. He has diligently maintained the memorial ever since. He was planting new flowers. What a man. I’m in bits.”
Perhaps if Walker had been less in bits he would have carried out basic journalistic checks.
For a start, the memorial wasn’t put up until 1969 – a quarter of a century after the event.
He could have interviewed the expert on the crash, David Harvey, author of the definitive account, ‘Mi Amigo – The Story of Sheffield’s Flying Fortress.’ It was published in 1997 after four years of research.
Harvey would have told him the story of the plane avoiding the children was an ‘urban legend’ which first emerged in the 1990s. “There is no factual evidence to support or corroborate this story,” he writes in his book.
Harvey recalls Walker messaging him on Facebook on January 23, well after the story was aired on TV, but not following up. The two men have not spoken.
Harvey points out none of the newspaper articles at the time mentions the children or Tony. He writes that if the pilot had swerved to avoid the children the nose of the Mi Amigo should have been pointing uphill. In fact, eye witness reports and photographs show it pointing down. “It could not have been trying to make the infamous belly landing.”
It has since emerged that the plane had circled the city for about an hour and tenders from the National Fire Service had been standing by.
Far from attempting to make a belly landing the Mi Amigo had suddenly spiralled down out of the sky. Tony’s story is at odds with eye witness reports.
Not long after Walker’s report the BBC began getting calls which threw doubt on Tony’s story. But the flypast had been arranged, the BBC had booked the Endcliffe Park Cafe as its headquarters for the live broadcast, thousands were going to turn up.
Local and regional newspapers were also informed. ‘At this stage, having assessed all of the material presented to me by one of my best journalists, I am not minded to publish,’ one executive told me.
I met Tony at the memorial, now covered with wreathes and flowers, and asked him about the November 2018 video, made before he became a celebrity, in which he said he had been tending it for two years.
He said this was the point at which he had decided to give the monument “a bit of colour.”
He insisted he had been attending the site since 1953, at the age of 17, when he had realised the full significance of what had happened. When I pointed out the monument had not been erected until 1969 he claimed there had been “a hole in the ground and a plaque.” He also went around sprinkling flowers.
Author Harvey, who records in his book that the memorial came about through the efforts of Bert Cruse of the RAFA, says this “is the first time I have heard of a plaque prior to the erection of the RAFA stone in 1969.”
At this point in our conversation Tony was getting agitated. Asked how he reconciled his account of the attempted belly landing with eye witness reports in the book of the plane spiraling down he then agreed it had “plummeted,” seemingly contradicting himself.
Tony made clear he did not agree with Harvey’s book. He stressed he himself had been an eye witness and turned away to meet his fans.
But I was left with questions: Why were Tony’s own recollections of the crash so at variance with others and of the evidence? Why had so few encountered him before Walker?
Perhaps only Tony knows the answer.
*Since this post was first written an article in The Star from February, 2018, has come to light with Tony retailing the same account. His claim was reported but not verified against the paper’s own records nor with Harvey’s Mi Amigo book.