RECOGNITION for an overlooked Darlington air hero is going to be raised in the House of Commons this week by the town’s MP.
On January 13, 1945, Pilot Officer William McMullen was returning to RAF Middleton St George on a training exercise when his Lancaster bomber caught fire.
His six man crew jumped to safety, but McMullen spurned the chance to follow them, saying: “No, there is only me for it. There are thousands down below.”
He successfully steered the blazing plane away from the houses at the east end of Darlington but was killed when it crashed in a fireball into fields off what is now McMullen Road.
Because it was a training exercise, McMullen, a member of the Royal Canadian Air Force, was not eligible for a bravery award – something that has rankled with generations of Darlingtonians who gather at the crash site on the anniversary of his death to mark his self-sacrifice.
William McMullen's name up in lights on the forthcoming business screens in Parliament this week
Now Peter Gibson has been allocated an adjournment debate in the Commons on Friday which he will use to tell McMullen’s story.
“I have been applying practically every week over the last 18 months and it has taken this long for me to be drawn out,” he said. “Some people might think that there are other more important matters, and I have been applying for debates on NHS dentistry in Darlington for instance, but I am fulfilling a commitment I made soon after I was elected to raise recognition for William McMullen – there must always be time found to record the heroic bravery of people like him.”
In 1945, McMullen was feted as a hero. Before the townspeople knew his identity, they called him “the Gallant Airman” and they raised money for his widow, Thelma, in Toronto and their six-year-old daughter, Donna Mae. However, the family returned it, saying that a town like Darlington would need it to recover from the war, and the money was presented to the Memorial Hospital. Darlington’s mayor, Cllr Jimmy Blumer, was thwarted by the nature of the exercise from gaining proper recognition for the airman, but wrote to Thelma saying: “Not only Darlington, but the whole of the district was stirred to profound admiration and gratitude which could not be expressed in words at this act of supreme sacrifice.
“For sheer self-sacrificing heroism, your husband's action will be remembered and honoured by the people of Darlington for years to come."
Mr Gibson said: “The purpose of the debate is to report the calls for some recognition and to tell the story of William McMullen so that it is there in Hansard for posterity. I am not expecting a substantive outcome although I am hopeful of a complimentary response from the Government minister at the Despatch Box.”
The debate starts at 2.30pm on Friday and can be watched at parliamentlive.tv
People gather at the memorial to Pilot Officer William McMullen to remember his sacrifice on January 13, 1945. Picture: David Thompson