SAAF Memorial service held despite vandalism

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The annual South African Air Force Memorial service has been held at the Bays Hill memorial, north of the Air Force Mobile Deployment Wing, formerly known as Swartkop Air Force Base, despite extensive vandalism done last year.

The memorial remembers flyers of the South African Air Force (SAAF); Azanian People’s Liberation Army (APLA); Bophutatswana Air Force; Ciskei Defence Force Air Wing; Umkhonto we Sizwe; Transkei Defence Force Air Wing and the Venda Defence Force Air Wing.

National President of the SAAF Association (SAAFA), Colonel (ret) Mike Louw, described last year’s attack of the memorial by vandals, in which the stone naming the former TBVC states and the Non-Statutory Forces was broken off, and electrical cables, wiring, lights and other equipment were stolen. He said: ”The main distribution box was destroyed, all the circuit-breakers stolen, the cables stolen so there was no power whatsoever.”

Even worse, there was some desecration: ”Some of the niches at the Wall of Remembrance were desecrated.” Fortunately, none of the niches which contained service members’ ashes were damaged.

Louw said it was initially thought that the memorial service would have to be relocated, possibly to a hangar at the Deployment Wing, but thanks to cooperation between SAAFA and the Air Force, the memorial went ahead despite having to use generator power.

He explained further: ”This ground is sacred to us, it’s sacred to the memory of the people we’ve lost over the years, and this is where we have the Flame of the Unknown Airman.” The SAAF Memorial is also important in terms of the Air Force’s heritage.

The Mobile Deployment Wing provides security for the site, but does not have sufficient manpower to cover all hours, because there are strategic sites on the base that enjoy a higher priority than the memorial, but the SAAF Association was in talks with the base officer commanding to work out a plan to secure the memorial.

Louw added that SAAFA was working with the base to allow next-of-kin and the public to visit the memorial site on weekends. This, however, will be done under supervision. He said the Military Police had opened a case.

The memorial service opened with a flypast and marching on of the SAAF colours. During the service, three flypasts were performed, each with a single aircraft, reflecting the SAAF’s financial situation: First a Harvard trainer in dayglo colours, then at the end of the two-minute’s silence a single Gripen; and finally an Alouette III from the base museum. The SAAF band and choir performed admirably, with some moving songs for those present.

The sermon by SAAF Chaplain, Colonel Thibedi Ndala, paid tribute to the airmen of the past, quoting from the passage of the New Testament, the Book of Hebrews, chapter 11,  known as the chapter of the Heroes of Faith. He said: “This is who soldiers are and what they live and die for…  People who understand what faith is, are soldiers.  It was not about themselves, it was about us sitting here today.  They knew that freedom is not free.  They died because of their hope for a better tomorrow. That is why we celebrate and commemorate them.”

Lieutenant General Wiseman Mbambo, the current Chief of the Air Force, laid the first wreath.  Wreaths were also laid by the defence attaches of Brazil and the United States as well as SAAFA, veterans organisatons and families of SAAF members.

An interesting fact was that a former Chief of the SAAF, Lieutenant General Denis Earp, passed away five years ago on this day after attending the memorial. He was a veteran of 2 Squadron, flying F-51 Mustangs in Korea, where he was shot down and held as a prisoner of war for 23 months.

The SAAF Memorial can be summarised by another scripture quotation found in the chapel: Samuel 1:23:

They were swifter than eagles,

They were stronger than lions.