Finding Frances…Love Letters from a Flight Lieutenant

Written by his niece, Catherine Hutchin Harris, using recovered documents and original photographs, this book traces the life and dreams of Flight Lieutenant Eric Hutchin.

At the age of 17 — when Britain had been at war for two years, Germans had occupied the Channel Islands and London was being pounded by the Blitz — Eric left his youth in the English countryside to enlist in the Royal Air Force.  To learn to fly he journeyed to Falcon Field in Mesa, a miltary training base built in the Arizona desert and financed by Hollywood celebrities before the US entered World War II.  There, while food, clothing, gas and coal were increasingly rationed at home and the conscription age was extended to 45, Eric and his fellow cadets could casually dine on steak, pick oranges, eat their fill of eggs and milk fresh from the dairy.  They discovered Coca Cola.  They rode horses cowboy-style. They drove to Hollywood and drank beer in a night club with a movie star.  Eric had a camera, and he recorded it all. And while Baron von Richthofen’s Fliegerkorps VIII  established air superiority over most of Europe,  Eric Hutchin learned to fly the Spitfires and Typhoons that would ultimately protect his home front.

And he fell in love with Frances McKenzie.

Falcon Field offered the young pilot a key to the survival of Britain, but it also introduced the love he would carry with him through the war. When he completed his training and returned to ravaged Europe, Eric, now 19, began a correspondence with his beautiful 17-year-old American. Paper was a precious commodity, so he filled each page with sketches, reflections, playful asides to the censors and dreams of a future when he could see Frances again.  He wrote about everything – ice skating vs. roller skating, concentration camps, Dutch girls, the bombing of Tokyo, the death of a fellow pilot.

Though he couldn’t write about what he was doing, Flight Lieutenant Hutchin was flying fighters, both Typhoons and Spitfires. With courage and ferocity he joined the decimated ranks of young pilots keeping the Nazis from the shores of England. There weren’t many old pilots.  When Hitler was bombarding England with V-1 rockets, Eric and his squadron would fly their Spitfires out over the English Channel and, with great daring and precision, use the wingtips of their own aircraft to tilt the rockets and topple their gyros, disrupting the automatic pilot and deflecting them from their targets.  Then he’d land and write to Frances.

Frances kept all of Eric’s love letters.  Half a century after the armistice she gave them to his niece, Catherine Hutchin-Harris, who lives not far from Falcon Field.  Clever, eloquent, sometimes poignant, this is a personal, particular chronicle of one young man at war and his unfailing love for a young woman. But it is also a universal story — of human hope and triumph over the overarching forces that shape our lives and our dreams.

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