Veteran Ted, 87, ready to make an emotional return to RAF posting
War veteran Ted Hedges will recreate his maiden flight when he makes an emotional return to the far-flung island where he served with the RAF.
The 87-year-old has not been back to the Azores since he left in 1944 and will touch down on the same runway he helped to establish as a young flight engineer with the Coastal Command squadron.
His Lottery-funded trip will include a poignant visit to the Lajes cemetery where he will lay a wreath on the grave of a fallen comrade, Joseph Edouarc Roch Boudreault, who died just six weeks into their friendship.
'I'll be laying a wreath on behalf of his sister – we've stayed in touch for quite a few years now,' he said.
'Rocky, as I knew him, served with me in Coastal Command as a wireless operator/air gunner and died so very young.
'I never once thought that I'd have the opportunity to make this journey again and visit his last resting place. I'm most grateful to the Big Lottery Fund for giving me the means to do so.'
Mr Hedges, of Necton near Swaffham, always dreamed of flying as a child and it was 'a dream come true' when he joined the RAF on his 18th birthday in January 1942.
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After months of training on the ground, his first flight was from Cornwall to the volcanic Azores, in the North Atlantic, and his was the third plane to land on the makeshift runway in Lajes.
'Touching down on the same runway at the airfield I helped establish will be an emotional experience for me,' he said.
'When we first arrived there all those years ago everyone was involved in making it operational – even Air Vice-Marshal Bromet helped in laying metal planks as landing strips.'
The main danger facing Coastal Command aircraft stationed in the Azores was not the infamous U-Boats or enemy aircraft, but the often unpredictable weather conditions. Coming in to land after a long stint over the Atlantic was often as dangerous as the mission itself, he explained.
'I flew a total of 37 missions during my time in the Azores, providing protection to the convoys that shuttled across the Atlantic from Britain to America and vice-versa,' he said.
'Those ships were carrying cargoes vital to victory in the second world war and the U-Boats that patrolled below the surface were a real threat to the supply line.
'The men that sailed in the Merchant Navy were extremely brave to say the least – people should never forget that.
'Following orders from the convoy commanders, it was our job to escort them through some perilous stretches of water.
'We'd drop 'sonoboys' from the plane which allowed us to pinpoint the position of these German submarines using sonar technology.
'We could then launch homing torpedoes at the target with the intention of making clear the route ahead.'
Mr Hedges returned to the UK in July 1944 to train other RAF air engineers and continued to work in engineering after the war.
He married Kathleen 67 years ago and went on to have two sons and two grandchildren, but never forgot the friends who fought, and died, at his side.
His trip has been made possible by a �3,700 grant from the Big Lottery's Heroes Return 2 scheme, which helps second world war veterans, widows, spouses and carers to revisit the places where they served.
Mr Hedges was delighted when his funding application was successful, but struggled to find someone who was able to accompany him.
He mentioned his predicament in passing while visiting his wife at Iceni House care home in Swaffham and his prayers were answered when nurse Eva Jones volunteered.
Mrs Jones thought it was important that Mr Hedges should go and he will lay a wreath on behalf of all the staff at Iceni House.
'This trip would not be happening without Eva,' he added. 'I can't say how much I'm looking forward to it.'
More information and details of how to apply for a Heroes Return 2 grant are available on 0845 00 00 121 and online at www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/heroesreturn.