Had he been on that bus, he may have died.
Chris Mayer, Executive Director of the Military Museum of North Florida, points to a powerful picture of a double-decker bus peering from the rubble of Balham High Street in London following a German air raid. “My aunt says she wanted to go to the zoo. And I said, “Yeah, I’d LOVE to go to the zoo,”’ Mayer reminisces in a thick Cockney accent.
Despite the bombing, life continued in London during the Battle of Britain. “We got to the bus depot and there are these 8 buses out in front. This particular bus is a London double-decker. [It] holds 73 people, but we were 76. 73 people in front of us got on the bus. About half an hour to three-quarters of an hour into our journey… aircraft…the bombers come up Balham High Street and dropped… bombs. There were 9 people killed, 24 injuries. I could have been one.”
“We wondered why the bus had got diverted,” the 81-year-old Veteran recalls, “And as we went past, we could see what had happened. We were shocked, but we still continued on to the zoo and we had a damn good time! But we had the memory of this.”
Born on London’s East End in 1937, Mayer was only two-years-old when World War II officially commenced on September 1, 1939. Next September marks the War’s 80th anniversary. Yet Green Cove Spring’s Military Museum of North Florida makes it seem as if these events happened only yesterday.
The museum rests on a quiet corner of what was once Lee Field, a World War II Navy base boasting 30,000 sailors and Marines and serving as the main training base for Hellcat Aircraft. Knowledgeable volunteers, mostly veterans of various U.S. engagements, happily share war stories and show visitors around. “I can experience it to you because I was there, I’ve done it, I’ve seen it,” says Mayer, who survived the Battle of Britain and the Blitz. “I can always put my money where my mouth is.”
“We actually have a photograph there courtesy of Times Magazine of my house when it was bombed,” Mayer says. In the photo, workers shovel and load rubble from what was once a row house into a truck. Wall-papered walls remain where bedrooms once stood. “We got bombed out. Bombs ripped through apartment houses, built in Dicken’s time. The Jerry (Germany) dropped 4 bombs, which were 250 kilos, and it destroyed our house. And our shelter saved us because we were on the ground.”
The museum contains a replica of the Anderson Shelter where Mayer and his family lived for 56 nights. The small bomb shelter was buried four feet underground behind their home and covered with a layer of dirt. Mayer recalls the vegetable garden his family grew on top to supplement their rations. “This is an exact replica of the shelter and of the bunk bed we slept in,” Mayer says. “My mum and dad would sleep on the bottom and my brother and myself would sleep on the top. There were 1.5 million of [these shelters] produced. They were made from 16 segments. A truck would pull up and dump all of it on the sidewalk. You get on with it and build it. It saved our lives!”
From his family’s collection of gas masks to his father’s Air Raid Warden helmet, an aluminum bell crafted from shot-down bombers or the family’s ration books, Mayer’s artifacts and stories are as numerous as they are fascinating. As a young boy, Mayer joined thousands of Londoners in collecting shrapnel—or Hard Rain—from the streets. Many of his treasures are on display. “These are actual items from a crashed Spitfire,” Mayer says. “That’s the compass. That’s the altimeter, how high you fly. And that’s the speedometer.”
He recalls watching the Battle of Britain with his Aunt. “You’ve got a good view of what was happening. This Spitfire was chasing a German bomber and we heard machine guns—tat-tat-tat– like that. And we actually watched the trail of this going into the German aircraft and we watched the German aircraft come down. It came down a mile and three quarters from where we were watching it.” Mayer and his Aunt rode their bikes to investigate, arriving before the police. “I witnessed the dead crew. I was only three and a half at the time, that’s why it stuck with me. It was something you lived with.”
Photos by James Brown Jr.
After a stint in the Royal Marines and a career in mechanical engineering, Mayer retired to NE Florida with his wife of 56 years, Dorothy, to live near his grown son. Mayer has been involved with the Military Museum since it began, “When my friend said, ‘We’re starting a museum,’ I told him, ‘Count me in.’ So that’s what we’ve done.”
Photos by James Brown Jr.
The Military Museum of North Florida, located on SR-16 at 1 Bunker Ave. in Green Cove Springs, is open Thursday-Saturday (10-3) and Sunday (11-4). Admission is free, though donations are what allow the museum to expand its collection. Renovations are underway to engage visitors in a chronological journey through North Florida’s military history. This Quonset Hut Museum may not be huge, but the stories alone are worth the trip.