By Hannah McFadyen
A man has been tending to a stranger’s grave for over 25 years after he realised there was no one else to look after it.
He came across the grave while visiting his grandmother’s and realised that the Australian Airman was lying at rest thousands of miles from home.
Wayne Hartshorne realised that the airman was just 21 when he died and began making sure that the grave was always well kept and adorned with flowers.
A greenkeeper by trade, Wayne seemed like the perfect man for the job and incredibly he’s carried on the tradition for a quarter of a century now.
The 52-year-old, from Cannock, West Mids, has since discovered the past of airman John Benjamin Burrows.
75 years on from the flight lieutenant’s death, he has been remembered on Australia’s armed forces day once again and Wayne is set to speak with the remaining family of the young airman.
Wayne Hartshorne, 52, said: “My Nan passed away in 1986 and I used to take my grandad down to tend her grave and I’d have a walk around.
“I came across John Benjamin of the Australian Airforce and I thought it was such a shame that he was resting thousands of miles away from his home.
“He was only 21 when he died and had been married for just six months – it was a tragedy.
“I’ve always made sure there was something flowery on that grave – winter spring and summer and I’ve trimmed the grass too.
“I wanted to make sure the grave was always presentable.
“On ANZAC day this year I had an Australian flight lieutenant Adam Gunthorpe visit the grave – he laid a wreath and saluted.
With the help of local historian group The Chase Project, Wayne discovered that the young airman had enlisted in Melbourne and on arriving in Britain, trained as a navigator.
The young man flew in Armstrong Whitworth Whitley bombers with the 297 Squadron – straight out of RAF Netheravon near Salisbury.
He married local woman Edna Marjorie Ruth Preece two years later in 1942 – they married in St. Luke church in Cannock.
Tragically, John would be laid to rest in that same church just six months later after a mission dropping propaganda leaflets over France.
The flight accident report states that his aircraft had come under heavy fire and the pilot suspected that the fuel system was damaged and on landing the plane hit the ground about a mile short of the aerodrome.
Both the pilot and John were killed, though three other crew members did survive.
Buried at Cannock Cemetery, on his headstone are the words ‘Still living, Still ours, Father and Mother’ – chosen by his parents, Alexander and Ada Burrows.
Knowing the background story of Warrant Officer Burrows has given even more meaning to Wayne’s trips to the cemetery.
He visits twice a month in winter and every week once the grass starts growing again.
Almost a century later, Wayne is set to speak to the John’s nieces and nephews.
“It’ll be a big thing to speak to them – having tended to John’s grave for so long I do feel I have a bit of a connection with him and it will be amazing to finally speak with his family.
“Making sure his grave is always presentable is my way of showing respect for a man who never go the chance to go back home.
“I have to go down anyway to visit my family’s graves and it’s just an hour out of my time – it’s my small way of saying thank you.
“Having someone from the royal Australian Airforce there was fantastic, he must’ve been the first person from Australia to visit in 75 years – it was very moving.
Richard Pursehouse runs military historical group, The Chase Project.
The 55-year-old said: “We’d met Wayne in Cannock Chase and we just got talking learned about how he was looking after this grave and whenever we saw him we’d ask him about how he was getting on with it.
“After a while we decided to look into it and from there it’s just sprung to life.
“We found out what had happened to the officer and we managed to track down the officers remaining family through facebook.
“We’re a military research/history group and we’re generally interested in these kinds of things.
“It’s about bringing a person’s story to life – these are real stories that people have lived through.”