Returning a piece of history
After four decades, former NPD Chief Brierley returns flag to British Navy
It was Sept. 3, 1777, when American and British troops met at Cooch’s Bridge during Delaware’s only Revolutionary War battle.
On Wednesday, almost 240 years to the day, Americans and Brits met at the site once again — but for a much different purpose.
In a formal military ceremony, former Newark Police Chief Bill Brierley returned to the British people a flag that had been left in his possession four decades ago. The Union Jack had once flown over the HMS Sheffield, a British ship that sank during the Falklands War.
A contingent of U.S. Marines folded the flag and handed it to Brierley. He, in turn, passed it to Maj. Justin Bellman, a Marine who helped arrange the ceremony, and Bellman presented it to Commander Richard McHugh, the assistant naval attaché based at the British Embassy in Washington, D.C.
“It’s not my flag, but I’ve honored it over the years,” Brierley said. “I wanted it to go back where it belongs.”
The ceremony also featured a bell ringing to honor the 20 British sailors who died when the
Sheffield was hit. Wednesday’s event took place
inside the Pencader Heritage Museum, which occupies part of the Cooch’s Bridge Battlefield at the corner of Old Baltimore Pike and Route 72. Brierley is active in the Pencader Heritage organization and asked if the museum would host the event.
It was a twist of history the men who fought on that site three centuries ago likely could never have imagined: Two bitter rivals, who over time morphed into the strongest of allies, coming together in a show of brotherhood.
“There’s an unbreakable bond between the Royal Navy and the United States Navy,” McHugh said. “Today, the Royal Navy and the United States Navy work side-by-side.”
‘Captivated by Duncan Hines cake mix’
The bizarre story of how the flag came to be in Newark begins with a spate of international car thefts and ends with a suitcase full of Duncan Hines cake mix.
The year was 1974, and Newark was experiencing an increase in car thefts. Criminals were stealing luxury cars and shipping them overseas.
Brierley, who was four years into his tenure as chief, hosted the annual meeting of the the International Association of AutoTheft Investigators. Hundreds of police officers from around the world descended on Newark for the conference, which took place at the University of Delaware. Many of the officers stayed in local motels or UD dorm rooms, but Brierley housed two British officers and their wives at his home.
The chief had asked each of the international officers to bring their country’s flag to be displayed on stage. Most brought modest flags, but one of the British officers, Peter Byng, brought an enormous Union Jack measuring 4.5 feet by 9 feet. Byng’s brother was the commander of the British ship HMS Sheffield, and the flag had once flown over the ship.
“It was kind of a joke, but we hung it up,” Brierley recalled. “It overshadowed the others.”
While the officers participated in the conference, their wives were fascinated by the malls and large supermarkets here, Brierley said. They stocked up on Hershey bars, Levi jeans and other American products.
“They were absolutely captivated by Duncan Hines cake mix. They’d never seen such a critter,” Brierley said, adding the women bought a dozen or so boxes to take home. “They had all this loot. When it came time to go home, it didn’t fit in the suitcase.”
While packing, the Brits had to make some sacrifices.
“The cake mix and Hershey bars were more important than the flag,” Brierley said.
With that, the chief came into possession of a giant Union Jack.
20 lives lost aboard ship
Eight years later, war broke out in the Falkland Islands, and the flag took on a new, somber significance.
For 150 years, Britain had ruled the islands — located approximately 300 miles off the coast of South America — but Argentina also claimed the land. In the spring of 1982, the military junta ruling Argentina invaded the islands in a move many historians say was an attempt to rally the country and distract from an economic crisis.
In response, Britain sent a force of 28,000 troops and 100 ships to reclaim the islands.
On May 4, 1982, a missile fired from an Argentine fighter plane struck the
HMS Sheffield, the ship over which the British cop’s flag had flown a decade before. The strike killed 20 sailors aboard and injured another 24.
The ship, a type-42 guided missile destroyer, sank a few days later as it was being towed.
The war was over in 10 weeks, and Britain regained control of the islands. Over the course of the brief war, 655 Argentine troops, 255 British troops, and three residents of the islands were killed.
A ‘neat way’ to reach out to British people
For the past four decades, Brierley has kept the flag with a small collection of other military memorabilia at his home. He displayed it only once — when a group of British soccer players toured the Newark Police Department. He often thought about trying to return it to Great Britain.
“I don’t want to get corny, but that flag has to mean something to the families of those who died,” he said.
Brierley served in the Marines during the Korean War and said he knows the significance a country’s flag has for service members.
“Many times, I’ve reflected on what the flag on Iwo Jima meant to every Marine that served,” he said. “Those colors don’t run.”
A few months ago, someone with ties to Argentina asked Brierley if he would consider donating the flag to an Argentine military museum. The request rankled Brierley, who felt the flag shouldn’t go to the country that sank the ship.
“It would be an insult to the guys who died,” he said.
The request, though, prompted him to start looking for a way to get the flag back to its homeland. He quickly enlisted the help of Bill Conley a local historian and retired teacher who served in the Army Reser ves.
Conley reached out to Bellman, whose father is a former colleague of Conley, and Bellman in turn contacted a friend in the Royal Marines with whom he served in Afghanistan. The Royal Marine passed the request up his chain of command, and word eventually reached the British Embassy in Washington, which dispatched McHugh to Newark to receive the flag.
“It’s a neat way for the people of Delaware to reach out to the people of Britain,” Conley said.
McHugh said the Royal Navy will find an appropriate place to display the flag so that survivors of the
Sheffield can see it. “For us, it’s a very historic ship,” he said. “The opportunity to take the flag back is a real honor.”
U.S. Marines fold a British flag during a ceremony in which the flag was returned to the Royal Navy.
Maj. Justin Bellman (left), of the U.S. Marines Corps, passes a British flag to Commander Richard McHugh, of the Royal Navy.
Former Newark Police Chief Bill Brierley speaks Wednesday during a ceremony at which he returned a British flag to the Royal Navy.