In February 1976, columnist John Kelly's father and five other U.S. servicemen stationed in England celebrated the Bicentennial by rowing a boat across the Thames, re-creating George Washington's crossing of the Delaware.The story was covered in the Daily Mail. (Courtesy of John Kelly)

The word came down from the U.S. Embassy in London and it was clear: There were to be no excessive Bicentennial celebrations by American military personnel stationed in the United Kingdom.

Yes, the United States and Great Britain were allies, but over-the-top displays memorializing the events of 1776 — when a scrappy bunch of Colonials vowed to cast off the yoke of British oppression — were officially discouraged.

My father didn’t listen.

He’d been sent to England in 1974, a U.S. Air Force pilot who would spend the next three years as an exchange officer with the Royal Air Force, learning their ways, serving alongside them, flying their airplanes. At his first post — attending the RAF Staff College at a base called Bracknell, 30 miles west of London — a British officer gave Maj. Kelly a bit of advice: Be an American.

The Brits, he explained, liked it when Americans acted American: brash, rambunctious, refreshingly oblivious of sclerotic class distinctions.

There was a tradition of practical jokes among the officers who spent an academic year at the college, a place overseen by a commandant who had flown missions over Europe in World War II. During one class, an American student burst through the doors at the back of a packed lecture hall shouting, “The British are coming! The British are coming!”

He was riding a horse.

Now that was a prank.

The Staff College attracted officers from all over the world, primarily from former British Colonies on which the imperial sun had finally set. The flags of these nations hung in the Officers’ Club dining room, where each morning neatly pressed newspapers could be retrieved and read over tea or coffee served “NATO standard”: milk and two sugars.

On the Fourth of July in 1975, my father sneaked into the dining room early and replaced the dozens of disparate flags with the Stars and Stripes. Everyone had a jolly good laugh. My father was told to have the original flags back up by lunchtime.

This sort of thing was to be expected: national pride expressed with good-natured exuberance. Obviously, things would have to be ratcheted up for the Bicentennial.

My father was involved in many practical jokes that anniversary year. At his next post, RAF Brampton, outside Cambridge, he and two other American officers set off the fire alarm in the headquarters building on the Fourth of July. When the evacuees had assembled outside, they were invited to partake in a massive cake that said “Happy 200th Birthday.”

Noted the local paper: “Not even such a large company could polish it all off, however, and more than half the cake was available to be presented by the majors to the airmen’s mess.”

But the most elaborate prank had taken place several months earlier. On Feb. 18, 1976, my father, along with a U.S. Army officer named John Pritchard and four other USAF service men, assembled in London on the north side of the Thames, near the HMS Discovery, the three-masted ship that had gone to Antarctica with Scott and Shackleton. The ship had become a training vessel for the Boy Scouts, and the Americans helped themselves to a dinghy and four oars. They were going to celebrate George Washington’s birthday by re-creating the general’s crossing of the Delaware.

The police arrived and found six Americans in tricorn hats, wigs, breeches and shoes with silver buckles made from aluminum foil. An old-fashioned American flag was stapled to a broomstick.

Rather than stopping the prank, the bobbies simply insisted the Americans don life jackets and be accompanied by a police launch. The Yanks happily complied. Braving the bitter weather, and dodging traffic on the busy river, they rowed across the Thames, claimed the other side for America, then rowed back.

If they hoped this innocent stunt might escape the notice of the nervous nellies at the U.S. Embassy, they were mistaken. The next day the Daily Mail featured the exploit in its center spread, under a seven-column headline that read: “Keep calm, England! The damned Yankees are invading.”

The story, by Terry Coleman, began: “A man giving his name as George Washington, and claiming to be a general, yesterday crossed the Thames at London with a small band of insurgents and planted in the mud of the south bank a flag composed of a variety of stripes and stars.”

There was a photo in the Times of London, too. Thankfully, no punishment was meted out.

My father still has the yellowed newspaper clippings. He transferred his love of Britain — of being an American in Britain — to me.

And whenever I read that Daily Mail article from 40 years ago, I’m amused by the author’s closing line: “On the way back, the rebels were nearly run down by two Thames vessels, one called Royalty and the other called Revenge.”

Twitter: @johnkelly

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