Sudbury: American link to a Sudbury hero

A story of heroism during a Zeppelin raid on Sudbury in 1916 has linked the town with a family in the United States.

Sgt Charlie May carried an unconscious man from a blazing house during the terrifying raid ... and then ran back inside to carry an unexploded bomb out into the street.

He was awarded the Military Medal for his breathtaking bravery.

Now Sgt May's grandson Christopher has contacted Sudbury Museum Trust from his home in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Dr May had been browsing the Museum Trust's Caught on Camera archive website. Among the dozens of fascinating pictures from Sudbury's past is one of the devastation caused in East Street by the Zeppelin raid.

Val Herbert, press officer for the museum trust, said 30-year-old Sgt John Charles "Charlie" May was stationed in Sudbury with a battalion of the City of London Rifles.

A German airship dropped a string of incendiary bombs across the town during a night-time raid.

"Several landed in the East Street area – killing five people. Others hit buildings in Melford Road, including No 22, Orford House, where Sgt May and his men were billeted," she said.

"It crashed through the roof, hitting the bed of a sleeping rifleman, setting both bed and room ablaze.

"Sgt May dashed into the house, carried the unconscious man to safety and then bravely went back into the smoke-filled room to retrieve the bomb which he carried out into the street."

The young rifleman survived and Sgt May was badly affected by the blaze for some time afterwards.

He was awarded the Military Medal for gallantry in saving life "at great personal danger to himself."

The citation now belongs to his grandson Dr May, who made contact with the museum trust through Caught on Camera at sudburysuffolk.co.uk/photoarchive.

"By all accounts Charlie May was an interesting character," Mrs herbert added.

As a teenager he trod the boards, billed as "the Boy Comedian of North London", appearing at music halls including the Hackney Empire.

By the time he enlisted in the Army, in 1914, he was a travelling salesman in the clothing trade. He was soon promoted to sergeant and later became a company sergeant major, ending, the war as a second lieutenant having been recommended for a commission in 1917.

"After the war, he settled in Billericay, Essex, with his young wife and built a successful business in the East End clothing trade, owning his own factory and earning all the trappings of success including a chauffeur and a seaside home at Clacton."

Charlie served in the Home Guard in the Second World war and his son John joined the RAF. John was sent to Arizona for pilot training – where he met a rancher's daughter who eventually became his wife.

They settled in England, but emigrated to the US in 1965, months after Charlie's grandson, Christopher May, was born.

The old soldier died peacefully at the age of 72, suffering from the chronic breathing problems caused by being gassed in the trenches and perhaps by his exposure to the incendiary smoke in Sudbury.

What he felt about winning the medal died with him. His grandson said he almost never spoke of the Great War, except to say he heartily hated it.

As for the medal itself, its whereabouts are uncertain. It is believed to have been given to one of Charlie's sisters.