Return To East Anglia

PrintPrintEmailEmail

“Not as many as you’d think. It’s nice to see people who are interested. This field is near to my heart. Actually, a lot of people in this area are rather sentimental about the field,” he said, pointing to several rotting huts. Parachutes had been dried in one; another had held dead bodies. Both are on the verge of collapse. A dilapidated strip of the perimeter road heads north, crosses what’s left of the original main runway, then turns west and peters out in back of the Wallow farm. A runway, once 150 feet wide, has been cut to the width of a suburban driveway and is used as a service road for farm equipment. The control tower was home to an elderly widow until her death a year or so ago. Hidden by trees at the end of a narrow road, it sits abandoned across from a Cash ‘n Carry store.

With its narrow streets and half-timbered houses, Lavenham, ten miles southeast of Bury on Al 141, is a superbly intact medieval town. At the foot of High Street is the Swan Inn. Its cozy pub would look familiar to veterans of the 487th BG, whose base a couple of miles northwest of town occupied the old David Alston farm. But then, the Swan would look familiar to veterans of the Hundred Years War. It’s been here since the fourteenth century. The proprietor will give you directions to the old base and even phone young John Pawsey, David Alston’s grandson, to let him know you’re coming.

Though there hasn’t been a military aircraft on the Alston field since August 1945, its runways and tower, like Miss Havisham’s lonely manor house and wedding cake, are virtually intact, though shabby. Pheasants and rabbits scamper across the idle runways of one of the most perfectly preserved wartime bases in England. Lt. Col. Beirne Lay once commanded this field, pacing the same balcony of the same tower on which I stood. After the war he went to Hollywood and wrote a great motion picture based on his time here, Twelve O’Clock High.

Most bases were built on land owned by local farmers, who were compensated by the government.
 

As the sun set, six thousand feet of main runway lay before me. On Christmas Eve 1944 Brig. Gen. Frederick Castle lifted off from this very concrete to lead the climax of the air war against Germany. More than two thousand bombers and seven hundred fighters took part in the largest air armada ever assembled by the 8th Air Force. General Castle, who never returned from that sortie, became the highest-ranking officer to win the Congressional Medal of Honor. His portrait hangs in the Swan Inn.

“I run this farm with my uncle,” John Pawsey told me. Pawsey’s probably not much over thirty, but he has a sense of the history over which he has custody. “Did you know that the concrete on the runways is worth six thousand pounds an acre now?”

“No, I didn’t. Then why not sell it?”

“Well, it’s a lot of work,” he said, “and crops don’t grow well for several years.”

“Then your reasons are practical, not sentimental.”

“Not really,” he admitted. “My grandfather loves the field and tower and what they represent. I love them too. I wouldn’t want to wipe it away. We’ve done some patchwork on the runways to keep them in shape, but no restoraion. We may do a full restoration on the tower one day. But we’ll never destroy it.”

The first 8th Air Force field I reached that had actually been turned into a museum was Thorpe Abbotts, five miles east of Diss, where the 100th BG was based. Part of the service road leading through Sir Rupert Mann’s farm to the tower is the actual perimeter track and crosses a fragment of the original main runway. The tower itself is superbly restored and houses one of the few tower museums in East Anglia. It’s flanked by several large Nissen huts, including a former officers’ bar or PX, which is open on Saturday and Sunday afternoons.

About seven miles north of Thorpe Abbotts the runways of the old 445th BG at Tibenham, where James Stewart commanded the 703d Squadron of B-24 Liberators in 1944, are still in place—even active. The Norfolk Glider Club paid 250,000 pounds for the field, uses it often, and maintains it well. Piper Cubs now fly gliders like kites off the runways.

“Did you know the old tower was haunted?” said the flying instructor John Ayers. “A lot of people saw them —you know, American fliers walking around the tower at night. There were people who wouldn’t go near the place.” He didn’t say whether they were friendly ghosts or not. No matter; the tower was torn down in 1978. Today an unghostly orange windsock waves in its place. About two hundred feet east a black marble memorial plaque stands on a concrete island.

The Railway Pub is about two miles from the base. Only freight trains rattle past now. The last passenger service ended fifteen years ago, and the station across the street is long gone. But it was in this pub, not the station, where the London-bound men of the 445th waited for their leaves to begin. “If you were a flier,” the pilot Dan Coonan told me later, “all you ever saw of the local town was the train station.”