Return To East Anglia

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At Ipswich I finally met up with the eighty-one members (plus wives) of the 390th BG at the Ipswich Moat House. This was the third reunion in East Anglia for the 390th, and they all happened because of John Quinn, a stocky Arizonan whose knack for storytelling is surpassed only by his fierce determination to locate lost members of the group. Quinn, who had been a sergeant with the 390th during the war, handled the stateside arrangements for this tour. Roy Handforth, an East Anglian friend of the 8th, managed the local logistics.

After dinner there was a pub crawl that ended appropriately at the Flying Fortress Pub and Free House. Once a private home, its front yard became part of the perimeter track for the Bury St. Edmunds field during the war. A fragment of the perimeter is now the parking lot, and the pub sign hanging out on Mount Road is made from the aluminum skin of a B-17. Inside, the owner Keith Allchin has filled his walls with photos and 8th Air Force memorabilia.

There is something astonishing about this congenial reunion that no outsider would ever guess. It is this: With a couple of exceptions, none of these men actually knew each other—or even met—during the war. Men in different squadrons had little contact. Men within a squadron may have served at different times. But it made no difference. These were members of an intimate secret society, founded at Framlingham in July 1943. Something like seventy-eight hundred men passed through the 390th by the time the war ended in August 1945. Its book of common prayer was the group memory. Each one here was a proxy for those who weren’t. When a man shook hands with a fellow member of the 390th, he was face-to-face with the great adventure of his life.

Few of the men at the reunion had known each other, but all were joined by the group’s history.
 

“You can’t imagine how close I feel to these guys,” said Dutch Biel, a former combat photographer who was in East Anglia for the first time since 1945. “I don’t think anyone could conceive how great that is.”

“The whole experience is something you feel like sharing only with someone who was there,” said Dan Coonan, “regardless of whether you knew him or not. When you’re in a plane getting shot at, you become very close to your associates. You worry about them, though you try not to show it. We tried to hide the fear then.”

The next morning two busloads of men and their wives traveled the thirty or so miles from Ipswich to Percy Kindred’s farm between Framlingham and Parham, where the heart of their old field still lies. This includes the original control tower, now a remarkable museum. (Open Sundays from Easter through the first Sunday in October, on bank holidays from 1:00 to 6:00 P.M., and other times by arrangement with Mr. Kindred.) And just south of the tower on the other side of the perimeter is the hangar where the Glenn Miller band played on August 23, 1944. It was the 390th’s two-hundredth mission against Germany. Two days later Paris was liberated.

As the buses approached the field, men pointed out vaguely familiar sights to their wives, who seemed to be trying hard to grasp what it was their husbands once did here. When the tower came into view, the men seemed more oriented in this oncefamiliar landscape. Lt. Rolland Webber said later he wept when he stepped off the bus. A wreath was laid at the west wall of the tower, and someone played recordings of the British and American anthems.

A surge of patriotism swept the little crowd. It was the kind of pride that made Americans shiver with emotion in the early forties—and cringe with embarrassment during Vietnam. Vietnam was discussed here. These men of the 8th couldn’t imagine their later counterparts ever meeting in Saigon or Da Nang thirty years from now. “It wasn’t a war history will honor,” said one. “It makes me sad for the brave men who died.”

The Sally B, one of only twelve airworthy B-17s left in the world, was supposed to fly over the Framlingham field this day. But it was being prepped for its role in a new movie, Southern Belle, being shot at Duxford. (One of the movie’s producers is Catherine Wyler, whose father, William Wyler, shot the Academy Award-winning The Memphis Belle for the Air Force in 1943.)

For the next two hours people mingled, talked, and remembered. The pilot Don MacGregor was startled to find photographs taken when his Pathfinder clipped a cluster of trees and crashlanded. It was the night of April 12, 1945—coincidentally, the day Franklin Roosevelt died. “I was coming in with a full bombload and twenty-eight hundred gallons of gas to lead a mission the next day,” he said. “At about two hundred feet from the runway, a Messerschmitt comes out of nowhere and opens up. It took out three and four engines and shot up a wing. I cut the power, pulled up the landing gear, and did a belly landing just past those trees.”