Return To East Anglia

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Three of MacGregor’s crew were killed, and his navigator broke his back. “You have to write an official transcript,” he said, “but I had such a tremendous sense of guilt over those three guys it took me forty-three years to do it. Finally, last year, I completed it. Now I can talk about it.”

 

There was no pattern to the stories that afternoon. The gunner Rawlin O’Leary went down on August 1, 1944, in France on his very first mission; George Arnold, on his third. Both became POWs. In September 1944 Al Ball stayed behind the day the rest of his crew was lost. He found three of them years later in a cemetery in the Ardennes. Yet Otto Kramer flew thirtyfour missions and never aborted or lost a man or got a scratch.

Many men who came back have the sense that they’ve lived on time borrowed from those who died.
 

Many of the men who were here had the disturbing sense that they had lived on time borrowed from the ones who were not. “As a POW I had a lot of time to think about fate,” said Rolland Webber, who was liberated at Danzig and joined the American lines on a Russian tank. “As an engineer I tried to look at fate as a machine and find the combination of factors that made it favor some and not others. You know—character, education, habits, ethics, everything. I never found it.”

He never found it because fate works outside character, in league with hidden allies. For example, the crew of the 379th BG that returned to its base at Kimbolton one evening with eleven unexploded shells in its tank no doubt congratulated itself on some great luck. But was it fate? Or was it the fact that those shells had been made by forced labor in occupied Czechoslovakia? When the tech crew broke them open, ten were as empty as a football. And the eleventh contained a note of apology—in Czech: “This is all we can do for you now.”

Later in the afternoon the men of the 390th explored the rest of the base by bus. About a mile west of the tower, remnants of the original headquarters were still visible. Projector windows on the back wall are all that identify what was the camp movie theater. White plastic sheets that had patched the roof hung from the ceiling of the dilapidated mess hut and moved in the wind like lazy ghosts.

Someone peered across the mud and stench of a pigsty and spotted the vestige of a blackboard with a few chalk markings still visible. This pigsty was the command briefing room, where mission orders were once received from 8th Air Force headquarters at High Wycombe. After tea on the neighboring Moat Farm we walked through the remains of the 571st Squadron barracks. Most of the buildings remain. The words ORDERLY ROOM and MAIL ROOM are still faintly embossed in the doors. The shower is about three hundred feet from the barracks, a long walk on a winter morning in East Anglia. “The floors were so cold,” said the navigator Bob Hensen, “you’d get dressed standing on your bed.”

On Friday the buses pulled up to hangar number three at the Imperial War Museum at Duxford. Inside is the Mary Alice, a B-17G that was built in 1944 but never saw combat. It’s on permanent exhibit, and that day it was opened up to the men of the 390th. Jim Horan and Henry Ferez took turns squeezing into their old places in the ball turret. Others walked the plank over the bomb-bay doors. “How did we ever fit in here?” someone asked. “Yeah,” said another, “it’s shrunk.”

More than anything else, this tough old khaki bucket (and the 12,730 other B-17s built from 1935 to 1945) lies at the heart of what the war was about for a flier. The B-17 could do incredible things. In 1944 one took off from Bassingbourn and landed in Belgium—with no crew. After a direct hit the crew had bailed out. Still, the plane not only continued to fly when the fuel ran out but actually landed itself intact—all on automatic pilot. Ray Galceran said his B-17 once landed with more than 480 holes in it; it was patched and flew the next day.

The B-17 had no jet walk to coddle you aboard. You grabbed the handles at the forward hatch and pulled yourself up into the fuselage. A half-century ago these men slid gracefully through the motions in seconds. Today they tried one more time. But neither the plane nor their own bodies showed them mercy. They are, as the Brits like to say, a bit long in the tooth. But they can laugh at themselves, too, because when it counted, they could do it, and that’s all that matters. The next day the 390th left for London and the flight back to America.