Return To East Anglia

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From 1941 to 1945 the biggest aircraft carrier in the North Atlantic was England. Once the U.S. 8th Air Force arrived in 1942, a new field was started every three days. By war’s end there were more than 700 airfields spread across the country; the 8th had built 130 of them. Enough concrete had been slathered across cornfields and cow pastures to pave four thousand miles of highway—all in an area about the size of Vermont. “There were so many airfields,” one pilot, Ray Galceran, recalls, “you could cut your engines at ten thousand feet and take your choice. Land anywhere.” Most of the bases were concentrated in the rural countryside of East Anglia, that broad peninsula of Suffolk, Norfolk, Essex, and Cambridgeshire that presses into the North Sea like a thumb.

Today this bucolic land, still green with the memories of the men who served on it, is to the U.S. Air Force what Normandy, Midway, and Iwo Jima are to the lore of the Army, Navy, and Marines. This may be why an East Anglian from Lavenham or Bury St. Edmunds might first draw a deep breath before he talks about the men of the 8th, and speak with emotion when he does. Every one of these American fliers is honored as a hero, even if he never did another decent thing in his life. It was enough that these men once went to Germany in the frigid bellies of B-17s and that some came back and some didn’t.

Today the bucolic land is still green with the memories of the 8th Air Force men who served there.
 

“I Was five or six years old in 1944,” says Ian Hawkins, who lives near Framlingham and has written a couple of books about those days. “We were used to the sound of American bombers. Paid no more mind to them than we did to the sound of a tractor engine. But I remember one day hearing an unearthly roar so loud I could feel floorboards jump under my feet. I ran outside and looked up. I’d never seen anything like it. More than a thousand B-17s were rendezvousing in a black cloud that just kept coming and coming. Imagine! Four thousand engines, five million horsepower. It’s something the world will never see again.”

No American or East Anglian can think seriously about B-17s today without feeling the tug of their great purpose and destiny. They were the twofisted tin cans that tore the roof off a deranged empire. When they swarmed over occupied Europe, people blessed them. One day several hundred roared across Holland, according to Rex Alan Smith in his book One Last Look, and a little girl cried in fear. Her father put his arm around her, took her hand, and looked up. “Listen to it, Helene,” he told her. “It’s the music of angels.”

So you throw your imagination up into the silent skies of East Anglia, and sure enough, there they are—five million white horses galloping across the winds of England to the rescue of a kidnaped civilization. “We would come into these small communities in huge numbers,” says Dan O’Dell, a pilot in the 390th now living in Houston. “We were different from the English. Noisy, a little rowdy. But after they’d see our planes go out in the morning and come back at night—always more going out than coming back—they started calling us ‘our boys.’” Any American who travels to England in search of the 8th must understand this sense of pride. Otherwise the derelict old hangars, towers, and Nissen huts that spot the land will have no meaning.

East Anglia is much the same open landscape today it was when Roman legions first arrived two thousand-odd years ago. Outside Ipswich, Norwich, or Cambridge there is nothing even remotely urban about this loosely populated farm country. Roads ramble over the soft rolls of the country from one little town to another. A pub is never far away, and its floorboards creak when you enter; ancient wood beams sag overhead.

Little you see today suggests what once went on here. The clues are subtle and may be overlooked from the ground. The air bases are not always apparent. Signs rarely announce their presence, and usually no main road will lead you to them. But then, they weren’t intended to stand out. And now accumulations of time and neglect have further camouflaged their remains. You may spot a patch of bleached concrete, for instance, lying disembodied on the edge of a bean field. If wedges of grass and weeds push up between its slabs, if weather has eroded its veneer of bituminous binding and chipped away at its edges, if only a pocked undersurface of gravel and stones remains, you may be looking at the remains of a bomber runway.

Or you may spot a neglected storage shed with some farm equipment inside. Look carefully. If it’s a Quonset hut, half swallowed up in underbrush, its corrugated metal skin rusted through, you may have come upon the remains of an 8th Air Force barracks hut or station office.

By June 1944 East Anglia held forty-four 8th Air Force heavy bomber bases for B-17 Flying Fortresses and B-24 Liberators and another fifteen for P-47 and P-51 fighters. (The 9th Air Force, also based in East Anglia, was a smaller tactical force with separate fields.) A few bases were inherited from the Royal Air Force (RAF). Most were built on private land owned by local farmers, who were compensated by the government.

Each base was known by the name of the nearest town with a train station. Today’s maps can take you to the towns but rarely onto the service roads that lead to the bases’ remains. For these you must ask locally. And when you find someone who knows, you may get a few stories too. At Kimbolton you might hear that Jimmy Doolittle, who led the first American bombing raid over Tokyo in 1942, was nearly killed when a B-17 almost demolished the control tower. At Polebrook you might hear that Maj. Clark Gable once filmed Combat America here for the Air Force. Or at Molesworth, which is now an active NATO base a few miles north of Kimbolton, you may learn that one of the first journalists to fly a mission with the 8th took off from here. He was a young UP man named Walter Cronkite. Three people at Tibenham told me that the actor James Stewart was based here with the 445th Bomb Group (BG).

 

The buildings that made up a heavy bomber base—workshops, barracks huts, latrines, hospital, fusing buildings—were not just slapped onto the topography. They were built into it, and for good reason. East Anglia is no White Sands outback. By some primeval snafu of geography, the most strategically located strike points to the Continent in 1942 also happened to occupy the richest, greenest, most productive farmland in England. So bomber bases and croplands coexisted, even intermingled. Each base had three 150foot-wide runways that formed a triangle. A perimeter road encircled them, although its path was anything but a circle; it rambled around barns, trees, houses, roads, slopes, even an occasional castle. Each base took only the land it needed. Farmers often worked adjacent to active runways.

Beyond the perimeter were the support buildings. They were usually widely dispersed to deny enemy planes a good target. The hangars stood only thirty-nine feet high; control towers were about half that height. They were bland and standardized, with a balcony off the second floor and sometimes a glass watch office on the roof. Barracks were organized by squadron and woven almost invisibly into the landscape. There were ten men to a crew, as many as eighteen planes to a squadron, and four squadrons to a group, plus spares and support personnel. At any given time almost thirty-two hundred men and a few women lived in these self-contained villages.

Last June I joined the members of the 390th Bomb Group when they returned to their old field outside Framlingham. Before I reached Framlingham, though, I undertook my own private search for the 8th.

Because the first two bases I visited were thoroughly adapted to new uses, they were definitely not typical. Stansted, once home of the 344th BG, is now a commercial airport thirty miles north of London just off the Mil. The old control tower is still in place and active, although several awkward add-ons partly conceal its original core. A memorial plaque had been installed in the main terminal, but during a recent revamping it was mislaid. No one knew where it was. Stansted is too busy with its present to think about its past.

Another twenty miles up the Mil is the magnificent Imperial War Museum at Duxford. An airfield during the First World War and used as a fighter base by the RAF and the 8th in the Second, in 1971 it became a museum that houses one of the largest collections of World War II aircraft in Europe.

Ten miles north of Duxford on a broad thirty-acre slope along Madingley Road lies the American Military Cemetery at Madingley, a tiny village just west of Cambridge. There are 3,811 Americans buried here, 24 of them unknown. An occasional rose lies at the base of a marble marker, though fewer now than a generation ago, as the personal links between living and dead dwindle. A 472-foot Wall of Remembrance bears the names of 5,125 men, all missing in action.

 
 

East from Cambridge on the A45 about three miles past Bury St. Edmunds is Rougham, where the 94th BG was based. Here scraps of the field remain, scattered around like ancient ruins. The base gym sits just south of the highway in a small clearing. “A bunch of hippies live there now,” a farmer told me with little pleasure. The main part of the base—or what’s left of it—is on the north side of the A45. I pulled into the parking lot of the BOCM-Silcock Company, which processes and makes building materials, and asked if anyone knew about the old 94th base.

“Sure,” said Terry Bray, the company’s administrative manager. “I used to come up after school and watch the aircraft. Saw a couple of disasters too.”

“Do a lot of people come by asking about the base?”

“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.”

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.”

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.

Maybe they’ll be back. Other reunion groups are coming to East Anglia. So are their sons and daughters—more every year, before it’s too late. Because the 8th Air Force didn’t build these fields to be monuments. They built them because a homicidal manic was loose in the world and had to be stopped. And when the job was done, that was that. Today the Mighty 8th is headquartered near Shreveport, Louisiana, at Barksdale Air Force Base. As for the airfields it left behind, they are at war with nature, time, and commerce, as they sink into the earth or are ripped up for salvage. One way or the other, East Anglia will reclaim its ancient title over these lands. But it won’t soon forget the 8th or the 390th.