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'Overpaid, oversexed and over here'
 
Posted on: Thursday, July 20, 2017 Category: Cultures
 
All that's left are ghostly traces. Nissen huts incorporated into farm buildings, runways pushing up through East Anglian soil. Outside the Suffolk village of Horham, near Diss, there's a patch of concrete where feet once jitterbugged to Glenn Miller and his Army Air Force Band. Suddenly I was hearing A String of Pearls among the sugar beet and cereals.

It was Alan Johnson who pointed out the place where the hangar stood in which Miller played in the late summer of 1944. Johnson knows because he was there - tucked just inside the hangar door, his little feet tapping. Now 80, he was seven when his village became a base for the 95th Bomb Group. 'We were a population of 100. Then 3,000 descended on us. But we were happy. Common cause.'

That 'common cause' became official 75 years ago this summer (July 4, US Independence Day - the date was carefully chosen) when US air crews took off from a base in Norfolk to carry out their first bombing raid against German targets. Between 1942 and 1946, as the Allies pushed back against Nazism, more than three million Americans passed through Great Britain.

Many served in the 8th US Army Air Force ('The Eighth in the East') which, in conjunction with the RAF, waged the strategic bombing campaign against Hitler (hitting military and industrial targets and also, lest we forget, killing hundreds of thousands of German civilians). There were some 60 US air bases in eastern England, from Essex in the south to Lincolnshire in the north, and this year executives of a putative new HBO mini-series - entitled The Mighty Eighth and backed by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks - have been scouting these old airfields for possible film locations.

Also this year tourist authorities from the Eastern counties have got together to promote the 75th anniversary of the so-called 'friendly invasion' of US servicemen, which brought not just game-changing firepower to our cramped little shores (a pamphlet entitled Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain pointed out that 'England is a small country, smaller than North Carolina') but chewing gum, swing music, greenbacks and libidos. 'Overpaid, oversexed and over here,' as the line went.

What must the people of Ipswich have made of the swashbuckling Col John 'Wild Bill' Crump, who smuggled his pet coyote, Jeep, over from Nebraska and took him on combat missions in the cockpit of his Mustang? The story of Wild Bill and Jeep (who was eventually run over) is told in the Control Tower of RAF Martlesham Heath, once home of the 356th Fighter Group, near Ipswich.

The Control Tower Museum is one among scores of sites associated with the American presence in East Anglia. They range from the Imperial War Museum Duxford to small, volunteer-run operations that survive on a potent mix of nostalgia and personal connections. The American veterans are a dwindling band but many of their families maintain a special relationship with the communities, such as Horham or Martlesham Heath, that welcomed these young men from places no less obscure: Kaleva, Michigan, Arpin, Wisconsin and thousands of other one-stoplight American towns.

Some 30,000 US air and ground crew were killed while serving in Britain in the Second World War. At the Cambridge American Cemetery at Madingley - which contains 3,812 sets of remains and memorialises more than 5,000 others on the Wall of the Missing, including Glenn Miller and JFK's elder brother Joseph Kennedy Jr - Suzie Harrison walked me among the young men (average age 22/23) who did not make it back.

The rows of crosses, and the occasional Star of David, fan like a baseball diamond from the flagpole. Each name is a story and Suzie, who works here as an 'interpretive guide', knows many. 'This is Donald Stockton and the story of two men whose lives were inextricably linked - the other being Walter Cronkite,' she said, pausing before Stockton's grave.

Cronkite went on to become a famous news anchor on US television but in 1943, as a young war reporter, he flew a combat mission over Germany he described as 'an assignment to hell' in Stockton's B17 Flying Fortress. 'Cronkite said the crew were like jigsaw pieces,' said Suzie. 'The glue was the captain and the one he flew with, Don Stockton, was, in Cronkite's words, 'the realest man I ever met'.'

When Stockton was fatally wounded on a subsequent mission Cronkite was on the tarmac at RAF Molesworth in Cambridgeshire as the B17 landed and the crew staggered out in tears. 'It was on that day that I learned that no one - not even soldiers and war correspondents - is too tough to cry,' Cronkite wrote. At the American Air Museum at IWM Duxford (wartime home of the 78th Fighter Group) there is plenty of Second World War hardware that once formed familiar silhouettes against East Anglian sunsets - a Liberator, a Mitchell, a Thunderbolt and a Mustang, and of course a B17 Flying Fortress, the workhorse of the American bombing campaign.

Following a year-long refurbishment, there's an additional emphasis on the stories - that word again - of individuals. The scope is imaginatively broad and includes women such as Elinor Otto, a 'Rosie the Riveter' who worked in an aircraft factory in California, and the pioneering reporter Virginia Irwin of the St Louis Post-Dispatch, who spent 'a year in the mud holes of England' before receiving official accreditation as a war correspondent. 'Quite an amazing woman - the first reporter into Berlin after D-Day,' said Esther Blaine, Duxford's PR Manager, as she pointed out Irwin's fur coat and suitcase.

My eye was also caught by portraits of African American servicemen by the Daily Express cartoonist Giles. Black Americans, many from the Deep South, were brought over to build the runways ('They weren't considered for frontline fighting roles because they may have become heroes - and that wasn't acceptable,' Suzie Harrison had told me as we walked round the American Cemetery). Carl Giles played jazz with them in pubs around Ipswich - but soon those pubs were off-limits on the orders of the American military, who tried to enforce the same 'Jim Crow' segregation laws as then pertained in the southern states.

'There was a pub called the Black Boy at Beccles - when the 'snowdrops' [Military Policemen] came to chuck the black servicemen out, the local people fought them off. They couldn't understand it,' said Huby Fairhead, who runs, on inexhaustible tanks of enthusiasm, the Norfolk and Suffolk Aviation Museum near Bungay. He bracketed the black engineers with other unsung personnel: 'Like spokes in a wheel. We'd have lost the war without them.'

The local people were also part of the effort, which accounts for the strong bonds that still exist between villages and faraway families. At Horham, one of the airfields from which the first daytime bombing missions over Berlin took off, 'Friends' of the 95th Bomb Group have got together with the Airfield Heritage Association to renovate the complex of buildings, known as the Red Feather Club, that served as the mess for NCOs and ground crews.

The first thing you see is a diorama of impressive size and intricacy, peopled by millimeter-high figures, that shows the base as it was from 1943 to1945. Alan Johnson, the lad who sneaked in to see Glenn Miller, pored over the model : 'My auntie was driving across here' - he indicated where a road crossed the end of the runway - 'and the propellor of a B17 took the side off her van.' He chuckled. In the room next door there's a photograph of Marjory Sharp and her battered Bedford.

Also in that memorabilia-crammed room is the single most poignant relic that I came across in my two days' exploring. It is a cine film shot at Horham in 1943 by B17 pilot Major Clifford Cole and lent to the museum by his family (Cole's story, incidentally, is compelling: shot down over Belgium, he evaded capture, was spirited down to Gibraltar by Resistance fighters and made it back to England).

Cole's home movie, which is not viewable on YouTube or anywhere other than this little museum in Horham, has no sound track except eerie silence. A B17, named Patsy Ann, taxi-ing against a Suffolk sunrise, a close formation of B17s crossing the coastline, shot by Cole from his cockpit. And then, in the flickering frames, the men appear and you can't take your eyes off them. Shrugging, smiling, gum-chewing ghosts.

Published in the Daily Telegraph on July 1, 2017



 
   
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