Meet the devoted few who keep the memory of the United States Army’s Eighth Air Force’s presence in England alive.
Ron Batley was born a year after the Second World War ended, and grew up only a mile and a half from the edge of the deserted United States Army Air Force base at Thorpe Abbotts, in East Anglia. “I was raised on stories about the base and the war,” he remembers. As a child, Batley rode his bike onto the old base and went into the decaying buildings. “My mother was afraid I would get hurt,” he said. “But, there’s something about these old airfields; a ghostly feeling. I used to look around and imagine what went on here. Where are all the guys who were here? What are they doing now?”
The American airmen who flew from Thorpe Abbotts and dozens of other similar airfields throughout East Anglia first came to Britain in the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. While Americans reacted to the events of 7th December, 1941, with shock and grief, Great Britain breathed a small sigh of relief. After 18 months of fighting alone against Germany, the British welcomed America into the war as a powerful ally. Eventually, America’s industrial might would enable the Allies to build a war machine capable of countering German ground forces in Europe, but until then, the United States Army Air Force would be America’s major contributor to the war effort.
When Hitler built his “Fortress Europe” he forgot to “put a roof on it.” The Royal Air Force was already bombing the continent at night. The newly arrived American 8th Air Force began attacking occupied Europe during the day, flying from the rich farming region northeast of London. America’s heavy bombers, Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses and Consolidated B-24 Liberators, needed long runways for which East Anglia’s relatively flat geography was ideal. In addition, the region lay only 30 minutes by air from targets on the continent.
Beginning in late December, 1941, Great Britain embarked on the largest civil engineering project in its history. During the course of the next three years, construction crews built 122 air bases in an area smaller than the island of Hawaii. Working ten hours a day, six days a week, they eventually constructed what would be known as “Little America.” These self-sufficient ‘cities’, built with material taken from bombed-out buildings, each housed about 3,000 men. Each one included its own utilities, cinemas, and infirmaries.
Arthur W. “Smokey” Silva, a waist gunner on B-24s and B-17s, flew 34 combat missions. Little America, he says, was an accurate description of the bases in this region. The English, at war since 1939, had no supplies to spare. ‘Everything we needed, we brought, right down to the desks, chairs, and pencils’, Silva remembers.
The effect this “invasion” had on the lives of local farmers and villagers lasted well past the War’s end. Living alongside their American allies, British civilians shared the triumphs and tragedies the war brought. Both sides built relationships that remain as strong today as they were 50 years ago.
In early 1943, the British Air Ministry requested 250 acres of land just outside the village of Lavenham, for use as an airbase. The land, part of David Alston’s Lodge Farm, had belonged to the Alston’s family since 1900. David’s son, John, later remembered, “My father decided that he wouldn’t sell the land, but he would give it to them for the duration of the war as his contribution to the war effort. It was on the agreement that the moment peace was declared, the land would revert to him.” The Air Ministry allowed the Alstons to stay on the farm, and David felt this was a good way to show support for the Americans.
When the construction crew completed work on the base by the end of March 1944, the sprawling military facility literally surrounded Lodge Farm. On 4th April, 1944, B-24Hs of the 487th Bombardment Group began arriving at the base, which the the Army Air Force designated Station 137. The farmhouse stood only 350 yards away from Runway Thirty-three, 400 yards away from base headquarters, and 150 yards from the hardstands (concrete pads for parking the heavy bombers.) Alston remembers the tremendous noise made by the aircraft. “They used to warm up the engines every morning about five o’clock for about half an hour,” he said. Eventually, the family grew accustomed to it.
Some incidents, however, such as the one involving Barney Nolan, a 22-year-old co-pilot from Forest Hills, New York, caused particular notice. During a practise landing, Nolan instinctively knew that his pilot, Chuck Eubanks, was coming in too high and fast. The bomber used up half the 6,000-foot runway before touching down. Nolan remembers, “We could see the end of the runway and there was not enough of it left to stop. Chuck got on the brakes and yelled at me to help.” The B-24 ran off the runway and finally stopped in a muddy field. David Alston drove over with a farm tractor and eventually, with the help of an Army bulldozer, returned the Liberator to solid ground.
As the War progressed, farmers and villagers all over East Anglia woke to find hundreds of airplanes and thousands of American airmen in their backyards. Nine-year-old Sam Hurry watched as 42 B-17Fs of the 100th Bombardment Group landed at their newly completed airfield. For the past nine months, Hurry and his friends had watched the bulldozers and graders carve another airbase out of the open fields. Now the Americans had arrived and it didn’t take Hurry long to meet his new neighbours. He and his friends soon became fixtures around the control tower and nearby hardstands. They ran errands for the airmen and were occasionally invited to eat in the Airmen’s mess hall.
One of Hurry’s tasks was to collect the soldier’s soiled clothes and take them to his mother who, like many other women who lived near the bases, earned extra money doing laundry. “I had a little home-made cart that looked like a crude Chinese rickshaw,” he recalls. “I would haul what seemed like mountains of clothes home to my mother. I think she charged about six pence for a standard military shirt.” Hurry remembers how impressed he was by the friendship and generosity of the American soldiers–especially toward the young children who lived nearby.
Eleven-year-old Clifford Hall had a similar experience during the War years when the 94th Bombardment Group made its home in Bury St. Edmunds, across the road from Hall’s house. At the time, to contribute to the War effort, Cliff was collected scrap paper. After exchanging his paper with neighbours for wagon loads of apples one day, Hall passed the hardstands where crews of the 322nd Squadron serviced their planes. The airmen called to him, excited to see that he had fresh fruit. “They asked me for some apples,” Hall remembers, “so I asked what they had to trade. It turned out they were well supplied with gum so we began an exchange. From there I went to the other hardstands and traded all my apples for gum and sweets.” Living so close to the crews, Hall soon struck up friendships with these fun and easy-going soldiers, many of whom were just a few years older than he. “They were a very happy-go-lucky group,” remembers Hall.
On one occasion, as Hall and his father tended their garden, they noticed a damaged B-26 Marauder unable to lower its landing gear. The pilot tried to drop the wheels using gravity by passing the field and then climbing rapidly. On his third try, the pilot climbed out too steeply and the plane stalled, crashing nose-first into an empty field. “We both ran towards the plane as quickly as we could,” Hall says. “Thankfully it didn’t explode.” The nose was buried into the field, but Hall was able to pry open the bomb bay doors. Inside he found only the turret gunner still alive. Hall and his father sat with the lone airman until ambulances came. The gunner eventually lost his legs due to the horrible breaks he sustained during the accident,
The Alstons encountered their share of tragedy, as well. On 20th July, 1944, a B-24 and a B-17 collided over Lodge Farm. The flaming wreckage of the B-17 smashed into the ground near the Officer’s Club and 13 airmen perished. Each spring when the Alstons plow their field, pieces of the wreckage still surface. Beth Alston, David’s wife, also remembered one young American farm boy from the Midwest who didn’t return from his 34th mission.”We were particularly fond of him,” she told a Stars And Stripes reporter in 1968, “because he would help us with the threshing.”
On 7th May, 1945, the War ended. As quickly as they had come, the Americans packed up and departed, leaving nothing but empty buildings and doors swinging in the breeze. At Thorpe Abbotts, the fields were sown again and nature quickly reclaimed the building sites. For a long time, the only regular visitors were young Ron Batley and a few other locals, who could only wonder what had become of the airmen.
The American veterans were rebuilding their lives, starting new careers and raising their families. However, after almost 20 years, many of them began to return to East Anglia. Their visits were a tremendous joy to people such as the Alstons. David greatly looked forward to the summer season each year, when the airmen were most likely to arrive. Beth Alston kept a visitor’s log where every 487th veteran who visited the Alstons left his name and address. This log was an invaluable aid to “Smokey” Silva when he led the effort in 1968 to form the 487th Bomb Group Memorial Association, “Beth Alston provided me with the names of more than 40 people who had visited the base,” says Silva, “and that became the beginning of our association.”
The 487th Association maintains a very close relationship with the Alston family. Actively involved with four Lavenham reunions in 1970, 1986, 1992, and 1995, the Alstons hosted luncheons, arranged tours, and made the veterans feel welcome. David and Beth Alston hosted the early reunions, and after they died, in 1989 and 1987 respectively, their children took over.
In 1988, former 487th airman, Lieutenant Barney Nolan, returned to Lavenham for the first time since the War to rekindle some memories of his combat experience. Winner of the Distinguished Flying Cross and four Air Medals, Nolan had flown on 33 combat missions. On 14th May 1988, he and his wife visited the site of the airfield, drove along what had been the perimeter taxiway, and found where his bomber’s hardstand had been. The control tower still stood the distance. While on the field, the Nolans met David Alston’s grandson and current manager of Lodge Farm, John Pawsey, who graciously invited the couple in for tea. During the evening, Pawsey brought out two large boxes filled with photos, plaques, and other 487th memorabilia, including a photograph of Nolan’s B-24 stuck in the mud. ‘Rummaging through the boxes was a sheer joy,’ Nolan remembers.
Cliff Hall, now an automoblile and farm equipment repairman, has what is thought to be the largest collection of 8th Air Force photographs outside the United States. “During the war,” he explains, “the Americans discovered that if they got their personal photos developed on base, they were censored. So they would give the undeveloped film to me and I would get it processed in the village. While I was at it, I got an extra print for myself.” He estimates that his collection numbers more than 1,000 photographs.
Hall now serves as the representative in England to the 94th Bomb Groups Memorial Association, which was founded in 1975 by former 94th Bomb Group pilot Frank Halm of Corvallis, Oregon. Since 1976, the group has returned to Bury St. Edmunds seven times and according to Halm, Hall is a key man in every United Kingdom endeavour. “He arranges tours and hosts visitors. I believe he and his wife Wendy have attended every stateside reunion as well,” Halm says. Additionally, when a memorial to the group was constructed in the rose garden of the abbey ruins in 1978, Hall acted as liaison between the 94th Group in America and the English craftsmen.
A group of veterans from the 100th Bomb Group returned to Thorpe Abbotts for the first time in 1977 to find their old control tower overgrown with brush and falling apart. As they posed for pictures on the second floor balcony, the veterans were concerned that it might collapse beneath them. However, several individuals, including Ron Batley and Sam Hurry, now a professor of retail management, approached the former airmen and expressed interest in restoring the tower and building a museum and memorial. The 100th gave enthusiastic support and, after a long struggle, the 100th Bomb Group Memorial and Museum was dedicated in May 1981.
Both Hall and Hurry belong to an organization of other 8th Air Force enthusiasts in England known as “Friends of the Eighth,” or FOTE, established in 1973. According to Chairman Ron Mackay, this group, which brings together individuals who have an interest in the 8th, currently has about 170 active members and meets quarterly for lectures and slide or film presentations. One of FOTE’s most important activities is the Airfield Contacts program. Through this program, about 60 of the 8th’s former bases have local contacts that attend to the personel of each unit whenever they visit the United Kingdom. Hall is the representative for Bury St. Edmunds; Hurry for Thorpe Abbotts.
Many veterans are in their 70s and the English friends they remember as children are in their 60s. Time is taking its inevitable toll on the individuals and the physical remains of the War years, as well. In 1990 John Pawsey finally removed the ageing runways that crossed his family’s fields for nearly 50 years. “They were crumbling into dust,” he says. “You couldn’t even drive on them, they were so unsafe.” Across East Anglia, structures are being pulled down either because they are safety hazards, or are of no more practical use. Veterans, their family members, and their English friends worry that by the 75th anniversary of World War II there will be no more renuions.
Pawsey has not given up hope of preserving at least a piece of the past, however. A few years ago, a wealthy American offered him a great deal of money to dismantle the tower and reassemble it in the U.S. as a tourist attraction. “I told him I couldn’t sell,” Pawsey relates. “I said the tower belongs here, in its original spot. It would have no meaning in a parking lot in America.” Next to the tower is a pile of concrete rubble. John had the contractor who removed the runways leave it behind. ‘I offer every visitor a piece of the runway to take back with them. A piece of their youth, perhaps.’
In addition, Pawsey, using his family’s own money, refurbished the windows and roof on the old control tower and restored the electricity and plumbing. He plans also to furnish the building in 1940s-era furniture and replace the glass radio shack that was once on the roof. Pawsy’s wants to create a place where veterans and their descendants can come and quietly reflect; he does not want the memories of those days to disappear. ‘Any man or woman who has died so that those who come after them can live in a society free from tyranny should always be remembered,’ he says. ‘I especially feel for the Americans who fought a war so far from home.’
Pawsey has allies on this side of the Atlantic as well. According to Bob Jacobs, the 487th Association is a “last man” group. “When the last man dies, the group is gone.” he says. Our Auxiliary is there to continue their story.’For Jacobs, preserving the legacy of the 487th is a personal mission. “My life was directly affected by the events in East Anglia. It is in my roots.” Therefore, to aid Pawsey financially in preserving and protecting the Lavenham site, Jacobs commissioned an artist to recreate the insignia and slogan of the 487th, “The Gentlemen From Hell,” on a patch. Profits from the sale of these patches will go to Pawsey.
At Thorpe Abbotts, Ron Batley, the museum chairman, is encouraged by the support he is getting from the next generation. His 24-year-old son, Robert, works in the gift shop. “We had a 15-year-old boy from the village come here to volunteer,” he said. ‘He had a tremendous knowledge of the 8th Air Force.’ Batley is also energized by the visitors to the museum. “We are getting sons, daughters, and now grandchildren. They come to see the place where their father, or grandfather served.” He adds, “we are going all out to make sure it will be there for the future.”
There are more than 100 memorials throughout East Anglia dedicated to the 8th Air Force. In addition to Thorpe Abbotts, volunteers have restored the control towers at Framlingham (390th Bomb Group), Seething (448th Bomb Group) and Bassingbourn (91st Bomb Group) as museums. For all these years Hall, Hurry, Batley, the Alston family, and countless others have been the “keepers of the castles of Little America.” Through their selfless dedication, they have shown their gratitude to “Smokey” Silva, Lieutenant Nolan, and the rest of the 350,000 men and women who served in the Eighth Air Force. As Batley expresses “if these men hadn’t come over and done what they did, we might have all been on the other side of the Berlin Wall.”
Further Reading: 8th Air Force Remembered, by George Fox (ISO Publications, 1991) or Philip Kaplan’s trio of books about the Eighth and their bases–One Last Look (Artabras Publishing, 1983), Little Friends(Random House, 1991) and Around The Clock (Random House, 1993).
Anyone interested in visiting one of the former bases in the United Kingdom should first contact the Eighth Air Force Historical Society at 125 Ramblewood Road, Pennsylvania Furnace, PA 16865. They can provide a list of local contacts for most of the bases through their association with “Friends of the Eighth,” (FOTE). Visitors are encouraged to arrange visits in advance as most of the former airfields are either private property or used by the military.