In the Footsteps of the Mighty Eighth
A writer searches southern England for traces of a legendary World War II air force.
- By John Fleischman
- Air & Space magazine, March 2007
Alamy; Black & white photographs: national archives; color photographs: john fleischman
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Harvey knew that to get the museum going, he had to get the 100th Bomb Group veterans’ association on his side. In the late 1970s, he began cultivating Harry Crosby, the group’s former navigation officer, and Robert “Rosie” Rosenthal, by then quietly practicing law in the New York City suburbs. Rosenthal had volunteered for two tours with the 100th, flown a series of wrecks to safety, and been shot down twice, the last time over Berlin.
When Crosby and Rosenthal gave the thumbs-up to Harvey’s tower museum at Thorpe Abbotts, attics across the United States opened and out came a flood of artifacts. Rosenthal sent his dress uniform and his formidable array of medals. A bombardier sent the 35 bomb tags he signed for on his 35 missions, all mounted on a map of Germany. Then came flak jackets, a Norden bombsight, a never-opened GI shaving kit, the Boeing name plate off a pilot’s control wheel, a metal rooster “acquired” from a nearby pub, and the key to the 1141st Quartermaster Company’s storeroom at Thorpe Abbotts. Along with the memorabilia came more than 2,000 pictures, bundles of letters home, and a war’s-end telegram to the mother of a 100th Bomb Group POW: “The Secretary of War desires me to inform that your son S/Sgt Affleck, John W., has returned to Military Control.”
Museum volunteers dragged the old fire-fighting pond, recovering a bugle, a virtual market basket of 1940s consumer products (Ipana toothpaste, Brylcreem, Old Spice aftershave, little green Coke bottles), a horseshoe, and a copy of Fulton Sheen’s The Armor of God. The people around Thorpe Abbotts brought in bits and pieces from the 100th Bomb Group that had rained down on the land or were left behind in the outfit’s hasty departure. Locals came bearing U.S. Army-issue office furniture, telephones, tools, stepladders, bomb hoists, aircraft sheet metal, bent propellers, and a gas-attack rattle and all-clear bell complete with a sign warning, “These are not playthings.”
To me, the most amazing artifact was a well-worn Army-issue catcher’s mask that a homeward-bound GI gave to a local schoolboy at war’s end. Combat air crews who survived their mission tours were immediately sent home, but many of the enlisted men who came to Thorpe Abbotts in 1943 were still there in 1945. What’s an English schoolboy to do with an enlisted man’s catcher’s mask? Save it for 50 years, then return it to the Eighth Air Force.
There are at least a dozen other volunteer museums and memorial societies scattered across East Anglia; they too preserve U.S. Army Air Forces sites. Few associations are as active or as well organized as the 100th Bomb Group Memorial, though. Some don’t have towers to guard, and, like volunteer groups everywhere, their enthusiasm and activity ebb and flow. Most volunteer museums are open to visitors only one or two days a month, mostly on Sundays and mostly in summer. The Internet is invaluable in locating them, but luck helps. I got lucky the next day.
I went looking for Rougham, hoping for no more than a peek through the window of the museum there, which is dedicated to the Eighth Air Force’s 94th Bomb Group. My tourist map of old Eighth Air Force fields said that the museum is run by a Rougham Tower Association on an industrial estate just outside the town of Bury St. Edmunds. I spotted the exit for the Rougham Industrial Estate just in time and turned onto a street on which every vertical surface bore a poster announcing that today was the start of the two-day Rougham Airshow. The Rougham tower wasn’t just open, it was jumping. Inside, the association’s self-trained curator, Peter Langdon, gave me a tour of the sandblasted, patched, re-glazed, re-roofed, and repainted tower. Outside, the association chairman, Graham Crabtree, showed me how a proposed highway bypass would shave the corner of the historic zone around the Rougham tower.
The climax of the airshow would come the next day, I was told, when a flotilla of warbirds would descend on the Rougham airfield, including Spitfires, a Messerschmitt, a P-51, and a B-17 named Sally B. In the meantime, a World War II-era motor pool was already assembled on the field behind the control tower, ready for my inspection. I marched down a long line of parked U.S. jeeps, half-tons, staff cars, dispatch motorcycles, and an M24 tank. Elsewhere I saw vendors selling hot dogs, replica USAAF patches, model airplane kits, and Glenn Miller’s greatest hits. Straying beyond the day’s theme, other vendors were selling Thai noodles, classic car parts, contemporary war surplus, medieval replica swords, toy trains, helicopter rides, and two chances for £1.50 to ride an “unrideable bike.”
In the afternoon, the Rougham Tower Association would dedicate a new monument to the 94th Bomb Group, using an engine from a 94th B-17 that had spent the last 60 years underwater. In 1944 the engine belonged to Hello Mr. Maier, which had taken off from Rougham, attacked Munich, and ditched in the North Sea on the way back. The entire crew was rescued, but the engine didn’t turn up until 2000, when an English fishing boat snagged it from the bottom of the sea. Its years in the sand had half turned it to stone. The repainted engine and propeller had now been made into the centerpiece of the new monument thanks to the volunteers of the Rougham Tower Association, who have been working since 1993 to save the old control tower from ruin.
Relying on fundraisers, hard work, and a 99-year lease from the supportive landowner, the volunteers have restored the concrete tower’s wartime appearance, repainting the tower a very authentic Army green. The restoration evoked the days when the tower controlled the B-26 Marauders of the 322nd Bomb Group and then the heavy B-17s of the 94th. The volunteers forged ties with U.S. veterans, filling the new tower museum with donated artifacts. They redid the old radar repair shop as a meeting hall and filled restored Quonset huts with the larger Eighth Air Force artifacts that still surface in old barns and new construction sites: a bombardier’s seat, a bomb winch, and a large piece of Little Boy Blue, a B-17 that crashed near Rougham. The piece had been brought in by a man who said he’d been using it for decades to cover his lawnmower.