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
(Page 3 of 4)
The Rougham Airshow had something on display last August even rarer than Brylcreem bottles—an Eighth Air Force combat veteran. Wilbur Richardson, a retired music and history teacher from Chino, California, was on hand for the memorial dedication, still able to fit into his USAAF sergeant’s uniform. Richardson first arrived at Rougham in early 1944, as the 21-year-old ball turret gunner on a B-17 named Kismet. He was about to start a 30-mission combat tour. Twenty-nine missions later, Richardson went to London on a 48-hour pass. “By the time I got back to Rougham,” he recalls, “they’d raised it to 35 missions.” On his 30th mission, Richardson was severely wounded by flak over Munich and shipped home.
Last summer, he was making his 15th return to Rougham, looking sharp enough for many more. But the ex-ball turret gunner’s appearance raised a question: What will happen to the Eighth Air Force legend as the flyboys fade away?
Legends are not always fair or even accurate. The U.S. Army deployed other air forces in Europe during World War II. There were two tactical air forces, the Ninth, which was based originally in England, and the Twelfth, which is better remembered as the desert air force after its start in North Africa. The Eighth was not even the only strategic air force. In 1943 the Fifteenth Air Force was set up in Italy to carry out the same kind of high-altitude, long-range strategic bombing that the Eighth was waging from England. These other U.S. Army Air Forces fought valiantly, but the Eighth turned out to be the one that flew into legend.
On these and other issues, the American Air Museum in England is a useful corrective. And it’s not hard to find. It’s at Duxford, just off the M11, between London and Cambridge. The American Air Museum is actually part of the Imperial War Museum, the British equivalent of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Inside, I sought the iconic aircraft of the U.S. Army Air Forces. The American Air Museum covers the full range of U.S. flying in Europe, from a SPAD XIII in Eddie Rickenbacker’s 94th Aero Squadron colors to a recently retired SR-71 Blackbird reconnaissance aircraft. But the knots of visitors are always thickest by the signature airplanes of the Eighth Air Force—a green-painted B-17G named Mary Alice and a bare metal B-24M Liberator named Dugan. Hanging from the ceiling was a P-51D Mustang painted with the checkered nose markings of the 78th Fighter Group. I studied a photo of 78th pilots lounging outside the group briefing room, waiting in the late afternoon sun at Duxford to see who didn’t make it home from the day’s mission. I turned from the photo to look out on the Duxford main runway beyond the glass. They waited just out there.
England is knee deep in history, and wading through it in a search for the Eighth Air Force can take you to unexpected depths. It can lead to All Saints’ Church, in the village of Carleton Rode, which has a glorious stained-glass window commemorating 17 U.S. airmen killed when their two B-24s collided overhead in November 1944. It can lead to pubs like The Swan in Lavenham, where crews from the 487th Bomb Group signed the walls. Sixty years later, the signatures are still there, safe under glass. (The Swan is now part of a swank hotel, its staff and patrons too young to remember the pub’s wartime customers.) Everywhere I went, there was the East Anglia summer sky, a turbulent kaleidoscope of sudden blue, sudden cloud, and sudden squalls.
The rain lifted for the short drive north from Duxford to Cambridge. I exited the highway just west of the university city, into the leafy suburb of Madingley, where I was bound for the Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial, the resting place for 3,812 American servicemen and -women (along with a scattering of U.S. War Department employees, Red Cross workers, Merchant Marine sailors, and one war correspondent) whose bodies were recovered in the United Kingdom during World War II. Another 5,126 are listed on the Wall of the Missing.
The American Cemetery is operated by the U.S. government’s smallest independent overseas agency, the American Battle Monuments Commission. By law, the cemetery’s superintendent and his assistant are American, but the other staffers are local, including cemetery associate Arthur Brookes. No one knows more about the dead and the missing honored at Cambridge than Brookes does. He knows where to find bandleader Glenn Miller on the Wall of the Missing, listed as Major Alton G. Miller, USAAF Band. There is the name of John F. Kennedy’s elder brother, Lieutenant Joseph P. Kennedy, cut in stone among the U.S. Navy missing. Buried here are 17 women, 32 civilians, and someone from every state in the Union, plus the Panama Canal Zone and Puerto Rico. Twenty-four of the burials are unknown.
Brookes says that the American Battle Monuments Commission D-Day cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer in Normandy draws the most visitors—three million a year—but the American Cemetery at Cambridge, which is the only U.S. World War II cemetery in the United Kingdom, still gets 150,000 visitors a year. Roughly 70 percent of the burials drew from the U.S. Army Air Forces, and most of those came from the Eighth Air Force. On the memorial for the missing, however, the percentage of Eighth members is much higher: It was in the nature of the Eighth’s long-distance bombing campaign, says Brookes, that many fell unseen into remote country, coastal waters, or their burning targets below. By war’s end, more than 10,000 Americans had been buried here. In 1945, the U.S. government offered the next of kin of deceased overseas personnel the option of repatriation; about 60 percent accepted.