In the Footsteps of the Mighty Eighth

A writer searches southern England for traces of a legendary World War II air force.

A tour of Eighth Air Force history wouldn't be complete without a visit to Duxford, which has an operational control tower and Sally B, a still-flying B-17. (Alamy)
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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.

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.

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