385th Heavy Bombardment Group
When I talked to my dad about his time at Great Ashfield in Suffolk, England, we talked about, among other things, the sign at the town entrance that still stands today, after all these years since the end of World War II. The picture of the B-17G Bomber flying low over the town is not something that would necessarily be well received these days, when people are so quick to complain about the planes when they live near an airport. I understand why people would not like planes flying low on takeoffs and landings these days, but the planes that fly over my house really don’t bother me at all. Nevertheless, my dad assured me that the people of Great Ashfield felt anything but irritation at the low flying planes that graced their skies during World War II.
England was among the nations who had taken some serious hits by the Nazi war machine in the early days of World War II, prior to the entrance of the United States into the war. In fact, it was on this day, December 29, 1940 that London took a massive hit during a German raid. The German planes had been targeting London since August of 1940 as payback for the British attacks on Berlin. In September the Germans dropped 337 tons of bombs on docks, tenements, and the streets in one of London’s poorest districts. Then came December 29, 1940. The attack on that day produced widespread destruction of not just civilians, but also many of London’s cultural relics. The bombing was relentless and as a result, 15,000 separate fires were started. Historic buildings were severely damaged or destroyed. Among them, the Guildhall, which was an administrative center of the city that dated back to 1673, but contained a 15th century vault. Eight Christopher Wren churches were also damaged or destroyed. St Paul’s Cathedral caught fire, but was saved by the firefighters who risked their own lives to save it. Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace and the Chamber of the House of Commons were also hit, but the damage to these was less severe. These attacks, that went on from September of 1940 through May of 1940, were known as the London Blitz, and they killed thousands of civilians.
It wasn’t until Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941, that the United States entered World War II, and soon after came the time that my dad spent at Great Ashfield beginning in early April of 1944 until he went home in October of 1945. While it may have seemed to many that we were somewhat late coming to the party, the war torn nations around the world were happy to see us arrive. It wasn’t that we were going to be the heroes riding in on the white horses, but we meant instant reinforcements to nations that needed assistance badly. The airmen were well received in the towns surrounding Great Ashfield, and the other air bases in England, but it was Great Ashfield that felt such gratitude that they went to the length of making and leaving to this day, the sign showing the B-17G Bomber flying low over the local church. There is also another memorial honoring the men of the 8th Air Force and the 385th Heavy Bombardment Group.
The reasons for the warm feelings toward the 8th Air Force and the 385th Heavy Bombardment Group are obvious. It was so much more than just the reinforcements the United States provided. While talking to my dad about this, he revealed that the main reason that they were so grateful is that the safest times for the area were when the B-17G Bombers were flying overhead. The German aircraft would become really scarce when the Bombers were around, because they didn’t want to be shot down either. The constant activity surrounding the air field made it almost impossible for the Germans to attack the area. Bombings are horrible, and take a huge toll on the civilians, as well as buildings. I suppose I would be eternally grateful for those planes, those men, and the United States 8th Air Force too. It gave peace of mind.
I have been reading through some of my dad’s letters home to his family from World War II, and I find myself thinking about the secrets that had to be kept. During wartime, locations and mission cannot be spoken of, because it might, or more likely would, compromise the mission and the men involved. I’m sure it was hard for the men, when they couldn’t tell their families where they were, other than the country they were in. Still, they knew that what they were doing was bigger than they were, and they were a part of something greater than their own needs…and there were spies everywhere. Letters and calls could be intercepted, and if they were, missions could fail, and lives would be lost.
Mixed in with the necessity of secrecy, was the need to let family know you were ok. Remember, that most of these men were very young, and many had never been away from home before. Now on that first trip away from home, there are people trying to kill them. My dad had lived away from home before going into the Army Air Forces, but he was very loving and loyal toward his family. It was very important to him that they not worry about him. Dad was also an honorable man. He was a patriot. He would never do anything that would dishonor or put in danger his country, or the men he served with. I can imagine that these men all found themselves in a tough place at that time in the world’s history, but they did what they had to do, because they were a part of something greater than their own feelings, or those of their families.
My dad was the top turret gunner and the flight engineer on a B17 Bomber, stationed at Great Ashfield, Suffolk, England. It was a base in the middle of the English countryside, surrounded by civilian towns and farms. These people knew all too well how important the United States military presence was to their safety, and indeed their very lives. If one of those men had revealed information about their upcoming missions, the entire area could have been attacked and destroyed. So important was their mission over there, and so grateful were the people of that area, that memorials were erected to remember…forever, the sacrifice made by the brave men of the 385th Heavy Bombardment Group, U.S. Army Air Forces. The memorials were placed so that generation, and future generations would remember the sacrifices made to save their lives by men who were a part of something greater than their own lives…to protect the lives of people they didn’t even know. That is what my dad was a part of when he was barely more than a teenager.
Those years changed who my dad was, just like they changed the lives of all the men who lived through that turbulent time in the history of the world. Those were hard times for everyone, and yet my dad and the other young men he served with, played their very important part with dignity and honor, placing the lives of innocent civilians ahead of their own lives, because they were a part of something greater.