by Michael Faley
Spring 2006, Vol. 37, No. 1
Cindy Goodman, Editor
The cold winter winds howl through Liverpool Street Station in London, England as the whistle screams for everyone to board the 14:26 train to Norwich. Chilled to the bone, I hurry to the train and collapse in my seat as the engine slowly pulls out of the Station. I have made this journey many times before but each is like the first as my anticipation builds. I see the echoes of the past everywhere as I roll through East Anglia. I hear the echoes in the small towns and hamlets with quaint names like Horham, Rougham, Lavenham, Snetterton Heath, Sudbuy, Framlingham and Thorpe Abbotts. In the pubs like The Swan, The Old Ram, The Half Moon and The Horseshoe, the past lingers like a ghostly reminder to a by gone era where young men laughed and drank at 22:00hrs and fifteen hour later, were fighting for their lives 5 miles high over Berlin.
The train stops at Ipswich, Stowmarket, and my final destination Diss. The station looks exactly like it did in June 1943 when the Ground echelon of the 100th Bomb Group (H) arrived to inhabit their new base at Thorpe Abbotts. "Dis is Diss" was the old saying as men of the 8th Air Force arrived. Trucks would be waiting to take them to their new base. Now, 63 years later, I would be met by Carol Batley, who along her husband Ron, are volunteers at the old Thorpe Abbotts airfield. What many of us on this side of the pond may not realize is that the airfields of the 8th Air Force still have remnants, monuments and memories of the Flying Forts and Liberators who used East Anglia like one big aircraft carrier.
I will only be in East Anglia for a short 60 hours but I have been known to cram a lot of Air Corp history into a short time frame. The Batleys took me out to the Horseshoes Pub, which you boys remember as the "Good Pull Inn" where the Brits make you feel right at home with the warm Ale’s Bitters, and Fish n’ Chips. Ron Batley described what the pub looked like inside when the 100th was over there and how small the pub used to be. It was a wonderful education on the finer points of the English drinking establishment in 1943. That night, calls were made to Frank Sherman of the 95th BG museum at Horham, my old friend Geoff Ward of the 96th Bomb Group at Snetterton Heath, and writer extraordinaire Ian Hawkins. All returned our calls and wanted to show us their newest renovations, memorials, and book ideas. The next day, Horham was first at 11:00 hrs, where we pulled up to a newly renovated "Red Feather Club," the former base watering establishment. What a difference seven years can make. Frank Sherman, James Mutton and their volunteer staff have done a brilliant job of bringing the Red Feather Club and adjoining building back to WW II conditions, a painstaking job that also includes preserving the famous murals on the wall along with a mural from the 34th BG at Mendlesham. Work is not yet completed, but will be by summer, and I look forward to a return visit with our 13th Combat Wing brothers.
Snetterton Heath was next at 1:00 hrs. Geoff Ward, writer of the 96th Bomb Group’s unit history, met us at the new memorial. This is an eye to behold, just spectacular! There are four contrails rising up to the heavens and meeting at the top with a B-17. It was a dark, gray, winter sky and that background just reminded you that "Our Boys" worked on those planes and flew missions in some of the most hazardous inclement weather during the winter of 1944.
We then went over to the old Hospital (now a school) where they have a small museum in a Nissan Hut once used for the morgue. There are some very nice displays along with a good sized library, photos, A-2 jackets, and a nice mission list mural on the wall. We also stopped at the old Operations building, which is a protected building by the game and wildlife organizations since it is now home to BATS! That is certainly one way to preserve an historical building! We ended the day with "Fish and Chips" and a long conversation with Ian Hawkins about his next book on the 13th Combat Wing. If it is anything like his books on Munster and the 95th BG, we will read another masterpiece. Ian, we are all with you on this.
Saturday started at 9:30am with a short drive to Thorpe Abbotts Tower Museum. You drive in the back way, past the ghostly broken down Nissan huts and the empty fields where the 349th and 350th Bomb Squadrons once stood. Round the bend where remnants of the 351st Bomb Squadron still stand and straight down to the perimeter track. To your left is where "Rosie’s Riveters" hardstand was in the tree line. To your right is where the long gone 350th BS figure 8 hardstand and T-2 hangar stood. On and good day, you can still make out the hardstand outline in the fields. You turn onto the perimeter and imagine the site of all these 418th BS B-17’s sitting on the grease stained hardstands as the base around them buzzes with work and anticipation of "another mission". Hardstand 48 is still there and as you cut across this road to the other side of the base you are dead center of Runway 28, the east end of the main runway on the tower end. There is not much left now, but enough to stand on, imagine what it was like during the war, and bring home a chunk for a souvenir.
The next sight is the perimeter track on the north side (351st BS), which stretches all the way past the tower to hardstand #5 (home of High Life and All American Girl) - still fully intact. You make a right hand turn on the small road that leads east toward the tower, passing what use to be Draper’s Farm where Big Frank Valesh crashed "Hang the Expense" with Pinky Flack and the Red Cross Girls. Then you come to your turn into the entrance to the Thorpe Abbotts Tower Museum. Each base museum in England has pride in their memorial to the 8th Air Force but the Tower Museum at Thorpe Abbotts is far and away, THE BEST!
It is the best because of the dedicated volunteer work of Ron and Carol Batley, Ken Everett, John Goldsmith, Malcolm Finnis, Gordon & Velma Dickey, Tom & Audrey Oakley, Gary & Michelle Hancox, Paul Meen, Mike Nice, Richard & Norma Gibson, "Little" Sammy Hurry, Jean Harvey, Mike Harvey (rest his soul) and all the other wonderful Brits who remember what took place from this airfield.
This Museum looms up out of the canopy of trees and presents an awesome silhouette against the morning sun. The fog and mist are clearing as we enter the Horace Varian Center, home to the research center and PX. Ron Batley has been here since 8:30am, so with a warm greeting and "lets get to work," we are off to the research center. My time here at Thorpe Abbotts is always too short and I need to obtain scans of Crew photos we do not have in our archives stateside or on our website (www.100thbg..com ) before I leave. Ken Everett is my counter part with photos and Gary Hancox is their computer wiz, so we get right to work. About 3 hrs into this process we head to the tower where Gordon, Tom and Ron are working on some of the small things that make a Museum GREAT. Upkeep of this museum is a year round job that includes, painting, new displays, preventive care for jackets and uniforms, dusting, sweeping, electrical repairs, grounds keeping, and much more. When you see the quality of the displays and the care taken to present your history, it can bring a tear to your eye.
There is a glass encased area with A-2 Jackets of Kleen Sweep, Reluctant Dragon, Mason and Dixon, and the newest entry, Louis Tekel’s A-2 jacket, which we presented to the museum for display. Louis gave it to us at Pittsburgh. Remember all that paint and grime? Well, we got it all off, put on new cuffs, and she looks good as new. The jacket will make a great display in England. Other special displays include John Bennett, Rosie Rosenthal, Jack Kidd, Richard Carey, Bill Carleton, The Red Cross, Ground Personnel, Photos, Paintings, parts of B-17’s and countless others that would take me a book to describe. Needless to say, the 8th Air Force and the 100th Bomb Group are well represented here at Thorpe Abbotts.
When you stand on that tower and look over the fields where Just-a-Snappin, Piccadilly Lily, Laden Maiden, Lay or Bust, Glory Bound, Wolff Pack, Phartzac, Hard Luck, Royal Flush, Fever Beaver, Silver Dollar, Torchy, Squawkin Hawk, Black Cat 13, Sunny, E-Z Goin, and countless others departed from, you can almost hear those engines struggling to take off, the squeak of the brakes as they follow each other down the perimeter track towards take off position. Most of all, you feel you are at a special place. Many of you lost your innocence here; your friends for life were made here, and many took off, never to return. Thorpe Abbotts evokes all of these emotions and more. She is a special place with special people taking care of her.
The Engines are silent now, the old bases have reverted back to farms and the Yanks have long since waved goodbye, but the memories and the exploits of those "Fine Young Men" live on at these old bases and in the hearts and minds of those who saw them leave each morning. They pass this along to future generations who make the trek here to pay their respects. I will continue to pay mine at Thorpe Abbotts and I encourage the families and friends of the 100th Bomb Group to make this journey at least once.
I want to thank Ron and Carol Batley for their hospitality and all the volunteers for making Thorpe Abbotts feel like Home.