Retracing My Father’s Footsteps: Part 1, A Visit to Grafton Underwood

Flight Officer Eugene Leonard Solomon

It was a warm, dry autumn day on September 18, 2021, when I made the pilgrimage to Grafton Underwood to see the airbase where my father, Flight Officer Eugene Leonard Solomon, was stationed during the Second World War. I’d intended to visit the previous year, but my plans were scuttled by another global emergency: the Covid-19 pandemic. In England for the duration, I shared the uncertainty of its course until a vaccine was developed, the enforced isolation, the restrictions on movement and ordinary routines, the threats to health and well-being and the collective grief over mass deaths, while admiring the bravery and dedication of National Health Service and other frontline workers. I couldn’t have known it then, but that experience would put me in the perfect frame of mind to retrace the footsteps of the twenty-year-old pilot who arrived on British shores on April 1, 1945. 

My father was a B-17 pilot with the 1st Air Division, 384th Bomb Group. He entered active duty on November 20, 1944, after more than a year of flight training and qualification to pilot the Flying Fortress. He was assigned to the 547th Bomb Squadron, whose patch (second image, below) says it all.

The 384th Bomb Group: ‘Keep the Show on the Road’
547th Bombardment Squadron Patch, image courtesy of the American Air Museum in Britain

My guide for the visit was Matt Smith, a personable and knowledgeable volunteer who coordinates local activities for the 384th Bomb Group, Inc. (the post-war association formed by 384th Veterans in the late 1960s). While my journey there was just a short train ride from Norwich to the East Midlands, Matt immediately made me feel welcome by collecting me from the station. We made our way to the picturesque village of Grafton Underwood to see the stained glass memorial window at St. James the Apostle Church. I’d seen pictures of it, but nothing could compare to the experience of viewing this stunning tribute in person, with the poignant words at bottom: ‘Coming Home’. Our family is Jewish, so for me, it was especially moving to see the Star of David included there. 

Matt Smith
At Grafton Underwood
‘This window is dedicated before God in remembrance of those who gave their lives for freedom during World War II while serving at Grafton Underwood 1942-1945, especially those members of the 384th Bomb Group (H) of the United States 8th Air Force.’

The base, built in 1941, was nicknamed ‘Grafton Undermud’. The land was requisitioned from the Boughton Estate, reverting to the estate after the war. According to the 384th Bomb Group website, it comprised some 500 acres and could accommodate up to 3,000 personnel, with ‘all the facilities needed, including a hospital, cinema, and chapel.’ The living quarters were mainly of Quonset hut construction, with more permanent structures like mess halls and clubs built from brick. Here I should emphasize the importance of having Matt Smith as my guide. He made it his mission to help me see the base as my father would have, which is no small feat, considering it has mostly been reclaimed by woods and the activities of a working estate. 

8th Air Force deployment at peak strength marking USAAF and RAF airfields in the east of England, July 1944-August 1944, image courtesy of the 2d Air Division Digital Archive
Aerial view of airbase, image courtesy of 384th Bomb Group

Next, we visited the 384th Bomb Group Memorial, a granite structure on the main runway which informs visitors of this notable fact: ‘The first and last bombs dropped by the 8th Air Force were from airplanes flying from Grafton Underwood.’

Author at 384th Bomb Group Memorial
384th BG Memorial with 1st AD triangle tail marking

The 384th lost 1,581 men, about third of its combat crewmen. Among those were 425 killed in action, 880 prisoners of war and 62 who remain missing in action; another 214 fatalities were from other causes. The 384th website reports that ‘combat aircrews considered themselves very lucky if they survived their missions, becoming members of the “Happy Warriors Club” as a result.’ Reflecting on these losses impressed on me how lucky we were to have my father return safely when so many families did not get to see their loved ones ‘come home’.

We walked around the airfield, with its clearly visible runway and taxi strips and the road to the base sentry gate. Matt pointed out where the planes would have been parked, camouflaged by trees.

We walked the foundations of the 547th Squadron’s barracks, the site of the movie theater and officers’ club and, in the distance, the operations block where the air crews had their briefings.

547th Squadron barracks
Parking
‘Now showing’ … the movie theatre
Operations block in distance

My father and his navigator, Ted Gore, were the youngest in his crew. In between bombing raids, they flew submarine patrols, food drops and weather missions. It’s easy to imagine the periods of waiting, when they occupied themselves with routine chores, movies, visits to the local pub and constant pranks. It’s a bit harder to put myself in the cockpit of a B-17, although I feel a rush of adrenaline thinking about how it must’ve been.

The crew: Pilot Lawrence E. Thurston, Co-Pilot Eugene Leonard Solomon, Navigator Theodore T. Gore, Togglier (bombardier) Robert Lee Wilkinson, Radio Operator/Gunner William O. King, Engineer/Top Turret Gunner Oliver T. Larson, Ball Turret Gunner Elias S. Huron, Waist (Flexible) Gunner James Lindsay, Tail Gunner Ralph Cauthen. My father is pictured top row, second from left. The other crew members are not pictured in order. If any readers can match names to faces, please get in touch in the comments.

Flight Officer Solomon was credited with two combat missions as co-pilot: Mission #315, on April 20, 1945, targeting the Railroad Marshalling Yards in Seddin, Germany, and Mission #316, on April 25, 1945, targeting the Skoda Armament Works in Pilsen, Czechoslovakia. On the latter mission, he co-piloted Hell’s Messenger with the 384th Bombardment Group (H), in the last strategic bombing mission of the war in Europe. The Sortie Report replicated on the 384th Bomb Group’s website states that ‘the 384th had the honor of dropping the final bombs of the war on Axis Targets’.

Veteran readers of this blog will be familiar with the friendly rivalry between B-17 and B-24 crews. I hope my 2d Air Division friends will forgive me for repeating the old quip told to me: that B-24s were the crate B-17s were delivered in. On a more sobering note, my father’s account of his final bombing raid is a vivid testament to the B-17’s legendary capability.

My father described his experience of that last air raid in an interview I did with him before he passed away:

The Germans knew they were coming and the ack-ack [anti-aircraft guns] was very, very heavy. The weather was very bad. The first time they tried to bomb, they couldn’t get a sight. They went in again but couldn’t see a thing. The squadron leader took them around a third time, and they came in at a different angle (in the meantime getting shot up like hell). There were enough breaks in the clouds for the bombardiers to get a sighting of the plant and “bombs away”—except in his airplane. The flak was so fierce that it cut the wires and their bombardier couldn’t release the bombs. You can never land with bombs; they’ll blow you up. They were flying “hot camera”, taking pictures of the bomb hits, so they didn’t have a ball turret gunner. Ted [their navigator] figured out where they were—over a train marshalling yard—and his engineer and bombardier went back to the open bomb bays at 25,000 feet, without parachutes, and kicked all the bombs out of the plane. The bombs had already been armed—there was no way of disarming them. As they left the target they were flying on another guy’s wing, and he got shot up and lost control of his plane. He recovered but slid into them. My father yelled over to Red [his co-pilot] “Let me have it!” and he grabbed the wheel and sucked the airplane up and the other plane slid under them. The tail gunner was screaming. If it had hit, they would’ve both gone down. The flight was about 10 hours and 40 minutes—the longest flight a B-17 had ever made. When they got back to England, as they were landing, one of the engines cut out, no gas. You can “slow fly” a B-17 at 75 or 80 mph and slowly lose altitude. They were glad to get back home.

Dad stayed in close touch with his navigator, Ted Gore, all their lives. He never forgot his crew, along with the nearly 2,100 men and women it took to keep the Flying Fortresses and crews in the air: the nurses, doctors, mechanics, armorers, ground crews and other support units. While we owe more than we can repay to the bravery of these young men who risked and often lost their lives, it’s also right to reflect on the death and destruction caused by such powerful bombs. The air crews were part of a concerted and successful effort to halt the murderous spread of Nazism, at great cost. At a young age, they faced a painful moral calculus (conscious or not) that no doubt took its toll on them.

After VE Day on May 8, 1945, Flight Officer Solomon would be assigned to occupation duty in Germany and other missions, which I’ll cover in a later post.

The 384th Bomb Group has been an invaluable resource, from connecting me with the gracious Matt Smith to providing a wealth of information and access to digitized archival materials: https://384thbombgroup.com. Many thanks to all involved, especially Matt and Memorial Site Supervisor Kevin Flecknor.

The American Library and the Second Air Division Memorial Trust have also been a wonderful resource, both in my family research as well as in supporting my PhD in creative and critical writing with the UEA American Library Scholarship. I’m grateful to the Governors, Trust Librarian Orla Kennelly, and my library colleagues for their collegiality and support.

My father passed away in 2009 and never knew that I had moved to England or visited his airbase, but I felt very near to him as I walked in his footsteps. I’m certain he wouldn’t at all have been surprised to find me there. 

—post by Suzanne Solomon

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Filed under American History, Local Interest, World War 2

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