Category Archives: Local Interest

Hello, Norwich. Hello, Norfolk. We’re here because of you, and it wouldn’t be right to let slip through our net those heart-warming tales and informative yarns (and suchlike) that make us, you. You, us. Sometimes, America be blessed, we just like to get local.

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

4 Comments

Filed under American History, Local Interest, World War 2

Memorial Day

By Danielle Prostrollo

This Monday, May 28th marks the 150th Memorial Day in America, a day that honors the sacrifices made by servicemen throughout our nation’s history. Across the globe the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) hold services to honor these brave men and women, including a moving service at the Cambridge American Cemetery in Madingley.

Last year Don and I had the privilege of attending the service in the beautiful sunshine which included a moving poppy drop which released thousands of tiny red poppy petals over the graves and Walls of the Missing. If you would like to read about the services and the cemetery, please visit our post here.

IMG_0477

The ABMC has put together a lovely history of Memorial Day and how it fits into American History.

 

And as always, the 2nd Air Division Memorial Library honors the memory of those 6,881 servicemen who gave their lives to protect ours.

Leave a comment

Filed under American Culture, American History, Local Interest

Saving Samson

samson

Curators at the Museum of Norwich at the Bridewell are appealing to people with links to the Samson and Hercules to help them secure the future of the statue of Samson who stood guard outside the city centre property for centuries. The oak carved figure has recently been restored, and it’s been revealed he dates back to the 17th century. Now, the museum wants to display him permanently in their galleries, and is crowdfunding to raise the £15,000 needed for a display case.

The ballroom was hugely popular with American GI’s over 50,000 of whom were stationed in Norfolk, and delighted the local girls, many of whom ended up marrying their wartime sweetheart. During the Baedeker Raids in Norwich, in April 1942, Samson and Hercules maintained their guard over the front door of ‘The Samson’ club. Unable to take shelter, the bombs rained down; narrowly missing them on occasion.

By July 1942 there was a friendlier invasion. Samson would have looked on in wonder as the Liberty Trucks from the local airbases pulled up and disgorged their cargo of young American airman keen to play hard while they could. Up to this point ‘The Samson’ had been a club for our ‘Boys in Blue’ but there was about be a change in the colour scheme. The American uniforms, known as pinks and greens, comprised of an olive drab coloured tunic and pink-brown coloured trousers. The novelty of the new uniforms, plus the fact that they seemed smarter, the fabric of better quality than the RAF Blue, quickly drew both looks of envy and admiration from the locals. Many of the Americans also came equipped with money, access to rare, desirable commodities such as chocolate, tins of food, stockings; plus a confident gift of the gab, all of which they quickly put to use on the local girls.

Samson, standing as doorman with his cohort Hercules since 1657, must still have looked on in wonder as the Americans tried their bold chat-up lines on the war-weary girls with the local boys often taking them to task over it and the American Military Police, nicknamed Snowdrops because of their white helmets, being on hand to break up any fights. The local boys were gradually inclined to avoid the place but the girls knew which side their bread was buttered! By the end of 1942 the number of GIs in the city of Norwich had boomed. Through the Samson and Hercules there now followed a sea of green dancing to the popular Gerry Hoey and his Band.

Disaster struck on 18th March 1944. Despite their resilience to the German arsenal, Samson and Hercules’ long lives were nearly cut short when fire took hold of the building. With determination the fire was put out and Samson and Hercules were saved, however, the lack of building material available due to the war meant the new portal they were guarding was far less impressive. They must’ve felt somewhat overdressed for the occasion!

For the past seventy four years rumours have abounded that Glenn Miller and his dance band were welcomed through the doors of ‘The Samson’. We certainly know that he played at Chapelfield Gardens on the afternoon of the 18th August 1944 but did he ever venture into one of the GIs’ favourite haunts to celebrate his promotion to the rank of Major? If only Samson could talk we would have discovered much earlier that the rumours were indeed true! Samson would have regained his sense of purpose of welcoming the great and the good through his, albeit now depleted, doorway and he must have have felt his feet rock on his plinth as the place erupted with roars and shouts of appreciation as the band stayed up most of the night celebrating their leader’s recent success.

Glenn Miller

Picture from: Glenn Miller in Britain then and now by Chris Way, published by After the Battle in 1996.

As 1945 progressed, the war drew to its end and the American airmen, who had become part of the scenery, gradually returned to their homeland, occasionally taking with them their new English brides, whom they would have met as Samson stood watch. They left behind them not only the odd broken heart and bloody nose, but more significantly an enduring connection to Norwich and fond memories of nights out at ‘The Samson’.

Samson, meanwhile, maintained his position as the decades rolled by until the early 1990s when his arm became detached and it was clear that now it was our turn to guard and protect Samson for the future. In 1993 both figures were removed for their protection, as they were in such a bad state of repair, and replaced by fibre glass replicas. And this is when an amazing discovery was made. Unbelievably, tests revealed that whilst Hercules was a Victorian replica, Samson dated from the early seventeenth century. Over the past couple of years conservators have removed countless layers of lead paint to unveil the most intricate of features, including curly long hair and strong arms bulging with popping veins and muscle.

Working in partnership with the Art Fund through their ‘Art Happens’ platform, the museum of Norwich at the Bridewell aims to raise £15,000 by 22nd March to Save Samson and proudly place him on permanent display, protecting this fragile and precious piece of the City’s heritage for the future. Now the conservation work is complete the museum wants to create a breath taking new display featuring a bespoke, state of the art, environmentally controlled case. Within the case, the very fragile figure of Samson will be supported by a new custom made, conservation grade mount. What’s more, specially designed lighting will enable visitors to see every curl and sinew in tantalising detail. Meeting the highest conservation standards, this new display will not only present Samson at his very best, but more importantly, will ensure this city icon remains in peak condition.

But the museum needs your help to make this happen.  By donating to this project, you can ensure Samson’s future will be secure for years to come and the story of this much loved Norwich night club can be celebrated and enjoyed by everyone.

What’s more, as a thank you to donors, the Art Fund offers desirable rewards for set price donations, such as exclusive campaign tote bags, limited edition signed prints by Leanda Jaine Illustrations and a behind the scenes conservator led tour to see Samson up close.

Find out more and join the campaign to Save Samson! www.artfund.org/saving-samson #savingsamson

Leave a comment

Filed under Local Interest, World War 2

The Friendly Invasion – Visit East Anglia

Seventy-five years ago the first of over 300,000 US servicemen arrived in the east of England to fight what was to become America’s longest battle of World War Two.

For the locals, their welcome presence signalled the biggest cultural and landscape impact of any event since the Norman Conquest almost 900 years earlier.

A rural backwater would soon be changed by the United States Army Air Force personnel, who brought to rationed England previously unknown items such as Coca Cola, chewing gum, peanut butter, Swing music and nylons. It was as if, just like in The Wizard of Oz, a monochrome landscape had suddenly gone technicolour.

The Friendly Invasion, as it became known, has left an indelible mark on East Anglia, and the sacrifices and bravery of those men have not been forgotten. The Eighth Air Force, The Mighty Eighth, suffered 26,000 fatalities, 3,000 more than the Marines in the Pacific, with a loss of 4,145 heavy bombers.

They are remembered at the American Air Museum at Imperial War Museum Duxford, at the Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial, the Second Air Division Memorial Library at Norwich and at many airfield museums across the region, all staffed by dedicated volunteers determined to honour those from across the Atlantic who fought to preserve democracy, liberty and free speech.

Brigadier General Ira C. Eaker was the first to arrive on February 20, 1942, in civilian clothes, via Portugal. What was to follow became the greatest air armada in history. Their first mission was on July 4, despite their own planes not having arrived. But so determined were they to go on that symbolic date that they borrowed RAF bombers!

Later in the war, at peak strength, The Mighty Eighth could dispatch over 2000 four-engine bombers and more than 1000 fighters on a single mission.

‘This is a story that is unique to East Anglia,’ says Pete Waters, executive director of Visit East Anglia, the region’s tourism organisation which has created a new Friendly Invasion project working with US and UK museums and memorial groups. ‘But it is not as well-known as the road from D-Day to Berlin, or the campaign against the Japanese.’

Visit East Anglia is hoping that the announcement that a new HBO series based on Donald L Miller’s Masters of the Air book is being made by the production companies of Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg will encourage more Americans to discover the rich heritage their forebears created.

‘Masters of the Air is entirely about the Mighty Eighth in East Anglia. We want Americans to come and see where Grandpa Joe came to serve and where Grandma Mabel maybe came from,’ adds Waters. ‘This is a story as much about social history as military.’

East Anglia’s links with America stretch back to the Founding Fathers – the highest percentage of passengers on The Mayflower came from the region. Abe Lincoln’s family came from the East of England, Thomas Paine, who wrote the pamphlets that arguably saved the Revolutionary War for George Washington, was born in the East of England, as was John Rolfe, who created The Special Relationship by marrying Pocahontas in the first inter-racial church wedding in north America and whose tobacco crop helped save Jamestown from bankruptcy. Where it not for Rolfe, Americans might now be speaking Spanish, French or even Dutch!

‘In inviting Americans to the region to experience The Friendly Invasion, we also want them to enjoy our contemporary visitor offering,’ says Waters. ‘We have wonderful links golf courses, two whisky distilleries, medieval castles, ‘Downton Abbeys’ in abundance, two cities in medieval Norwich and university Cambridge that are great for shopping, culture and arts, this is the rural home of the Royal Family, and, of course, we have superb spa hotels, fabulous fine dining, afternoon teas and quaint country pubs.’

After Band of Brothers aired on HBO, tourism in Normandy saw a 40% uplift in visitors from the US. Visit East Anglia is hoping that can be replicated with Masters of the Air.

‘In 1942 Americans came to the east of England,’ adds Waters. ‘Now we’d like to invite Americans back. They can be assured of a welcome as warm and friendly as their compatriots received seventy-five years ago.’

For more details visit the website, visiteastofengland.com

First published in The American magazine (www.theamerican.co.uk) June 2017

 

Leave a comment

Filed under American History, Local Interest, Memorial Library, Uncategorized, World War 2