Tag Archives: WWII

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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Exploring the role of women in the War effort

By Danielle Prostrollo

Women played an important part of World War II. It is easy to get behind this idea, but it was difficult for me to get a clear image of what that effort really looked like. Everyone knows how important women were as nurses throughout the War effort, but there were many more who worked outside the hospitals, such as the Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASP). This group was formed through the 1943 merger of the Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD) and Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) and trained over 1,000 women.

These civilian women freed male pilots to be ready for combat. The WASPs were trained pilots who were utilised in all manner of non-combat flying. Without these women, combat pilots would not have had aircraft to fly. Women flew eighty percent of all ferrying missions, delivering over 12,000 aircraft in just over two years. They estimate it that this freed up over 900 male pilots for combat missions. When a ferrying mission came in, the WASPs would go to the factory, take the plane on a test mission, and then deliver it to the air base. They flew almost every type of aircraft used by the USAAF, including the notable B-29 Super Fortress.

In 1943, the WASPs also assisted in combat training, towing shooting targets at Camp Davis. This proved to be a dangerous task. On more than one occasion, the women were shot down because the men mistakenly thought they should shoot the airplane rather than the target they were towing. Eleven WASPs lost their lives during training programs across the US, including Mabel Virginia Rawlinson. Rawlinson had been flying with an instructor when her plane malfunctioned and ultimately crashed. The instructor was thrown from the aircraft, but she was stuck inside the pilot’s seat. It was later discovered that her plane, among others used for towing shooting practice, had not been adequately maintained and the Army Air Corps had been using the wrong octane fuel in them.

As civilians, the WASPs were not considered part of the military and therefore did not receive military benefits. Besides not being considered veterans, this had very real financial implications for those who served as WASPs. Each woman had to pay for their own uniform as well as room and board. Additionally, from the group’s inception in 1943 until it was dissolved in late 1944, 38 WASPs lost their lives (and one disappeared). The bodies of these women were shipped home and buried at the expense of their families rather than receiving a military funeral.

It wasn’t until 1977 that they were retroactively granted veteran’s benefits which allowed them to partake in the programs administered by the Veterans Association. In 2009, WASP received the Congressional Gold Medal, which is on display at Boeing in Chantilly, Virginia. These were just some of the women of World War II who answered the call to protect their country, but knowing about their efforts has helped me to paint a better picture of what role women played at that time.

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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

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Kassel Mission ~ 71st Anniversary

An update from the Kassel Mission Historical Society 

As we reflect upon the 71st anniversary of the Kassel Mission of 27
September 1944, let us all bow our heads and remember the 136 wonderful men
on both sides who gave their lives that day. Let us rejoice that five of our
MIAs of the Hansen Crew are getting the attention they deserve as their
remains have been recovered at the site this summer. If you don’t know about
this, go to the Kassel Mission Historical Society group page on Facebook.
The details and a link to see the archaeological dig are there.

We are grateful to the DPAA for finally digging on this site, to our friends
in Germany who brought attention to it, to our military liaison, Rob Rumsby,
for contacting us in 2012 on our Facebook page and making it happen, and to
Eb Haelbig for taking the team there an showing them the hot spots that
resulted in a successful dig. We are still working on identifying two more
MIAs and hoping to locate the remains of the final MIA, Raymond Ische, who
was the lead 445th navigator.

Bless the hearts of all of you veterans of the mission who read this today.
You are true survivors and have stuck with this organization through thick
and thin. Congratulations to each of you on a very full, long life. And
bless all of you members, friends and family of our dear departed, and for
those of you who gather in support of our Cause–being sure the Kassel
Mission is remembered.

We still have work to do. The DPAA recovered much in the way of plane parts,
both from the Hansen plan and the nearby Bruce plane. They originally agreed
to give KMHS the pieces to display at the Kassel Mission museum in Eisenach,
but have now agreed to give them all to the German state of Hesse’s
archaeologists. We are protesting this and hope to resolve it in our favor.
We will let you know how it goes.

You will notice in the DPAA video from the Armed Forces Network news, if you
go to the Facebook Page, that the video says nothing about the Kassel
Mission. The focus is on the good work that the DPAA is doing; it mentions
the location of the dig-Richelsdorf; and that these are WWII bombers. We
intend to add the Kassel Mission and B-24s to that in the news in a press
conference we are organizing that will be hopefully in the next few weeks
where we will tell the story. Stay tuned.

To the men who died and the men who lived to tell about it, we salute you
all today.

Linda Alice Dewey
President, Kassel Mission Historical Society
www.kasselmission.com 

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