They sounded like Clark Gable, Mickey Rooney or some Damon Runyon character to ears raised on the Americana of Hollywood. Countless evenings spent in local cinemas had attuned East Anglicans to the dialects of the Deep South, Mid-America and New York, and here, in their midst, those accents (or something closely resembling them) were suddenly everywhere, it seemed.
Americans, real Americans, were everything theyd ever supposed. Confident, outgoing, friendly (some said excessively so) and something of a blow between the eyes for many in the quiet backwaters of rural East Anglia; they were Tyrone Power and Cary Grant personified to the mass of English girls in love with the originals. In reality, they were largely as young and naive as their admirers. As fascinated by the handkerchief-sized fields and Tudor-type scenery that met their preconceived ideas of lil old England, as were the natives themselves by the belief that these newly acquired friends really did know Hedy Lamarr or Spencer Tracy.
Certainly, however far-fetched a few impressive claims, some could honestly say they had seen the Sunset Boulevards and San Fernando Valleys of that world, for California was no less likely to supply a son than was Maine or Connecticut. Indeed, they came from quite literally every corner of their homeland. Louisiana or Vermont, Oregon or Florida, New Mexico or New York; whichever one was asked his home state, he could supply a name guaranteed to evoke images of mint juleps or ivy-league colleges, cowboys or yellow cabs. That, after all, was what the USA consisted of. We knew. Wed seen it all via RKO, Columbia, Paramount or MGM. There was no kidding us!
There was no kidding the new arrivals either, once they had tasted the traumas of their trade, visiting hostile Europe. Together with the RAF, whose night raids kept the enemy under 24-hour threat, the Eighth and Ninth Air Forces began their strategic and tactical daylight bombing, and were to maintain it for almost a thousand days. From the fields of East Anglia the Fortresses and Liberators, Marauders, Lightnings, Thunderbolts, Mustangs etc., faced fearsome opposition from flak and fighters alike. As the pressure increased on the enemy, so too did the casualties suffered by the Eighth and Ninth.
Fortune, of course, was as fickle as ever. Among Heavy Bombardment Groups, the 446th (Bungay Buckaroos) with their Suffolk-based B24 Liberators, were able to boast 62 and 68 consecutive missions without loss to their 706 and 707 squadrons respectively. Others werent so lucky. The 100th Group, for instance, earned its unwanted title of The Bloody Hundredth from the devastating losses suffered throughout the 30 months it operated its B-17 Fortresses out of Thorpe Abbotts, near Diss in Norfolk. From the more southern reaches of Anglia the newcomers were no less involved. Such as Ridgewell and Nuthampstead were home to the 381st and 398th Bombardment Groups respectively. The 381st suffering the most losses of any group involved in the initial Schweinfurt raid of August 1943. Nuthampsteads 398th did not take up residence until some eight months later, but from the time their 600, 601, 602 and 603 Squadrons first acquired the Hertfordshire airfield as home - on April 22nd 1944 - their involvement was as total as that of their fellows.
At Bassingbourn, alongside a Roman highway, which marks the presence of earlier overseas visitors, 91st Group arrived in mid-October 1942, and stayed until the third week of June 1945. During that time its four squadrons (322, 323, 324 and 401) achieved some remarkable - if sometimes unwelcome - records. Of all 8th Air Force bomb groups, the gunners of 91st could claim the highest number of enemy aircraft destroyed (420), but this was shared with the dubious honor of carrying the greatest loss in the 8th - with 197 aircraft missing in action. It was the first group to operate against the Ruhr; the first to complete 100 missions; and led the infamous Schweinfurt raid of August 1943. With around 9,600 sorties to their names, the aircraft of the 91st became as famous as any. Not least through the titles their crews allotted them. Giving names to lumps of metal has much the same effect as doing likewise to such normally despised creatures as the spider or the snake. Once awarded a sobriquet - preferably a chummy one - the subject becomes not only less fearsome, but often positively lovable!
Thus the products of Boeing, Consolidated, Martin and other faceless manufacturers, became characters. Aircraft like 390th Groups Calamity Jane lived up to her name by getting herself wrecked in a taxiing accident almost as soon as she arrived at Framlingham, and so became the supplier of spare parts to sister B-17s as she took on the role of hangar queen. Similarly aptly named was a Nuthampstead-based B-17 entitled, Was It Well? Her 112 missions making her 600 Squadrons most consistent export to the Reich. Ridgewells 381st Group saw its (euphemistically named) Tough Stuff, struck on its inner-starboard engine by a Focke Wulf 190, which cart wheeled over the wing. Miraculously, the B-17 made it back to England, complete with bits of Focke Wulf attached! Names like Southern Comfort, The Eight Ball, Geronimo, Nine Yanks and a Rebel (reference to its crews origins), Los Angeles City Limits and - most famous of all, Memphis Belle, abounded of course, as links with home was stressed.
A B-24 titled: You Cant Miss It, conversely made use of the English connection; gently mocking a thoroughly British style of giving directions to strangers. Whatever else, variety and imagination whenever lacking. Pistol Packin Momma (the first to complete 100 missions), Out House Mouse (a survivor with 139 sorties under her belt!), Hang The Expense (a fittingly named lady, whose frequent crash-landings resulted in seven editions of her!), Our Gang, Stric Nine, The Sad Sack; every one immortal.
Popular songs of the day were commemorated on many a flak-spattered fuselage too: Sentimental Journey, Ill Get By, Kalamazoo, Jersey Bounce, Frenesi, Moonlight Serenade, Tangerine, Stormy Weather. Of course, such titles meant pretty much the same to the British as they did to the visiting airmen. We knew them well enough. Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Count Basie - there was scarcely a household, it seemed, that didnt reverberate to their sounds at some time or other. We were hooked! And weve been hooked on it all ever since.
The sounds, sights and people of America; their foibles, faults and virtues, and their inherent good. They had it then, just as they do today. The proof was in the sacrifices made by those who shared the sunshine and rain of East Anglia with us around half a century ago. Some remain with us to this day; asleep in the fields of an Anglia they helped to preserve and which their presence enriches. Although, remain with us in spirit. They helped create a mix that cannot be diluted by time: East Anglican boys from Kansas, New Jersey, Idaho, Texas, Virginia, Illinois, Michigan and New England.
James Anderson served with the RAF shortly after WW II, working in control towers similar to the one at Station 131. He wrote this column to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the USAF in England.