398th Bomb Group

School Boy Remembers Yanks Who Came to Nuthampstead

Roy Casson

At long last (I can't believe it has been 60 years) I have got around to doing what I should have done long ago. Basically, it is a great, big "thank you" letter.

As a bye-the-bye, I am writing this in the Park Marina Hotel in Malta whilst on a holiday. Some 10 feet away is a group of British World War II Navy veterans who were stationed here back then. They are talking about those days, which is contributing to my own reminiscing mood.

Before the war in Nuthampstead and before the airfield was built, I was a young schoolboy living with my grandparents, Henry and Emilly Chappel at the Chequers in Anstey. I was known as Roy Chappel in those days. (Hi Yvonne).

The quiet, country roads were suddenly turned into chaos with trucks of all shapes and sizes, lumbering along and giving us kids a newfound source of fun, like jumping on the back and hanging off, much to the consternation of the drivers and other spoilsport grown-ups.

It soon transpired that something big was happening and when news got around that an airfield was being built just across the fields at Nuthampstead- WOW!

After a while we started to see some strange men in funny uniforms who spoke funny. They, we discovered, were Americans from far across the sea where they had lots of brown skinned people who had feathers in their hair, rode horses without saddles, used bows and arrows and were chased by men called "cowboys." They wore funny hats, carried six-guns and looked after cows.

Well, the Americans (or Yanks, as we learned to call them although they called themselves GI's) didn't seem to be like any of those. They looked like normal men, even if they talked funny.

Actually, they were not normal. They were some of the nicest, friendliest, generous people who saw to it that us kids in the area had the most happiest of wars which compensated to some extent for those whose dads were perhaps away in the war.

From the time the Yank airfield construction engineers arrived probably in 1943, until the departure of the 398th in 1945, my life revolved around the Yanks. Would you believe, I never ever said, "got any gum, chum?"

I had many meals (chow) on the base in various places, even in the Officers' Mess, though they made me wash before I ate! What was this rationing thing our folks talked about? I never noticed any. I saw many films on the base, sometimes from the other side of the screen.

Frequently, I was given lifts in a truck (which I learned to say-not "lorry"). At a stage show I was pushed on the stage to assist a magician and learned to take the butt of jokes and to do the 5-ring trick. Another time Bob Hope was here and he referred to us kids on the side of the stage as looking like Bing Crosby's back yard!

On a couple of occasions, when the weather was particularly bad on the base, I slept overnight in the beds that belonged to aircrew on a night raid. Needless to say, I came home with lots of goodies.

If ever there was an excuse to give us kids a party, they would put one on, with transport to and from home. More goodies, again!

One of the most frequent questions I was asked was, "do you have a big sister?" I had to answer that I didn't but that I had an aunt who was about 20 and that we lived at the Chequers Pub in Anstey. I don't know how much extra business I brought in to the pub but thanks to Aunt Betsy I got a few extra goodies from the Yanks.

A good friend to us was a guy called, "Pops." He was a cook and on one occasion he gave me a quart jug of ice cream to take home. I'm afraid only a pint made it home.

Any cuts and scratches I got I would go to the base hospital to get fixed up and whilst there I usually had a chat with some of the patients.

For a while, I was "in" with Battle Headquarters, who seemed to be in control of various gun emplacements around the base and I used to go around and say "hello" to the men. At times, I was encouraged by the guys at BHQ to answer the phone and pretend I was a girl.

I used to spend hours on the side of the southwest end of the runway watching the planes going out on raids and coming back all battered and weary. How some of them made it back in their condition amazed me and some just barely made it only to crash land.

Just across the field from Anstey was the 602 Squadron and I used to spend time with them, watching the planes being loaded with bombs and crew and then seeing them take off. Other times watching them come back, taxi in, the crews coming out, sometimes needing an ambulance, looking tired but still having time to give that little kid a candy bar.

One of the greatest experiences of my life was one time-probably the ground crew chief-took me on board one of those planes that had just come back. He told me to sit in the cockpit, flick this switch, press that button, pump that thing and, low and behold, I became probably the only 10-year-old in the world to start the engines of a B-17!

One of the fun things we did (and you may find this hard to believe) we used to find live flares and ammunition as used in the planes, not rifles and pistols, and take the ends off the cannon shells, remove the detonators, place on the ground and throw rocks until they exploded. The smaller caliber we would knock heads from the base, pour out the gun powder or whatever it was, light a match and watch it go "POOF. We got to know the color codes of these and avoided the tracers.

The flares, I recall, we lit a small fire, emptied the case and threw the contents into the fire. Remember, we hadn't even reached teen-age!

One of the not-fun happenings was the B-17 crash just behind the church at Anstey. I was in bed at the time and rudely awakened by a big bang, followed by the crack of exploding ammunition. I rushed to the window and there, just a few hundred yards away, above the treetops were the flickering lights of flames showing through the thick smoke in the region of the church.

Shortly after, someone came through the village warning everyone to stay clear of the windows. A plane had crashed, fully laden with bombs which may explode! So, of course, I had to go and look. I was soon as near as I could get, which was on the road. What greeted me was what appeared to be great chaos, with fire engines, ambulances and other vehicles milling about and people all over the place.

Later, when I got onto the mound (illegally, or not) I recovered a parachute which probably became some girl's underwear. I kept the parachute cords for a long time.

One or two more recollections-

At certain times of the day, bugle calls came over the tannoy system, some of which caused all the personnel outside to stand to attention until it stopped. So little me stood at attention as well though not knowing why.

One or two guys had pet monkeys, but I was brought up on Camels, Lucky Strike, Coke (the drinking kind), and assorted candy.

My experiences made me want to be a waist gunner in the RAF when I grew up. I didn't make it, or air crew, but I did make the RAF and served for 14 years.

For those that didn't know, the base eventually became part displaced persons camp, part POW camp (one of whom used to borrow my bike) and part bomb dump.

Finally, the runways were dug up and used in the building of the M-1 Motorway. So Station 131 is still out there!

I believe the 2004 "One Last Look" tour will be the last one and I hope to be at the Woodman Inn, Anstey Church and the Chequers. In my mind, I will be a young kid in short pants and all the veterans will be dressed in khaki and sporting fresh, young faces. All, of course, speaking in those funny accents.

Modified and transcribed from the Flak News by Lee Anne Bradley

Printed in Flak News Volume 19, Number 2, Page(s) 5 & 9, April 2004

See also:

  1. Roy Casson, UK Friend of the 398th Bomb Group Video Interview (1h 2m 39s)

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