Last year my husband, Peter, and I returned from a trip to England, which included a visit to Cambridge. My father, Philip Stahlman, a Lieutenant with the 398th Bomb Group, 601st Squadron, was stationed near there, at Nuthampstead. As part of our trip, we arranged to meet members of the Friends of the Eighth Air Force with whom my parents had stayed during a tour a few years ago. I could not have known how affected I would be by this visit and also by my stop at the American Military Cemetery outside Cambridge.
As Nick and Jane Eve, our kind hosts, drove us around the abandoned air base, I could only imagine what it must have been like for my father and the thousands of other young men who risked their lives far from home for freedom. Dad rarely talked about his wartime experiences, but when we were old enough to ask and to understand, we learned that he very nearly did not return from his last flight.
It was 1944 and he was flying a make-up mission, having missed a previously scheduled flight due to illness. Dad was flying copilot with a crew he had never flown with before. Over Germany, their B-17 was hit by enemy fire. The nose of the plane was completely shot off and the nose gunner was killed instantly. That the remaining crewmembers were able to land subsequently (after hours of flying) safely back at Nuthampstead is a tale that still inspires awe and disbelief.
To quote from dads hometown newspaper at the time: Lieutenant Philip H. Stahlman has been awarded an Oak Leaf Cluster to his Distinguished Flying Cross for his extraordinary achievement while serving as co-pilot on a B-17 Flying Fortress bombing mission over Germany on October 15, 1944. The airplane which Lieutenant Stahlman was flying was struck by a direct burst of flak. A shell pierced the chin turret and exploded in the nose, killing the bombardier instantly and completely destroying the nose section. All instruments except the altimeter and a magnetic compass were rendered inoperative. An icy blast of wind coming through the open nose compelled the pilot and Lieutenant Stahlman to descend to a lower altitude. The nose covering peeled back as a result of the explosion and covered almost all of the windows, making visibility very limited. Lieutenant Stahlman went through the airplane, informing the crew to prepare to bail out. Upon returning to the cockpit, he observed that the pilot was working desperately to maintain control, which was becoming increasingly difficult due to the suction of air through the open nose. He immediately went to the controls and aided immeasurably in completing the return flight to the home base, despite the numerous difficulties involved. The courage, coolness and skill displayed by Lieutenant Stahlman reflect the highest credit upon himself and the Armed Forces of the United States.
And here I am, along with seven brothers and sisters, to tell the tale, which Ill wager many of you have heard before. Of course we would not be here if dad had not made it back. At that time, he was half my present age, and as young as one of our sons now.
Our hosts then took us to the Woodman Pub on the edge of Nuthampstead, where the airmen met to relax between flights. Its still very much a working pub, and very much dedicated to the 398th Bomb Group, as the monument outside attests. I was not prepared, however, to see on the wall of the pub a photo of dads plane with its nose shot off. Another photo of dad himself, from a recent reunion, smiled back at me from the wall, though tears obscured my vision momentarily. He was identified in the photo only as Second Pilot. As I drank my Pimms, I leafed through the visitors book and found dad and moms signatures from their visit a few years ago. Peter and I added ours, and felt we were among excellent company.
Dad later told me a story about the dedication of the pubs monument to the 398th in 1982. In the middle of the prayer service, a terrible wind and driving rain suddenly whipped up. The Friends of the Eighth did not move. They were steadfast and remained unflinching (though drenched) until the end of the service. Sandwiches and table service all blew away. When the sun came out, new sandwiches and refreshments appeared magically out of nowhere. Nick and Jane Eve provided some insight as to this attitude of deep respect and gratitude on the part of the British toward the American military in WW II. Without their help, Nick said quietly, England might have been a very different country today. How do we ever repay that? The Eves, both in their forties, were not even born at the time the first Americans flew from Nuthampstead and hundreds of other air bases in the Cambridge area. Yet here we were, two second-generation couples who had never met before that day, brought together by their love and respect for these airmen, one in particular.
My visit to the American Military Cemetery later that week was similarly moving. One is first struck by the order and tranquility of the place. The pristine grounds, including the beautiful rose garden, are so lovingly attended. White marble crosses and Stars of David, as well as the wall of the names of the missing, bear witness to the sacrifice of those who gave their lives so that others might be free. I was unprepared, however, for the emotions that welled up within as I stepped into the chapel dedicated to the U.S. Airmen. A stunning mosaic of angels, blue sky, and golden airplanes line the chapel walls and entire ceiling. Windows bear the seals of every state in the Union. This surely is the translation of the emotions of an artist who understood what had happened here. The words of the tribute around the perimeter of the mosaic ceiling say so beautifully and fittingly what is felt by so many. Humbled, I gazed upward and read: In proud and grateful memory of those men of the U.S. Army Air Force who from these friendly skies flew their final flight and met their God. They knew not the hour, the day, nor the manner of their passing, when far from home they were called to join that heroic band of airmen who had gone before. May they rest in peace.
Since my return to America, I have talked with my father about my trip, which I now feel to have been a pilgrimage. He now shares with me as an adult some of the details about his war experiences that I never would have understood or appreciated before. But there are many details that Im sure can only be shared with those who have a collective memory of what took place from 1942 to 1945 from air bases all over East Anglia. Part of the great value of the Air Force reunions my parents attend is that they are gathered together with the only people who can ever really understand. That is, those who flew their missions with them, and perhaps the spouses who have shared their lives. The British also understand, at least that generation, and to a lesser extent some of the younger (my) generation.
It must not end there. The British have their "Friends of the Eighth," a wonderful, dedicated group. Who will keep the spirit and the appreciation alive here at home for the sacrifice that was given 50 years ago by this outstanding collection of young men and women? It must be us, the "friends and family" of the Eighth Air Force and the 398th Bomb Group, who continue to educate and remind present and future generations what they did to secure the freedoms we so easily take for granted today.
Thank you dad, with gratitude and love.