Gail Fisher, a 2nd generation 398th Memorial Association member, wrote the following article that appeared in the Travel section of the East Valley Tribune newspaper based in Mesa, Arizona, on August 13, 2000. The Nuthampstead story appeared along with her Cambridge Connections story. She is the daughter of Fran and Bill Fisher, a former 398th 603 Squadron B-17 pilot.
About 30 minutes south of Cambridge lies the pastoral village of Nuthampstead. Agriculture, grazing land and sprays of wild yellow and red flowers fill the landscape without little, if any, hint that this site was strategic to the United States 8th Air Force during WW II.
Comfortable homes with names like Willow Cottage, Willow Bank, Bridgefoot Farm Cottage and Snow End House take their place in this rural countryside along with the Woodman Inn, the village pub. Nearby the Norman and Gothic inspired St. Georges Church Anstey has served this community since 1290.
The thatch roofed, 17th century Woodman Inn is a local landmark and was a hangout for WW II airmen. Its interior is filled with photos and memorabilia from the 398th Air Force. Today the Woodman Inn offers bed and breakfast accommodation, local golfing facilities and a grass landing strip for light aircraft.
I recently traveled to Nuthampstead with my parents, Mesa residents Bill and Fran Fisher, for a reunion of Dads 398th Bomb Group (Heavy), 8th Air Force, 1st Air Division, Station 131. The reunion was held in Nuthampstead and Cambridge. Dad, now 80, was a B-17 pilot, 603 Squadron, who flew 33 bombing missions.
Since the early 1980s, on the second Saturday in June, every other year, a commemoration service is held on the Woodman Inn grounds where a monument stands honoring those who perished from the 600, 601, 602 and 603 Squadrons of the 8th Air Force. These squadrons flew 195 combat missions over Europe between May 6, 1944 and April 25, 1945.
During the ceremony the local town band played and school children laid bouquets of flowers at the monument. Several hundred people, including visiting American veterans and their families and friends, the UK Friends of the 398th and area residents, turned out.
Local parish vicars led prayers and read scripture, hymns were sung, British and American flags were raised next to the memorial and moving speeches were delivered. The names of 293 men who left the runways at Nuthampstead and never returned were read aloud. Taps was sounded and a distant bagpipe played Amazing Grace. As the British and American national anthems played most of us struggled to sing through our emotion.
Following the service, the Woodman Inn served box lunches and drinks, and veterans and locals reminisced about the chaplain who used to stand at the end of the runway and wave to every flight taking off. Others recalled children watching the planes take off at the end of the runway.
Villagers, some living there since WW II, recounted how they used to count the number of planes taking off in the morning and how many returned at the end of the day. A village family and a pilot that they saved when his plane crashed on landing are all still friends today and were reunited at the reunion.
Other villagers and veterans recounted how a fully loaded B-17 crashed on take off into the mound of the old Norman Castle of Anstey by St. Georges Church. Miraculously the bombs did not explode as it would have destroyed Nuthampstead and St. Georges. Tragically all the crew died.
Not much remains of the Station 131 site. Cows graze, barley covers most of the area over the airstrips, a go-cart track occupies another part of the old runway, and the Nuthampstead Shooting Ground attracts locals and tourists.
Yet, an American flag flies every day in the middle of a barley field at the site of the old control tower. Local resident Peggy Wells tends this flagpole. She flies American flags sent over by widows and family from the military funerals of the 398th veterans.
A stained glass window was also dedicated this year in St. Georges Church. The three panel window depicts a climbing stream of B-17 bombers against a towering mass of clouds, a descending column of aircraft engulfed by a pillar of fire and a column of a mass of butterflies.
The wings of the butterflies are imprinted with the badges and the names of the 293 men who lost their lives while serving at Nuthampstead Station 131.
English artist Patrick Reyntiens and his son John Reyntiens designed the window. The UK Friends of the 398th and the 398th Bomb Group Association financed the window. Both groups were organized in the 1970s.
I never expected this trip to be so moving. Experiencing this link to my parents past, shortly before I was born, has connected me to them more deeply and more profoundly.
Dad never talked much about his war experiences while I was growing up, and I learned from the other second generation children attending the reunion that their fathers were mostly humble and reticent about their experiences too. Dad will always be my hero as a father, but now I recognize him as a hero to our country, too.
While Nuthampstead isnt likely to attract millions of tourists as Cambridge does, an out-of-the way visit to the Woodman Inn or St. Georges Church is a sublime reminder of those unsung young men who served our country.
Gail Fisher has lived in the Southeast Valley for over 40 years and is a Tempe resident. Reach her at email@example.com. The views expressed are those of the author.