Sunday, November 11, 2012

Yanks: the war years with the USAAF ( 457 Bomber Group ) in Connington village, UK.

Yeah, and we meant it!

My brothers Paul and John

Although you would never know it from my North American accent I was born a little Englishman. It was 1942, the Second World War was raging, and there was an air raid in progress. Today, I jokingly tell my German friends that even when I was born there were Germans close by, a few thousand feet away, straight up!

Tommy Gough

I think this is Joe Kaputi. He is also the one who met us off the boat in NY and took the train with us to Montreal to be sure we got off to a good start.

In reality, I have few specific memories of the war years although our family was very much in the centre of it. We had an American Airbase in our village of Connington just on the edge of the fens in East Anglia and those airmen seemed to have spent much of their non flying time at our house. A scant few years in reality, the same time period that flies by so quickly today, but full of meaning and excitement for our family and for those Yanks.

Soon after the war ended we emigrated to Canada, and even that could be traced back to the excitement that these Yanks brought and to the end-of-war let down, and all the rationing, the rules and restrictions that continued for years after the war. “Come to Victoria”, a wartime friend said, and so we sold up our lovely old thatched cottage, Dad left a secure future in agriculture and all seven of us lit out for the new world, like so many others, seeking a larger, freer, more fulfilling life.

Little Bill
That smart outfit was sent for me bythe mother of one of those Yanks

It is here that my child memory, at age three, begins to create a continuous narrative. Sailing across the Atlantic on the Swedish liner, the Gripsholm, being met in New York by one of those Yanks from the war years who insisted on accompanying us to Montreal
by train and staying with us to be sure we got off to a good start. The train ride across Canada, Mom cooking meals in the communal kitchen car, a stop on the Prairies to stay with dad’s sister Dot and finally settling into a house on Saul street in Victoria on Vancouver island. I still have my English accent but will loose it when we move again to Mill Bay and I start school.

My parents and eldest sister Pat continued to get letters and receive visits from those American airmen; the album has photos of the girlfriend, and then the wife and the children beside slowly ageing men. Little tins of Christmas cake arrive, post marked U.S.A. Tommy Gough has been back to Connington to the dedication of a monument in the local churchyard. To the squadron this place represents a vital moment in their young lives, the loss of many companions in the defence of another country, - one that their history lessons about the revolutionary war defined as a repressive and hated parent country. What a difficult transition many of them must have gone through on finding themselves on the same side in war and over on our side of the Atlantic. How important it must have been for them to find a welcome, a family, at the end of yet another mission over enemy skies. A reason for their risk or probable sacrifice.

There are memories from my elder brothers and sister from those years, but they are now fragmentary.
What is this guy’s name?” I ask, looking through the album, only to find that their childhood years and memories of them are far, far back. “Maybe that is Joe? Kaputi? Johnny Wanamaker?”
But this one with his arm around your shoulders, here he is too with the whole family?”
It turns out that our parents knew this detail but all died with them. I have some of the stories second hand but not enough to create a realistic narrative. Perhaps detail is not so important after all, individual names blend into that moment in history when all was young and vital and each day a threat of annihilation.

Here are a few fragments however.
I remember seeing a flag over a hedge, an American flag I am told.

My Father walks around our house during air raids on the look out for incendiary devices. Our 300 year old home has a thatched roof that would go up like a bomb. The family shelters under the big oak table.

A crashed German plane in a nearby field is pillaged by a stream of airmen seeking souvenirs. It later explodes from a bomb.

Mom is always cooking meals for the Yanks using food “provided” from the base stores. Presumably we got a share in return. Tight rationing for British families.

Dad is very interested in hearing stories of the latest mission. Wounded in WWI, he is out of this one but has his village Home Guard unit. Brother John listens in.

The first Americans we meet are the engineers who built the airstrip. “What are those medal ribbons for?” Dad asks an old railroad engineer, recently arrived. “Well this is my WWI, this is from my state, this from my railroad union, this for enlisting...” Not wrong, just different from the British system. We need to adjust to American ways too, but really they are mostly so nice that is not so difficult. And yet our village feels as occupied as many a village on the other side of the channel. My dad has spent years of his youth in Canada and the US, only returning for WWI. He feels an empathy for these boys so far from home. They return our welcome many times over.

My parents stand outside in the night and watch the city of Coventry burn from a massive and deliberately scorched-earth air raid. When later, Germany feels the bite of devastating Allied raids there is little sympathy here. They started it but we will finish it. Hard words, strong emotions.

My brothers watch the con-trails in the sky as fighters and bombers grapple far overhead. They race around acting out these battles. My brother Paul is still to this day called 'Hawker' ( Hurricane). They build an 'ack-ack gun' in the orchard out of old pipe overlooking the runway. The village bobby comes to put a stop to their pretending when the returning aircraft come under 'fire' . The poor guys with jangled nerves did not appreciate even this bit of fun at the end of yet another daylight mission.

A time when the sky is filled with aircraft: Dakotas full of parachutists and gliders packed with soldiers under tow, all headed for Normandy and the beginning of the liberation of Europe.

Those big B 17four engined aircraft would no longer roar past our house and stagger into the air with a heavy load of bombs or limp home again full of holes. Those young men who had swept into our family’s life would be of home. But those that survived the war would remember us all their lives as we would equally honour and remember them.

Today is Remembrance Day here is Canada and there is much on the radio about those that gave their lives during the wars of the last century and, unfortunately, in this new one too. It is interesting to think about those on the receiving end of all the bombs carried by those B 17s. I met a German man while we were sailing the Pacific who had been a teenager in the Hitler Youth and had hauled the injured from collapsed buildings. Perhaps he was on the receiving end of those same bombs loaded on aircraft just down the road from our home and dropped by those nice young men we knew as friends. Such is war.

He said to me,” You know Bill, we could have won the war.” and I replied, diplomatically I hope, 'Yes, but wasn’t it just as well you didn’t? Even allowing for the bias of history written by the victors, and allowing also that not every SS Officer ( his father) was a monster, surely we can agree that a world ruled by the leadership of the Nazi party would have been worse than the Roman Empire ever was?” He had no good answer to that.

Andy Highberger? he had something to do with building the airfield. It was he that dad asked about his medals.

Tommy and Becky, my mother

On the Gripsholm. I remember that little toy in my hands

'The old Lodge', our home beside the great north road where the entrance to the camp was situated.
Dressed in celebration of the end of the war.

1 comment:

Ernst Göran Westlund said...

I have a comment on the notion of your German friend that they could as well has won the war. My comment is based on what Werner Heisenberg has said in his biographical book Der Teil und das Ganze. He stayed in Germany during war. He was convinced from the beginning that Germany would loose, and the reason he stayed was that he felt the obligation to help the German youth after the war. He said that the Germans simply didn't have the necessary resources to match the USA, and he must have been convinced that it was only a matter of time before the USA should join the allied forces. So a resource depleted Germany, lead by a madman, had no chance to win. But sure they had the possibility to create havoc.