Living where I do, I am surrounded by former air bases of the USAAF `Mighty Eighth`. I cannot go for a ride on my bike without passing, within a matter of 10 minutes, villages that were `home` to thousands of American servicemen. This photograph and the words below are those of Clive Stevens, an amateur historian whose home is on the edge of what was once one of those bases, near the village of Eye, Suffolk. Clive and I spoke at length a few years ago of our mutual interest in this particular piece of military history. It transpired that he came from the village that once housed officers and men of Easy Company, 506th PIR of the 101st Airborne. During the research for the HBO series `Band of Brothers`, Clive and his family met Stephen Ambrose, many of the production team and most importantly, members of those veterans of Easy Company who featured in that series. Some of this visit was captured on film and is available to view here.
On August 17th 1943, the US Eighth Air Force flying from England were to suffer one of their worst daylight combat missions of the war. By the end of the day, 60 Flying Fortress aircraft were missing, representing some 600 empty beds across the airfields of East Anglia. Out of those 600 missing airmen who had taken off that morning, many were to become Prisoners of War and many paid the ultimate price.
Whilst not wishing to disregard any of the units or men that participated in this terrible battle in the skies over Europe, the 100th Bomb Group (Thorpe Abbotts), 381st Bomb Group (Ridgewell), 390th Bomb Group (Framlingham) and the 91st Bomb Group (Bassingbourn) suffered the worst casualties of the day, with the 91st BG loosing 10 aircraft.
The photograph below shows a newly arrived 322nd Squadron crew to Bassingbourn in May 1943, in fact the pilot is still wearing his chino service cap, as this crew were not originally destined to come to England; their orders only being changed from an assignment to the Pacific Theatre at the 11th hour. The sadness as we study this photograph today is that the pilot (Lt Robert Schweitzer was killed flying with another crew over Emden and Lt Richard Martin (shown in the front row wearing his sheepskin B3 flying jacket 2nd right) was killed on this day over Schweinfurt when his B-17F Mizpah, was crippled by enemy attack.
Quoting from Ray Bowden’s excellent book ‘Plane Names & Fancy Noses’……………………………………………”The aircraft was repeatedly attacked by enemy fighters where they poured burst after burst of exploding 20mm cannon fire in the cockpit and walked machine gun bullets along the fuselage and into number 2 engine. The aircraft was seen going into a dive, loosing 1000 feet per minute but under control at 15,000 feet. But the inside of the plane was like a slaughter house with the pilot killed by 20mm fire and the co-pilot Lt George Bryan decapitated. The right waste gunner was dead as was the tail gunner. Miraculously five of the crew had survived and began to bail out, but the Navigator’s parachute (Lt Richard Martin – Shown) failed to deploy and he was later found dead. Mizpah ’til death us do part’ had proved a tragically apt choice of name for several of the crew.”
Bombardier James Harlow (second left), Captain C P Chima and the rest of the enlisted men shown survived the war. Spare a thought for the 600 men who never came home on that day, this month, seventy-two years ago.