Over ten years ago I met Joe Shea. He was in his 80s then. When he was 18 he’d been a pilot flying P51 Mustangs for the 357th Fighter Group of the 8th US Army Airforce, at Station 373, Leiston Airfield.
He stayed with us a few times when he came over for the Memorial service at the end of May, each time for about ten days. It was hard on the liver. And he told stories. The first time it was hard to get stories out of him until he’d had a few drinks. He didn’t want people to think he thought he was a hero, he said. It’s hard to find a way of saying ‘yes sure, but you’ll be dead soon and those stories are going to be gone with you.’ The second visit the stories came tumbling out.
One of them made the hair on the back of my head go up. We were sitting in the oldest part of the house, which meant it was built probably before 1600, while the rest of the house extended around it, once in the early 1800s, once long before that and again in the 1980s. I loved that oldest part of the house. It protected you. I used to sit in there on my own up late when my partner was away, completely secure. It’s where we had the kitchen table. That night with Joe it was where we also had leather-smelling grappa, which sadly, I tend to drink like squash. Joe had never heard of it. He liked it too.
It was gone midnight. Joe was telling us about how his airplane was about 200mph faster than the bombers they were supposed to be escorting. 400mph faster the time they picked up a tail wind above 30,000 feet, got to Berlin in just over two hours from Suffolk and never even saw the planes they were supposed to protect. He told me how you never wanted to get too close to the bombers because they’d shoot at you anyway on general principles, as well as how B24s in particular had a habit of exploding as soon as the bomb doors opened. And how you sat there and saw people start to fall five miles and there wasn’t anything you could do about it at all. You’re eighteen.
Then he told me how he flew in a finger-span of four airplanes and how they had to cross and re-cross the bomber stream continously, for five hours or more, the inside plane throttling right back as it turned, the outside one speeding up and turning wide, then a minute later doing the same thing in reverse.
He told me about the time a whole pack of them found one single German airplane miles below and dived on it, firing, turning it into powder.
He told me you had to be careful in a dive like that, with 700 on the airspeed indicator. Firstly, you had to scream to level out the pressure inside your ears. Secondly, if you couldn’t keep the bubble level in the indicator where it should be there was a good chance your wings would just come off. It happened to a buddy he was following over Bawdsey once, when someone decided they should practice dive-bombing. I didn’t really understand what he meant by this bubble.
Suddenly this old man was up on his feet, leaning across the table, shoving his face in mine, shouting.
“What do you mean, you don’t know? You were there!”
I don’t know who he thought I was, that moment. Nor when he thought we were.
There was a pause, then time sorted itself out in his head and everything was back to normal. Sort of. I still remember it.
But I also remember the story he told me about the time he walked out of a dance in Ipswich to go home, or at least back to Leiston airfield and discovered his last transport had gone. He was flying next day. He had to walk.
I’ve meant to do this walk for the past ten years. I walked the first part two weeks ago, from Ipswich station to Woodbridge. That’s five miles. It’s another twelve to Saxmundham, another three to the airfield from there.
I’m recording the walk for Radio Suffolk this weekend. I’ve written a half-hour script and I still need a female voice and some 1940s vehicles; I’m recording them tomorrow at Ramsholt, where a group of them are gathering as a memorial to the ten men who died there when their plane ditched in the Orwell, 75 years before.
I tried cycling it today but the A12 isn’t the place for a bike and there are no footpaths for a lot of that section. I found maps from 1947, 1955 and 1969; first Woodbridge got a bypass after the war, then the A12 was dualled in 1976. I walked the old roads, stepping out into the past.