Back in 2006 I met a Joe Shea, an American pilot who flew Mustang fighters out of Leiston in Suffolk. In 2009 and 2011 he stayed with my partner and I for ten days or so, while he was attending his squadron’s memorial service, the last week of May. That’s why I have the card of the Assistant Air Attache, Embassy of the United States of America on my desk as I write this. I met him, too. He was a Lieutenant Colonel, the same rank as the pilot got to before he retired after 30 years in the US Air Force.
We talked a lot. The first time he came over a lot of stories spilled out about his time in Suffolk, things he hadn’t said for seventy years. The second time, more stories, more memories. I’d stupidly bought a double CD of Swing music – that went on about 9am and went with us in the car as we trundled around the lanes looking for January to May 1945. In Suffolk it’s never that far away.
There’s a passage right at the beginning of Len Deighton’s book, Goodbye Micky Mouse, fiction, written in the 1980s, but Joe recognised a lot of the characters. There’d be a muttered: “I know that guy,” or “That guy that could dance, Major what was his name? Yeah, he wasn’t on our station but…” as he read it. The book opened now, or at least then, with older men in their 60s returning to an airfield in East Anglia, looking over the derelict huts and empty broken tarmac in a field, opening doors in piggeries and peering through cobwebbed windows to find the man each of them couldn’t see anymore, the man they remembered being, 40 years before. Then and now blurred in the book. It certainly blurred at my house one night when Joe and I were up late, listening to Swing music, drinking grappa as he debriefed on a mission eight hours out over Germany more than a half-century before.
He was describing a maneuver interrupted by the Luftwaffe. It was late. I didn’t really understand what he was describing, but it was something to do with his squadron flying in flights of four aircraft, having to swing back and forth across the stream of B17s or B24s because they were about 150 mph faster than the bombers, but not too close otherwise the gunners onboard wouldn’t take a chance of the single-engined fighters not being German and would instead start blasting away with Browning machine guns with bullets half an inch wide. It didn’t take a lot of those to put an airplane down – one solid hit with one bullet would smash a hole through an engine block, then or now.
All this slaloming back and forwards meant no autopilot. It meant the man on the outside of the flight of four had to power-up and turn wide until the flight had crossed the bomber stream, then throttle right back and turn tight back the other way now that he was the inside man on the turn. For six hours. Joe said it was tiring. I could see that it would be, apart from having to keep your head looking all around because although there were nowhere near as many German fighters as there had been they were still around, and now the Luftwaffe had jet aircraft a lot faster than the Mustangs.
Joe said something about another complicated manoevre somewhere high over Germany or Czechoslovakia and I didn’t follow it.
I said I didn’t understand.
Suddenly this little old man was across the table at me, snarling in my face.
“What do you mean you don’t understand? You were there!”
But I wasn’t. I wasn’t born for another fourteen years. I don’t know who Joe thought I was or had been or even at that moment,what year he thought it was now. At that moment I wasn’t entirely certain myself, holed up in the odd room at the old house I lived in, the front of it 200 years old, the alcove off the kitchen where we sat at least another hundred years older than that, the original room in the house. It had a different atmosphere to the rest of the rooms. I loved it. It was timeless and safe.
I gave him a book on strategic air tactics, “the stuff they didn’t bother to tell us about” as Joe put it. The old pilot who had been a young pilot liked it, especially the cover. It showed “a Messerschmitt one-ten on the correct course. Straight down into the ground with smoke coming out of it.” He didn’t hate Germans, now or then. He just hadn’t wanted to be killed by them.
The story that stayed with me more than all the others wasn’t mush to do with the war itself, although I suppose it actually had everything to do with it. Joe arrived in England on January 20th 1945 and met girls attached, unattached, married and (ahem) “working.” Towards the end of April, as the war in Europe was ending and the German airforce was rarely seen for flight after flight, Joe went to a dance in Ipswich and missed his lift back to Leiston. It’s twenty-two miles. He was supposed to be flying the next day, early, so he had to walk all the way.
I wrote a version of that story as a five minute broadcast for Radio Suffolk at the beginning of lockdown. I originally wrote it as a half-hour piece and had to cut and cut again, leaving out most of the things I’d noticed as I walked the route, seeing how the roads had changed. I’d wanted to frame it around the operator’s manual for the P51D Mustang I found online, then lost several laptops ago.
Today I found it again. I’m writing it up now, as I don’t know what to call it. It’s not really a novel. A psychic travel book, perhaps. A historical geography lesson. A psychogeographic exposition, in a rural version of Iain Sinclair’s or Peter Ackroyd’s urbanist explorations. A simple story about a walk from Ipswich to Station 373, seventy-seven years ago. A love story, a story about change, a story about what happened, because these stories are fading.
I told Joe I’d do that walk one day. I did half of it two years ago, which became the radio piece. It wasn’t enough and in the nature of time, it’s far too late to tell him now. I’m trying to keep a promise, even if nobody else remembers it except me.