Today, 77 years ago, the 8th United States Army Air Force flew its last combat mission in WW11. Eleven years ago one of the pilots on that mission was staying with me in Suffolk. He told me how he’d nearly not made it.
Not from enemy action, but because he’d been at a dance in Ipswich the night before and missed his transport back to base. There were no buses, no trains, nothing moving on the roads, so he had to walk back to Station 373, near Leiston. It’s twenty-two miles.
A couple of years ago I walked half of the route to see how it had changed, but also because I had my doubts that it could be done. Like anything else, it depends on when it’s to be done. Being under 21 helps, too. He was, at the time. I’m not, exactly.
I also did it because I’d told him I would. Some of the road has disappeared now, buried under a dual carriageway making all of the walk a lot more dangerous than it was on a cold Spring night in 1945, although of course, I didn’t have people shooting at me later the same morning. To be fair, thanks to the USAAF’s previous attentions to the Luftwaffe, nor did he.
The original radio script was for 30 minutes. It was a bit of a bracer when they told me I had five. Since then I’ve been trying to flesh out the 30 minute script as something more, but I’ve never been clear exactly what. A travel book about a place you can’t go to, perhaps. A history of one evening. I don’t know if it will ever get finished. I don’t think I can do it justice. Nor the old man I knew.
He told me a lot of stories from those times, some silly, some desperately sad. He told me about the helplessness when two miles up airplanes broke apart nearby and he saw ten-man bomber crews start their fall to earth. He told me about the thing that still made him ashamed; it was thinking how beautiful the colours of the flash were when he saw a German plane explode close by. He was not a saint, in his relationships or his attitudes. I remember the time he was describing the cover of a book I’d loaned him; it showed a German aircraft as he said, “on its correct course….”
“Straight down into the ground with smoke coming out of it.”
I went to take some pictures at the airfield one summer’s day after his last visit. The wind was gusting as I picked my way past the piles of broken concrete that had been runways. There was a hut that had been used for pigs in the 1960s, with dates painted on the walls and doors.
As I looked through the camera I tried to imagine how busy this empty place must have been. The wind carried men’s voices, talking as they worked on something, all the time I was taking pictures, but when I’d finished taking pictures and looked around to see who it was there was nobody there at all.