Beccles and Kessingland: How a schoolboy fascination with the US Eighth Air Force led to a love of American history for Sam
- Credit: Archant
It’s a bumper year for anniversaries in the US: 50 years after Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech and the assassination of John F Kennedy, and 150 since Lincoln extolled ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’. A wonderful time, then, to be a lecturer in American history. Suffolk-born Sam Edwards tells STEVEN RUSSELL how he became hooked on the past
Dr Sam Edwards, long-time lover of history, is full of gratitude to partner Nicola for “putting up with my idiosyncrasies along the way – when I say things like ‘Shall we go to a D-Day battlefield for our holiday this year?’”
It helps that she’s also a scholar – “part-historian, part-English literary specialist” and finishing her PhD at the moment. Even so, Sam doesn’t take for granted her indulgence – indeed, active encouragement – of his passion for the past.
“For my 30th birthday she took me to the Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum in Savannah, Georgia. I think if there’s ever a sign someone understands you, it’s that.”
The Eighth came to England in the 1940s, its fighters and bombers playing a major part in winning the war against the Nazis, and is synonymous with East Anglia. Its records are dotted with familiar place-names, from Sudbury and Bungay to Martlesham Heath and Wormingford.
At the back of the museum, surreally enough, is a memorial garden dominated by a full-size replica of an English parish church, built in stone and with stained-glass windows.
“It’s called the Chapel of the Fallen Eagles,” explains Sam. “It’s a very strange experience; you’re wandering through the savannah grass and see these signs saying ‘Watch out for snakes’, and then look up and see something that might be from the Waveney Valley.”
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The Mighty Eighth are a big part of Sam’s life, personally and professionally. Born in 1981, he grew up in Kessingland, near Lowestoft, and spent the first 18 years of his life in the county.
From his very early teens the Beccles schoolboy was interested in the Eighth, “partly because it was the mid-1990s and around the 50th anniversary of the end of World War Two. I was conscious of lots of veterans coming back to wander around these old places. I and a couple of friends got very interested and started spending our weekends cycling out to (old airfields at) Flixton, Halesworth and Parham, and those kind of places.
“The record? I think myself and my best friend once did 120 miles in one day. We did many of the American airfields in east Suffolk – about eight, I think it was. A bit of an epic…”
Many at that stage didn’t have museums attached to them but were simply areas of cracked hard-standing with weeds growing through them.
“But most of these places were very evocative landscapes. They were mouldering and ruined, with lots of crumbling control towers and decayed Nissen huts. Myself and my best friend would cycle up and down the old runways, field-walk for spent munitions, and see what we could find. It was a lot of fun.”
I imagine that while time had understandably left its mark, the appearance of some of those airfields was pretty much the same as in the mid-1940s.
“Yes. That’s why they’re so fascinating as landscapes. They do mark the passage of time, but there is also a sense that it hasn’t been that long. For me, they felt as if they had the echoes of history of 40 or 50 years previously.
“It was something I picked up on when I was wandering around and something affirmed to me by the wonderful opening scenes of the 1949 film Twelve O’Clock High” – about the Eighth’s daylight missions over occupied Europe – “which has these lingering shots of old ruined airfields.”
So was he a committed historian by this stage?
“I guess if you asked my parents, probably yes! By the age of 12, 13, 14, history was the subject that most fascinated me at school.”
Probably it was down to the stories of how people used to live; and “the sense that, especially in a country like Britain, our landscape does seem to resonate with the echoes of time and past peoples: that sense of being in an old landscape, especially in somewhere like East Anglia. You get a feeling of that as you walk and cycle”.
That schoolboy interest with the Eighth Air Force has almost certainly shaped his career, prompting Sam to take particular courses and do particular things at university that have ultimately led him to American history.
He took a history degree at Lancaster University, going on to do an MA and doctorate there. It was while working on his undergraduate dissertation that he had the idea of doing something on the Eighth.
“My wonderful supervisor suggested the memorials to the Mighty Eighth. I wrote about them for my dissertation; then I thought I’d do a masters and my supervisor said ‘Well, write some more about it… expand it…’ Then I said ‘Maybe I’ll do a PhD…’ ‘Excellent. Write even more about them!’ So it’s been with me since I was about 21! Over a decade now – reading more, thinking more, learning more, about the commemoration of the Eighth.”
It’s focused largely on activities in eastern England and on the D-Day beaches of Normandy.
There are, says Sam, hundreds of memorials of various sorts: at the 70 or so airfields in the East from which the Eighth flew, and also in parish churches. There are even streets named after pilots or aircraft.
There were two great periods of memorial-making, he reckons: early in peacetime, from the late 1940s to the end of the 1950s, which saw some good examples in churches (stained-glass windows dedicated to fallen airmen, for instance) and plaques unveiled on airfields.
Then it went a bit quiet until the late ’70s/early ’80s, when a second wave of activity coincided with many veterans ? having reached retirement age ? contemplating their youth and returning to visit their former stations.
On balance, Sam feels society does pay enough respect to the efforts of those who fought for freedom, “but I know there are people in East Anglia concerned we are about to hit another wave of transition”.
The number of people who were children during the war and remember an influx of American airmen is decreasing. “There are efforts locally to try to ensure that interest in the Eighth doesn’t pass with that generation, and that younger generations get involved.
“We’re at that tricky moment with the Second World War where it’s about to leave living memory.”
Sam’s doing his bit. Last month he gave a thought-provoking talk on BBC Radio 4. It was called (deep breath now) Opening the Space: The Digital Age, Living Memorials, and the Necessity for Complicated Commemoration. It tackled issues such as what you do to commemorate an event once no-one is still alive who remembers it first-hand, and whether or not the passage of time changes perspective.
Perhaps we should build a big, imposing memorial – like those in Washington DC.
“It’s a difficult one. I prefer the smaller memorials because they have that very real and intimate connection with the landscape they relate to. These are places of memory, and a monument that fits there is right and proper.
“But it does raise the issue about what you do if people no longer go to visit these places.
“My concern is that increasingly, as we head further into the 21st Century, we’re becoming less a culture of monument-builders. We’re not the Victorians – we don’t automatically turn to monumental architecture – but what we are increasingly are creatures of the digital age. Maybe the future of memory, the future of the past, is online. That’s where we visit daily. Is there a way we might use that to make commemoration successful?”
Hmmh. Not convinced. Surely the web is a bit ethereal? Brick, stone and metal monuments endure, nudge themselves into the public consciousness, and represent the value society has placed on the act being honoured.
Sam laughs. “In some respects I’m with you. I’m thinking against the grain of my character here. Digital isn’t my instinctive thought.”
About this time next year he’s got work being published in traditional form – a book from Cambridge University Press – about the way the Mighty Eighth is honoured in East Anglia and across the Channel.
Current projects, in similar vein, include looking at the “use” made of historical figures whom Britons might have appropriated and who demonstrate the unique closeness of the Anglo-American relationship.
There are many such figures: former president Abraham Lincoln, for one. His ancestors had roots in Hingham, near Norwich, and Swanton Morley.
Sam’s fascinated by the interest in rediscovering Lincoln’s English ancestry, which came as America emerged as one of the world’s superpowers early in the 20th Century. Statues were put up in London and Manchester, and a bust installed in Hingham church – given in 1919 by the population of Hingham in Massachusetts.
Other East Anglians woven into the history of the United States include Thetford-born Thomas Paine, who campaigned for complete independence for the American colonies, and puritan lawyer John Winthrop – born at Edwardstone, near Sudbury – who led the initial large wave of migrants to New England in 1630.
Sam reckons the way we’ve remembered and lauded such characters is partly a reflection of pro-American gratitude after it fought with us during the Second World War. There’s also a sense of us latching on to America’s coat-tails after Britain’s international influence waned as the empire shrunk.
“One way of coping with that is to say ‘Well, that’s all right, because, really, they’re ‘us’… they’re just Englishmen with strange clothes and funny accents’!”
After teaching at Lancaster, and with the Open University and the University of Cumbria, Sam joined Manchester Metropolitan University just over three years ago, where he lectures in American history.
He says the subject is very popular – massively oversubscribed there – but over the past 15 years has gone through peaks and troughs.
One of those troughs came with the Bush years, he says.
“One of the theories was that the administration turned off a lot of Europeans in wanting to study the United States, but we’re currently in what’s often referred to as the Obama Bounce, in the sense Obama has brought back interest in American history and studies.”
So, basically, Democrats are good for history departments? “Yeah, pretty much so, I think. If only you could have a third term!”
Having gone to Lancaster in the late 1990s, and pretty much stayed in the north-west since, Sam’s told he now qualifies for “honorary northerner” status, “an identity I try to live up to by using – probably wrongly – such terms as aye, lass and mill as frequently as possible”.
He reflects: “I’m heading towards that landmark moment where, in a few years, I will have lived in the north as long as I lived in Suffolk.” He’s still got family in the Waveney Valley and in Norwich, though, and enjoys coming back to East Anglia two or three times a year.
When he’s not reading military histories, discworld tales by Terry Pratchett or the work of the late Suffolk environmentalist and writer Roger Deakin, Sam is often hiking across lakeland fells with “ridiculously excitable” labradoodle Molly.
He runs the odd marathon and cycles through the beautiful Forest of Bowland, near Lancaster.
Young daughter Megan “has already resigned herself to the fact that weekends are for bike rides, even in snow”. On Fridays, he repays the indulgence of his wife and child “by cooking enormous quantities of bolognese whilst drinking red wine and dancing to classic ’80s power-ballads”.
Megan is only just two. Not yet old enough to complain about the frequent bike rides, then? “Not yet. Give her a year…”