Bomber veteran Bill Toombs, 91, visits Debach Airfield to relive his time at the US base
An American veteran has visited the Suffolk airfield that was his home during the Second World War.
Flight engineer Bill Toombs, 91, was based at Debach Airfield with the 861st Bomb Squadron for six months in 1944 – flying the first of his missions on D-Day.
Although he has returned to the Suffolk air base – now a museum – a handful of times in the past decade, this visit was particularly poignant as he joined museum volunteers on a special trip to the revamped Imperial War Museum at Duxford to see an exhibition of objects donated by himself and crew mates.
FE Toombs, from Arkansas, said: “It is a nostalgic feeling coming back. I don’t think the museum team know what it means to me.
“I have a lot of fond memories, but also sad ones of friends I lost over here – such as a man who cycled into the path of a taxiing B-24. I remember that very well.
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“I look around and see what they have done here, making it look like it did in the war, and your mind flashes back.”
Among his fonder memories are visiting The Dog pub and cycling to Woodbridge.
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He flew first in B-24s, before being moved to B-17s.
FE Toombs recounted his 24th mission when his plane was shot down over Germany, forcing an emergency landing in a Belgian turnip field.
Fortunately the crew, all uninjured, were picked up by Canadian forces and taken to Brussels which had been liberated just six days earlier.
FE Toombs said: “We threw everything off the plane but the two remaining engines overheated and we knew we would not make it back to England.
“There were dances everywhere, the Belgians were celebrating being liberated.”
The crew were originally given leave on their return, but just two days later were pressed back into action.
Then in September in a complete surprise they were told they were being shipped back to the States having flown 28 missions – at a time when the average turnover of a bomber crew was 30 missions.
FE Toombs was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with three Oak Leaf Clusters.
He was accompanied on his trip to the UK by his daughter, Nancy, vice-president of the 8th Air Force Historical Society, who had helped contribute the memorabilia for the Duxford display.
She said: “There’s a saying, ‘The only thing you can really ever keep is something you give away’ and that is perfect in this case.
“Donating all those objects allows millions of people to see something that was figuratively speaking hanging in my closet. Now people can enjoy it, feel it, and it becomes a part of living history.”
• The 493rd Bomb Group Museum at Debach Airfield is open on the last Sunday of the month from April to September from 11am-4pm. For more details visit the museum web site.