Emotional return for war heroes
By James MortlockTHE concrete is crumbling, weeds choke the cracks and bean fields are now crowding in on the old Second World War runway.But the three giant poplar trees that safely guided surviving Flying Fortress crews home from their terrifying bombing raids on Germany stand as prominent as ever on the flat Suffolk landscape around the landing strip in Great Ashfield.
By James Mortlock
THE concrete is crumbling, weeds choke the cracks and bean fields are now crowding in on the old Second World War runway.
But the three giant poplar trees that safely guided surviving Flying Fortress crews home from their terrifying bombing raids on Germany stand as prominent as ever on the flat Suffolk landscape around the landing strip in Great Ashfield.
It was these trees – nothing special to most onlookers – that remained a poignant symbol of hope for 20 American airmen who made an emotional pilgrimage to their wartime base this weekend. For each one remembered the special significance of the three spikes of green to their long lives.
The men, all of them now aged in their 80s or 90s, were at the former USAF station near Bury St Edmunds to meet up with friends made all those decades ago and to celebrate the ties built up between the servicemen and residents that have lasted so long.
As they marked yesterday's 60th anniversary of the last B17 bomber to leave the base, they also remembered the 442 of their comrades who never returned home – the 27% of crews that were shot down, never to make it back to the three poplars of Great Ashfield.
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Art Driscoll, an 82-year-old from Nashville, was one of the lucky ones. He, along with his wife Mary, their daughter and two of their granddaughters were among the delegation to Great Ashfield and the former pilot told of the night he almost lost his life.
His Flying Fortress was badly hit over Dunkirk as it completed its raid on Nuremberg and he recalled: "It was very serious. My tail gunner Sgt Maurice Sumney was hit, but later said he didn't think about whether he would live, but he knew he had lost his career as a baseball player – he was later awarded the Purple Heart.
"He had been hit in the arm and the back and there was no way he could parachute, so we decided we couldn't bail out. We decided not to try to make it across the Channel and so decided to make for the RAF emergency bases in Normandy."
Mr Driscoll, who was a First Lieutenant, said his navigator then told him the plane had been blasted with 500 holes, but his bombardier's report was far more bleak. "He said we had 1,000 holes and some were big enough to crawl through," he recalled
But the skilful airman, forced to speed up to 150mph – 40mph faster than a usual landing – and without rudders or flaps, brought the stricken aircraft safely down, albeit overshooting the runway by quite a distance.
Mr Driscoll considered it a job well done and added: "Although I had left my tail gunner in hospital and my aircraft in France, I had proof from photographs that we had hit the target – we had just got the job done regardless of everything."
Oscar Winniford, 81, who was a B17 tail gunner and flew on 26 missions from the Suffolk base, said the weekend's visit had been his first since the bombers left in 1945. "This is very emotional and bringing back a lot of memories," said the Texan.
One mission seared into his mind was when his heated suit failed and he almost froze to death. "It was 40 degrees below zero. As we began to lose altitude things got a little easier, but I came very close to death," said Mr Winniford.
All the war heroes remembered the reception they got as they arrived in Suffolk and the hospitality they have received in Great Ashfield since.
Mr Winniford said: "The people here are great and they have always been great. They were very accommodating and couldn't do enough for us. They were very tolerant – we were a bunch of hot-shot flyers who turned up by the hundred and they put up with a lot of our nonsense."
Allen Harrington, who accompanied his father Eldred Harrington, 86, a B17 radio operator, on the pilgrimage to Suffolk, said the visit had brought his dad's tales of the war to life. "This have given me a chance to put all those stories into context," he added.
Stephen Miles, who owns the runway and the surrounding land, said 200 airmen had returned to the base in 1976 and since then there had been many return visits.
"Here we are almost 30 years later and there are still 20 servicemen here. Some of them have come with children and grandchildren," he added.
"The links the men and the villagers have made over the years are fantastic and I think it is that aspect which many of them enjoy most. They are taken in – a bit like wartime evacuees – and treated like members of the family. It's quite fantastic.
"Although they are getting older, with these strong links I wouldn't be surprised to see them bringing over a fourth generation."
His sentiments were echoed by the airmen themselves. As they marked the 60th anniversary of the Flying Fortresses flying out of Great Ashfield for the last time, many of them remained determined to return again.