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US WWII veterans return to Suffolk for memorial dedication

PUBLISHED: 15:39 11 July 2019 | UPDATED: 21:50 11 July 2019

Bill Hennessy, left, and Dick Nelms unveil the memorial at Hitcham Picture: CHRIS FRENCH

Bill Hennessy, left, and Dick Nelms unveil the memorial at Hitcham Picture: CHRIS FRENCH

CHRIS FRENCH

Two American Second World War bomber pilots made an emotional return to the Suffolk airfield where they were based and to unveil a memorial to 17 comrades killed in an air crash.

Rev Tiffer Robinson dedicates the new memorial Picture: CHRIS FRENCHRev Tiffer Robinson dedicates the new memorial Picture: CHRIS FRENCH

Captain Dick Nelms and 1st Lt Bill Hennessy were based at Rattlesden airfield near Stowmarket during the war and made the trip from their homes in the US for the ceremony at Balls Hill in nearby Hitcham.

There they received the flags from a US Air Force guard of honour from Lakenheath air base after a service of dedication for the memorial.

It commemorates the crewmen of two B-17 'Flying Fortress' bombers who died when their planes collided in mid-air over Hitcham in 1944 while forming up for a bombing raid on Germany.

Dick, aged 96, from Seattle, and Bill, aged 95, from New York, were part of a group of 25 who made the trip across the Atlantic for the ceremony.

Dick Nelms, left, and Bill Hennessy with the B17 Flying Fortress at IWM Duxford Picture: CHRIS FRENCHDick Nelms, left, and Bill Hennessy with the B17 Flying Fortress at IWM Duxford Picture: CHRIS FRENCH

Among the party was Pam Saunders, from California, the daughter of one of the airmen who died in the crash.

The memorial dedication service was part of a weekend of events for the US visitors organised by the 447th Bomb Group Association UK.

This is a group promoting and preserving the history and legacy of the United States Army Air Force 447th Bombardment Group stationed at Rattlesden airfield during the war.

Dick completed a full tour of 35 missions during 1944 and the trip was his first visit back to Rattlesden since he left 75 years ago.

The service of dedication at the new memorial Picture: STEVE HEEBThe service of dedication at the new memorial Picture: STEVE HEEB

Bill had completed 16 missions by the time the war ended in May 1945.

Chris French of the 447th Bomb Group Association UK said: "Although Bill and Dick weren't connected with the planes involved in accident, they are surviving veterans of the base.

"They are men of the greatest generation and the ceremony was very poignant."

The mid-air collision happened on October 2, 1944, at 14,000 feet in the sky over the villages of Hitcham and Kettlebaston.

THE US Air Force Honor Guard from Lakenheath conduct the flag-folding ceremony Picture: CHRIS FRENCHTHE US Air Force Honor Guard from Lakenheath conduct the flag-folding ceremony Picture: CHRIS FRENCH

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One crashed at Wetherden Hall Farm in Hitcham and the other hit the ground near what was then Treacles Farm.

Both planes had nine crew on board and were fully laden with bombs, ammunition and fuel.

There was one survivor, Lieutenant Elliott G Mishler, a navigator, who escaped through a hole in the plexiglass nose caused by the collision.

The memorial to the US airmen killed in the crash over Hitcham in 1944 Picture: CHRIS FRENCHThe memorial to the US airmen killed in the crash over Hitcham in 1944 Picture: CHRIS FRENCH

Incredibly he fell out of the aircraft with his parachute still in his hand, managing to buckle it on as he fell to earth.

He broke his ankle when he hit the ground and was being helped by two young brothers working on the land at the time.

But as live ordnance from the plane began detonating in the field around them, Lt Mishler leapt to his feet, despite his broken ankle, threw the boys to the ground and covered them with his own body.

Among the crew who died in the crash was Sergeant John K Henry, a waist gunner, who was the father of Pam Saunders.

Bill Hennessey, left, and Dick Nelms with the flags presented to them after the re-dedication of the Rattlesden memorial Picture: CHRIS FRENCHBill Hennessey, left, and Dick Nelms with the flags presented to them after the re-dedication of the Rattlesden memorial Picture: CHRIS FRENCH

She was accompanied on the trip by her teenage grandchildren Aiden and Aeryn and they went to see his grave at the US cemetery at Madingley, near Cambridge.

Chris said: "For Pam it was extremely poignant because she never got to meet her father.

"He was posted here while her mother was pregnant and he never returned to the US before he was killed."

The memorial is brick and flint and materials were supplied free of charge by Buildbase at Hadleigh.

Pam Saunders with her grandchildren Aidan Saunders, left, and Aeryn Saunders at the grave of her father Sgt John K. Henry at the American Cemetery in Madingley, near Cambridge Picture: CHRIS FRENCHPam Saunders with her grandchildren Aidan Saunders, left, and Aeryn Saunders at the grave of her father Sgt John K. Henry at the American Cemetery in Madingley, near Cambridge Picture: CHRIS FRENCH

The dedication service took place on June 29-30 and was part of a weekend of events for the US visitors.

There was a history display at the orignal control tower at Rattlesden airfield, where Dick took a glider flight and Bill flew in a light aircraft lifting off from the same runway they flew from in the war, as well as a visit to RAF Duxford Imperial War Museum.

The weekend also saw a rededication ceremony at the original 447th Bomb Group memorial at Hightown Green near Rattlesden, featuring the USAF Honor Guard, the Royal British Legion, RAF Air Training Corps and Salvation Army Band.

There the 447th Bomb Group Association UK presented Capt Nelms and 1st Lt Hennessy with US flags which had been flown in an F-15E Strike Eagle from RAF Lakenheath during their formation flypast over the Normandy beaches on 6th June 2019.

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