It is an honor for me to represent our 392nd Bomb Group Memorial Association and to speak for all the members of the group assigned this base during the war years. We are joined here with a common purpose - to remember, to respect, and to honor those we left behind.
The memorial we are dedicating today is in proud and grateful memory of the 747 airmen who flew their final flight from these runways and all who served with them at this airfield. This is a solemn and heartfelt occasion for the group of veterans present here who came from all parts of the United States to join in this dedication. These veterans include pilots, navigators, bombardiers, gunners, ground crew chiefs and the various specialists to support 48 four-engine bombers and their crews. There were about 3,000 American servicemen assigned this station, equally divided between air crew members and ground support personnel.
We honor also the wives and families of our people, a number of whom are here today, who remained at home doing their part in the war effort, in addition to keeping those so-very-important letters and packages coming to our troops. We know personally how anxiously our families read the daily news accounts of the massive raids over occupied Europe, apprehensive over the number of planes lost, and praying for the safety of their loved ones.
Our 392nd Group was a closely-knit unit with a high level of camaraderie and esprit de corps. Teen-age boys, under the stress of combat operations in a war theater, became men overnight with heavy responsibility, and quickly learned how much others depended on them to do their job, and to do it well. There was a common bond and a common objective - to give our level best to help bring the war to an end at the earliest possible time, to bring peace and then return home to our families.
During the nearly two years our group was based here at Wendling, we were blessed with an environment we will never forget - the warmth and the hospitality of the British people. We have always felt we were very fortunate to be assigned to this base in the midst of the Wendling and Beeston community where you opened the doors of your homes, shared your table and your friendship and did so much to give our people a true sense of a "home away from home."
The cordial feeling we found in the surrounding area complemented, in a most important way, the fine work of our own Red Cross unit and recreation facility on the station and whose staff included a number of British volunteers from this area. The unit's American director, Mrs. Birdie Larrick of Columbus, OH, is here with us today. During her tour of duty here, in recognition of the high esteem in which she was held by our people, one of our B-24s was named in her honor.
Just previously, I referred to the bonds formed with our British friends some 45 years ago. This relationship has grown steadily stronger as many of our people have testified when they return from a nostalgic visit to this base and parish, renewing old ties with old friends. I would be remiss if I failed to acknowledge and express our gratitude for the loving care that the people of Beeston parish have given voluntarily to our Memorial Grounds over the years and the arranging of the memorial services each Memorial Day and Remembrance Day.
And very briefly, because they would certainly not approve of even this brief mention, we own a heavy debt of gratitude to Tom and Jill Scott for their donation of land for the Memorial Grounds and for their dedicated efforts in supervising the reconstruction of this memorial. Also, and he, too, would veto these remarks, I want to acknowledge the dedicated efforts and the vital role played by our Memorial Committee chairman, Carroll Cheek, who was the major donor, the leader and guiding influence in completing this memorial. Our group was fortunate indeed to have this veteran step forward and accept this responsibility three years ago and bring this undertaking to a very successful conclusion.
The records reveal that during the period our group was assigned to this station, from August 1943 until V-E Day in May 1945, we flew 285 combat missions, lost 185 aircraft and suffered 1,533 casualties, including 747 killed in action. Over 800 crewmen were either wounded or became prisoners of war. All these men were heroes in every sense of the word; they answered when their country called.
My most vivid memories are of the briefings, when the screen was pulled back to reveal a dangerous and deep-penetration target. The tension and apprehension was clearly evident on the crewmen's faces, but when they filed out into the pre-dawn darkness to go to their planes, there was a look of resolution that said: "THis is our job to be don. Let's get on with it".
Prime Minister Churchill, in referring to the British people in those dark days during the Battle of Britain in 1940, used the term: "Their finest hour." The period that the 392nd Bomb Group was engaged in combat from this base was our finest and proudest hour. The group earned a Presidential Distinguished Unit Citation for a hard-fought mission to Gotha, Germany, in 1944 in which the target, an aircraft factory, was completely destroyed.
Permit me to quote an extract from that citation:
"The 392nd Bombardment Group, Second Air Division, Eighth Air Force, is cited for outstanding performance of duty in armed conflict with the enemy on 26 February 1944. The unit dispatched 32 B-24 type aircraft, the maximum available, to bomb the most valuable single target in the enemy twin-engine fighter complex, the Messerschmitt aircraft and component factory at Gotha, Germany.
"Flying as the lead group in the division formation, they were attacked by the enemy upon crossing the Dutch coast. In the bitter battle that ensued, the group was viciously attacked for over 2 1/2 hours by approximately 150 enemy fighters with cannon and rocket fire, and even attempted air-to-air and cable bombing in a vain effort to disrupt the formation. The group maintained perfect formation, valiantly fought its way through the flak defenses to bomb the target with pinpoint accuracy, destroying it. Although seven of their aircraft were lost to the relentless enemy in the battle to and from the target, and an additional 13 aircraft suffered battle damage, they accounted for the confirmed destruction of 16 enemy fighters.
"The destruction of this high-priority target dealt a serious blow to the German Air Force and was a contributing factor to its impotency in the invasion of continental Europe."
We know in our hearts there were many other missions equally deserving of high recognition. The 392nd Bomb Group was, truly, a distinguished unit and we here today are very proud to have been a part of it.
And so, as we dedicate this memorial to those brave men, we trust it will be our legacy for our children and our grandchildren and their grandchildren, as well as those of our British countrymen, to serve in the years to come as a tribute to the bond that exists between our two countries, to our resolve that nothing is more precious than our freedom, that we are willing to pay the ultimate price if necessary to preserve it against any threat from outside the free world.
I will close with an extract from a Dedication Service by President Eisenhower at St. Paul's Cathedral, London, and which is inscribed on the Wall of the Missing at the American Cemetery, Madingley. The wall includes the names of over 5,000 Americans who were missing in action, among them are 115 names of 392nd Bomb Group men, 45 of whom remain at rest there:
"The Americans whose names here appear were part of the price that free men for the second time this century have been forced to pay to defend human liberty and rights. All who shall hereafter live in freedom will be here reminded that to these men and their comrades we owe a debt to be paid with grateful remembrance of their sacrifice and the high resolve that the cause for which they died shall live eternally."