The reason that I was near Wendling during the war was to avoid the bombing raids on London where I lived with my parents. Earlier, during 1940, I'd been evacuated to Leicester and went to school there. I stayed with my grandmother until that city, together with nearby Coventry, was heavily bombed. I returned to London where I resumed school until 1943, when I was 10 years old, and was then sent to Norfolk to stay with my mother's cousin who lived in the small village of Mileham, about 6 miles from Wendling.
This period of my life was rather upsetting and in turmoil from my family's viewpoint. I didn't know when, or if, I would see my dear parents again. Of course, I realized they had my best interests at heart and I accepted the moves without question.
It wasn't long before I was visiting and helping other relations who had farms at the nearby villages of Stanfield and Litcham. My tasks included collecting and herding cattle in the fields. This was timeconsuming, but most enjoyable. I also assisted in the general farm work, particularly in the harvest fields, and did other odd jobs, such as getting fresh water up from the well. I've never tasted such wonderful water since!
My first recollection of 8th USAAF Liberator bombers was in 1943. They were assembling over Mileham and I wondered where they came from. I borrowed my aunt's bicycle and pedaled off in the direction of Wendling. I located the main entrance to the base and was confronted by two enormous American Air Force Military Policemen. They were both in uniform, topped with large white steel helmets. I later learned the MPs were affectionately known as "Snowdrops." I politely asked if they could let me in to see the planes.
"You can't come in here, buddy" was the reply, but by the obvious look of utter disappointment on my face it was suggested that I use the "side entrance." "Go back down the road until you see a lane on the right; go down there and ask at the farmhouse if you can look over their farm gates at part of the airfield."
When I reached the farm gate there, before me, was a wonderful panoramic view of Wendling Airfield. Better still, there was a B-24 Liberator not more than 50 yards away, parked on its dispersal point known as a "banjo" because of its shape.
Much later, I heard from the farmer that after he'd been requested by the authorities to leave his farm for safety reasons, he'd adamantly refused and had told them that if the Germans couldn't move him then the Americans most certainly weren't going to!
Close to the "banjo" was a small hut, about 12 feet long and 9 feet wide, a temporary residence/shelter, called "The Shack," for the plane's mechanics. The B-24 was tied to the ground by chains attached to the wings and the tail. These were fastened to iron rings set into the concrete "banjo," thereby preventing the plane being moved by strong winds or moved without authority.
I waved to the two airmen standing near the hut, introduced myself, was invited to the hut, given a tin of delicious peanuts, a bar of chocolate and some chewing gum. This was treasure indeed, as sweets were strictly rationed at that time. When I was asked if I would like to see the B-24 close to and even have a look inside I needed no prompting!
The Liberator was silver in color and had a black horizontal stripe across each of its two vertical tail fins. In the center of each black band was a large white "J." The plane was always known as "J for Jeanie."
After several subsequent visits to see "my Liberator," I had the opportunity to visit the Mess Hall for something to eat and drink. That was really something.... another world. I was introduced to fellow airmen as the "New Commander" and was to be kept happy and given every consideration! The mess hall was very large, with the usual tables and chairs, and operated on a "help yourself' basis, which was new to us in England at that time.
A comprehensive selection of dishes was served from a long counter, with items of food available consisting of all the many things unobtainable in wartime Britain: large meat steaks, ice cream, oranges, pineapples, etc. The airmen queued at one end, tray in hand, and collected the meal of their choice. The trays, the like of which I'd never seen before, were made out of a new material called plastic. The trays didn't break, chip, bend or discolor. A miracle product if ever there was one.
The mess hall's interior was illuminated by a most impressive concealed lighting system, which consisted of several lights fixed to the ceiling with a large parachute draped down towards the floor. Either the parachute or the actual lighting was peach-colored and the result was very effective.
Not once was my presence questioned apart from the casual, "Oh, so you've been out recruiting again, have you?" or similar remarks directed to whoever happened to be accompanying me at the time.
As time passed, I was asked to clear out the Liberator's interior after returning from raids. Naturally, I jumped at the opportunity and was issued a "service bicycle." We then cycled over to collect a "bombing up" truck, a vehicle which was a type of tractor without a cab, supported on a chassis which ran on caterpillar tracks. It was steered with two vertical metal sticks, similar to a gear stick in a motor car. The tractor then was attached to several flat trailers with bombs loaded from the dump.
I can't recall exactly how many trailers were towed or how many bombs were carried, but I remember there wasn't enough room for me to sit on the tractor with the driver. I was lifted on to one of the 500 lb. bombs and sat astride it on one of the trailers.
"Hold tightly on to the bomb's tail fin - and don't slide off!" I was told. We then sped down the runways, around the perimeter track and arrived at the aircraft. I was lifted off the bomb, pushed up into the B-24's interior via the bomb bay, and made my way to the gun positions in the bomber, collecting all the empty .50-caliber machine gun cases lying around the floor. There was a gun turret in the nose, another in the tail, one on top of the fuselage and a gun position on either side of the fuselage. I put all the empty cartridge cases into wooden ammunition boxes, to be picked up by the airmen, because by the time I'd filled them up they were too heavy for me to lift.
There was always a very distinctive smell in a Liberator bomber which I can still smell today. It was a mixture of cordite, smoke, oil and grease. From what I saw, after the planes returned from their raids, the crews in those aircraft all had a very rough time indeed, and we should be eternally grateful to them.
Occasionally, a B-24 would be moved from one part of the airfield to another, and to do so involved a tractor being hitched up to a tow bar attached to the aircraft and towing it to the required position. I always enjoyed this as I was allowed to stay in the aircraft while it was moving.
The most exciting window to look out of was the pilot's windscreen because, by standing on his seat, I was unable to see the towing tractor or the ground due to the B-24's nose section. My imagination ran riot as I visualized myself actually flying the big bomber!
During the early mornings I recall watching, from the back garden of the cottage at Mileham, the large numbers of Liberators assembling overhead from local airfields, getting into formation then heading off towards their distant targets. In the afternoon or early evenings they returned and I always looked for my "J for Jeanie." The main stream of aircraft usually arrived in formation, with a few others lagging behind with perhaps an engine smoking, or one or two engines stopped completely.
Those overdue bombers appeared to me to be still arriving in the evenings, hours after the main arrival. I recall the beautiful sunsets in the western sky, and I wonder how they had enough fuel to stay in the air for so long.
Some planes came back with what appeared to be half their wings or tail sections shot away. It was amazing to see those critically-damaged aircraft get home at all, after what they had obviously been through. The air crews were truly outstanding young men.
It was very upsetting to see a badly-damaged bomber that had managed to fly all the way back crash-land because of a damaged undercarriage and perhaps catch fire. The base fire engines and ambulances were always standing by, ready to speed off to any B-24 in trouble.
In the late summer of 1944 I returned to London and resumed my schooling, being transferred to Mercer's Public School, Chancery Lane, London. It was during this period that one of the V-2 rockets being directed at London landed and exploded in Smithfield Market, very close to my home. But that's another story.
Sadly, I lost contact with the airman I came to know well. His name was John Gandy, 23 years old in 1943, from Bryan, TX. He was one of the ground crew, resided in "The Shack" and was, I believe, responsible for the B-24's security. John was married and had a very young child, a daughter as I recall. He showed me one or two photographs of his house and back garden with his daughter, about 3 years old, sitting on a swing and being pushed by a colored lady who was apparently revered by the family.
It's all a long time ago now, of course, and I wonder how many people remember the daily dramas that used to take place at Wendling Airfield. When in Norfolk, my wife and I always take the opportunity to revisit the airfield. Over the years, many of the original buildings, parts of buildings and a few sections of the concrete runways, perimeter track, dispersal points, etc., have been demolished and the land returned to agriculture.
When my wife and I purchased our first car in 1960 we visited Wendling. I drove up and down the empty and deserted runways and around the perimeter track. What vivid memories came flooding back of those dramatic, desperate and unforgettable days.