On 4th May 2012, five men returned to a place that they had called home in the latter half or World War II. Some had not been back since to this place, that has become the stuff of legends, since 1945. Steve Smith was there for AeroResource….
The place in question is now a fairly lonely field in rural Norfolk, with a couple of huts (designed only to be short term structures) and a concrete cube of a building. The nearest village is called Thorpe Abbots and between 1943 to 1945, this field was known as Thorpe Abbots airbase (USAAF Station 139).
The base was the home of the infamous “Bloody Hundredth” Bomb Group, flying the B-17 Flying Fortress and it is now home to the volunteer run 100th Bomb Group Memorial Museum. A group of volunteers refurbished the dilapidated concrete control tower in the late 1970s which now houses the museum, together with a former MT shed and two Nissen huts.
Working in conjunction with the 100th Bomb Group Foundation (US), co-ordinated by Roy Batley on the UK side and Mike Faley from the US side, the 4th to 6th of May saw a large group from the US visit the Museum. Among the party were relatives of those who served in the Group, families of the unfortunate airmen who didn’t return and five men who were stationed here during the war.
The veterans included a Top Turret gunner/Engineer, a Navigator, a Tail Gunner, a Radio Operator Gunner and a Line Chief.
The party arrived by coach, travelling along the old northern taxiway (which is one of the few chunks of taxiway/runway still intact) before turning up the worn concrete tracks to arrive at the front of the control tower. They were greeted by 40 or 50 volunteers and members of the media, local newspaper writers and general well-wishers who lined either side of the pathway taken by the veterans as they left the coach and headed for the Varian Centre, now the museum cafe, situated in an old Nissen hut.
Following an address by Roy Batley, president of the Museum, the veterans were left to speak to the assembled crowd, sign books or prints and they were more than happy to answer questions about their time at Thorpe Abbots.
Russell Engel, one of the veterans of the 349th Squadron, served with the Group during the dark days of 1943 and was one the original officers that came over at the formation of the group. Russell completed 14 missions, serving with the crew of Sumner Reeder as Navigator.
On their 14th mission to Stuttgart on 6 September 1943, their aircraft, possibly “Squawkin’ Hawk” was pounced upon by four German fighters “from twelve o’clock high”. In the ensuing encounter, the crew’s co-pilot Harry Edeburn was killed and the pilot, Sumner Reeder was injured. In the nose section, cannon fire had pierced the hull seriously wounding Russell Engel and Peter Delao, the togglier/bombardier. Russell had shrapnel wounds to this left arm, ribs and face and lost his right eye.
The plane was forced to leave the formation but Reeder managed to safely navigate back to the UK, landing at a grass airstrip in the south of England, after having spotted an RAF bomber on the deck – the assumption being, if he could get in there, they could too!
Russell received the Purple Heart together with a Distinguished Service Cross for his actions on that day. After the co-pilot had been killed, Russell moved into the co-pilots seat and assisted his pilot despite being seriously wounded, until he was no longer able to do so. He returned to the States after having been discharged from hospital and continued to train Navigators for the Air Force. Recently, doctors were puzzled by strange black specks that showed up on an X-Ray around Russell’s skull, which were in fact shrapnel fragments still lodged when they ended up in 1943.
Sumner Reeder, the pilot of Russell’s crew was killed flying C-54s later in the War, in a training accident.
Joe Urice from Kerrville, Texas arrived at Thorpe Abbots in December 1944 and stayed until November 1945. He served as a Tail Gunner with the Wofford Crew, having what he describes as “The best seat in the house”. The Wofford crew eventually became the Lead Crew of the 351st Squadron.
His service took him right up to the end of the war. Unfortunately, the American “points system” did not favour him, as it worked well for airmen with wives and especially children first and was the way of deciding who went home and when, so he had to wait until November 1945 before he was posted back to the US.
After the war ended, training did not finish for the crews left behind. They flew regular sorties expecting a call-up any minute for the group to transfer to the far-east to fight war against Japan. VJ Day before that happened and Joe had flown his last combat flight.
This was his first visit back to Thorpe Abbots since he left in November 1945.
Al Lochra served as a Radio Operator/Gunner in the 351st Squadron. He was part of the Broyles crew in the 351st Squadron, after the original pilot Charles Robbs was pulled from the crew to become a lead pilot and eventually became a Squadron Commander. Al joined the group on 9 February 1945 and flew 19 missions, including a trip to Berlin and Munich, and two to Hamburg before the war ended.
He was highly skilled as a radio operator and could receive morse code at 20 words per minute. He further remarked that whilst the US “Norden” bombsight was so highly regarded at the time, he was sure sometimes they must have missed the target. He continued “One thing I can say….and can say with confidence….every bomb we dropped………hit the ground.”
William Burkhart joined the group in April 1945 and was a Top Turret Gunner/Engineer. He flew four missions with the 350th Squadron with 1st Lt. Guhse’s crew. He took part in three bombing raids, two to Royan and one to Oranienburg, together with a “Chowhound” (food drop) mission in May 1945.
Dewey Christopher served as ground crew, being a “crew” or “line” chief with the 351st Squadron. It is hard to imagine the tight bond that the ground crew had with their aircraft and “their” crew. It seems this relationship worked vice versa as well and many of the aircrew have massive respect for their crew chief.
Dewey believes that one reason the 100th group is so renowned even today was due to the excellent mechanics with the Group and high number of missions an aircraft flew between mechanical failures.
The veterans mostly returned to the US the following week. It is impossible not to have huge respect for these men and yet many are so modest about their wartime experience. It seems they would prefer the respect to be saved for their colleagues who were not so fortunate as to make it home.
The group clocked 8,630 sorties during the conflict. In total the group lost 177 aircraft in action, with a further 52 other operational losses. There were so many legendary characters in the group; Harry Crosby, “Cowboy” Roane (who smuggled a donkey back from North Africa via a bombing mission to Bordeaux, and landed with the now infamous “I’m coming in with a frozen ass” call to the tower), “Crankshaft” Cruikshank, Sammy Barr, John Bennett, the two Buckys (Egan and Cleven) and Bob “Rosie” Rosenthal. Those of us who were there on Friday 4th May can now add five more names to that list.
Please visit the websites of the 100th Bomb Group Memorial Museum and the 100th Bomb Group Foundation to learn a bit more about these men and the group in general and whose website the original photographs have been taken from.
A brief history of the group can be found on AeroResource here.
Thanks must go to Roy and Carol Batley for their hospitality, Mike Faley and everyone who had a hand in organising the trip and of course the five men everyone wanted to talk to; Joe Urice, William Burkhart, Al Lochra, Russell Engel and Dewey Christopher.