Article on Operation Carpetbagger in Business Insider

For Business Insider, Katie Sanders and I co-wrote an article capturing the remarkable history of Operation Carpetbagger, as told through the eyes of four Carpetbagger veterans whom I had the privilege of meeting at their annual reunion in 2019.

Operation Carpetbagger was a secret outfit of the 8th Air Force that dropped spies and supplies to the resistance.

Their WWII missions were so secret that the airmen themselves rarely knew where they were flying, what they were carrying, or to whom they were delivering agents and supplies.

In October 2019, my dear friend Katie – a freelance writer – invited me to attend the annual Carpetbagger reunion with her in Minneapolis. Katie is the granddaughter of of a Carpetbagger vet who was shot down in the prelude to D-Day. His evasion story reads like a thriller.

Photos from the Carpetbagger Reunion in Minneapolis, MN – October 2019.

Read the full article in Business Insider.

10 Little-Known Facts about American Airmen in WWII

May 8, 2020 marked 75 years since war in Europe ended in World War II. On the same date in 1945, V-E day celebrations were raucous after six years of prolonged war.

Commemorating the end of the war in Europe means remembering the men who fought it and the reality of their wartime lives.

We stand alone together” has come to define the ethos of the Greatest Generation’s WWII fight.

Today, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, “we stand together alone” captures the ethos of a very different war, one that can only be won by staying apart.

The only analogy to the current pandemic in living memory is that of WWII. It was a protracted six-year battle. Life was upended. Death was omnipresent. But it was also replete with hope for a victorious conclusion.

Few servicemen had an experience more isolating than airmen. Missions lasting the better part of a day were spent in a tin can with only one’s crew. There was an inherent discomfort in the unpressurized, unheated fighters and bombers necessitating oxygen masks and protective equipment. For Allies, the air war fought from England was the last vestige of hope in the fight for the western world when all of Europe fell to Hitler.

Let’s take a page from the past to look at ten little-known facts about wartime life in England for American airmen whose collective efforts led to Victory in Europe:

1. American troops invaded England in late 1942. It’s remembered as the “Friendly Invasion.”

Top: Airmen of the 44th Bomb Group ride bikes in Shipdham Village. (Source: Shipdham Flying Club Museum) Middle: An English woman works on a farm abutting a heavy bomber base. B-17s are parked in the background. (Source: NARA) Bottom: Airmen of the 44th Bomb Group pictured in from of the Royal Standard Pub in Shipdham Village with the English proprietor. (Source: Shipdham Flying Club Museum)

In late 1942, droves of American airmen descended on East Anglia, the protruding thumb of England that looks out on the Normandy coast.

Over 350,000 Americans were based in East Anglia during the War organized under the auspices of the 8th Air Force. The pastoral countryside home to farms and storybook English villages transformed into an ostensible aircraft carrier during WWII. Over 50 air bases were hastily constructed for wartime operations.

Life in villages dotting the East Anglian countryside was quiet. The brashness and vigor of American airmen clashed with the more subdued English way of life. By war’s end, a fondness transcending time developed between the English and the Americans that came to be known as the “Friendly Invasion.”

Today, an American boasting a connection to the air war is greeted in East Anglia with open arms and profuse thanks for what our forefathers did in the War.

2. Flying from the United States to Europe took over twenty hours, including an overnight pitstop in Morocco or Greenland.

Top: A B-24 in flight taken from the waist window of an adjacent B-24. Bottom: The ice caps in Greenland as a B-24 approaches BW-1 Base in Greenland. (Source: Truslow Private Collection)

Hopping “across the pond” was a prolonged endeavor. Even in the advanced B-24 Liberator, the flight from the United States to England required multiple overnight stops for rest and refueling. All told, the flight time logged from the eastern seaboard of the United States to England was over 20 hours.

Because air traffic from the United States to Europe became so congested during the war, two different routes to England were established, named the Northern and Southern route.

Air Transport Command Ferry Routes, September 1945 (Source: NARA)

The Northern route wove from Canada to Greenland or Iceland, giving crews a glimpse of the Northern Lights and icy fjords before touching down in England.

The Southern route sent crews over lush jungles in South America before hopping east to Africa, with a final stop in Morocco after navigating over the towering Atlas Mountains.

Crashes getting to combat in England were so common that airman James Mahoney recalled: “An Air Transport Command Navigator once ventured that you could navigate the land portions of both routes by merely following the carcasses of fallen planes.”

3. Bomber crews spent hundreds of hours in combat fighting the Nazis but many never stepped foot on the European continent.

Top: B-24 bombers of the 44th Bomb Group over East Anglia in formation for a bombing mission over the continent. Bottom: The cockpit of a B-24 heavy bomber. (Source: Shipdham Flying Club Museum)

Up until the invasion of Italy and D-Day shortly thereafter, American air bases were located in England as part of the 8th Air Force.

By war’s end, a bomber crew had to fly 35 missions to complete a tour of duty and earn their ticket home. Thirty-five missions amounted to 200+ hours in combat over Fortress Europe clashing with Germans. Completing a tour spanned many months, sometimes taking an entire year.

If an airman was lucky, he never stepped foot on the ground where his war was fought. For bombers of the 8th Air Force, nearly every mission began and ended in England. In most cases, only if a crew was shot down, and survived the crash, did they touch down on the European continent.

4. American airmen wore almost 70 pounds of gear on combat missions to protect against -50 degree temperatures and enemy flak.

Top: Airmen of the 44th Bomb Group in the Drying Room on base where they donned heated flying suit and sheepskins. (Source: Shipdham Flying Club Museum) Middle: An airman of the 392nd Bomb Group in the waist of a B-24 bomber wearing a flak vest and helmet. (Source: 392nd Bomb Group) Bottom: An airman on a practice mission treating a wounded crew. His oxygen mask and Mae West life vest are clearly pictured. (Source: NARA)

Combat flying was hell. Heavy bombers were unpressurized and unheated. On day-long missions averaging six to eight hours, temperatures in a bomber regularly hit -50 degrees.

At altitude, bare skin would freeze to the aluminum fuselage and .50 cal machine guns. Oxygen masks iced up constantly. Thirty seconds without oxygen could knock a man unconscious; two minutes without oxygen could kill him.

To combat the cold, lack of oxygen, and enemy flak that sent shrapnel careening through bombers, airmen wore over 70 pounds of gear.

Heated flying suits, sheepskins, flying boots/gloves, Mae West life vests, parachute harness, and flak helmets/vests were just some of the gear an airman sported on every mission.

The bulk and weight of the gear made it difficult for an airman to maneuver through the cramped confines of a heavy bomber, but each piece of gear played a crucial role in keeping an airman alive.

5. On every mission, an airman carried a silk escape map of Europe — even though the fabric was in short supply during the war.

Top: A silk escape map showing France. Bottom: A silk escape map showing Holland, Belgium, France, and Germany. (Sources: Wings Remembered Museum) (Source: Sims Private Collection)

If an aircrew was shot down on a mission over Europe, they relied an escape kit, which was carried on every mission, to avoid capture and make it to friendly lines. A silk escape map was one piece of the escape kit.

Roughly three feet long by three feet wide, different geographic areas were printed on both sides of a silk escape map. As the war went on, the regions changed based on the areas where Allied bombing dominated. The maps showed roads, railways, and other landmarks to help an Allied airman evade the enemy.

However, why it was printed on a most coveted wartime fabric is perhaps the most interesting story.

Paper maps proved ineffective for airmen on the run because of the noise they produced when in use. Paper maps also proved vulnerable to water. Rain caused the ink to bleed or the map itself to disintegrate.

Silk was an effective alternative: durable, water-resistant, and easy to handle. Even though it was in short supply, silk was allocated for escape maps. Over 3.5 million silk and cloth maps were printed for Allied forces during the war.

6. Even in war, dogs remained man’s best friend.

Top: Flakko at Shipdham Air Base airfiield site where ground crews prepared B-24s for bombing missions. Second: Flakko with 44th Bomb Group ground crewmen Collins, Kinning, and Villemez. Third: Rusty in the B-24 cockpit “Avenger” with 1st Lt. Peterson. Bottom: Rusty sitting atop a bomb waiting to be loaded into a B-24 bomb bay. (Source: Shipdham Flying Club Museum)

English dogs found adopted homes at American airbases during WWII. Beloved by all the men on base, dogs became ostensible mascots of Army Air Force Bomb Groups of the 8th Air Force.

The furry friends brought comfort and joy to an otherwise somber livelihood marked by cold English days, long missions, and omnipresent death.

Roaming bombs and ammunition at American airbases in rural England, dogs adopted by bomb groups lived at the epicenter of war.

On occasion, dogs were tucked inside a heavy bomber and taken for a flight. On the famed low-level Ploesti raid, the dog “Eight Ball,” so named for the 44th Bomb Group who adopted him, flew on the deadly raid. Tail Gunner Steve Bugyie recalled: “When the guns began to fire, Eight Ball curled up under the pilot’s seat and stayed there for the rest of the mission.” Needless to say, dogs did not belong in combat.

While the sentiment that “bomb group dogs” belonged to every man who lived on base, they were typically cared for by a select few. When the war ended and American airmen were sent stateside, leaving behind their beloved pets proved torturous.

At war’s end, ground crewman John Weber consulted the British Kennel Club because he wanted to bring “El Champo,” a Cocker Spaniel adopted by the 44th Bomb Group, back to the United States. When that proved impossible, Weber paid a local farmer to care for “El Champo.” For several years after the war, Weber made a yearly trip from Oregon to England to visit his beloved “El Champo.”

7. STDs were a widespread issue on airbases that posed a threat to winning the war.

Top: Piccadilly Circus in wartime London. American airmen flocked to London on leave and overnight accommodation was available at the Rainbow Club run by the American Red Cross. (Source: American Air Museum) Bottom: Excerpt of a daily briefing from August 15, 1944, which would have been posted across an Army Air Force Base with mission-critical announcements for airmen. (Source: 44th Bomb Group Microfilm from Maxwell Air Force Base)

Demographically, American airmen were young and overwhelmingly single. According to recently analyzed NARA enlistment data, 77% of airmen in the 44th Bomb Group were single without children when they enlisted.

Sequestration on an all-male airbase, coupled with the life and death stress of combat, led sexual frustration to mount. Leave in London proved an easy release for the pent up sexual tension. From their airbases in East Anglia, American airmen flocked to Piccadilly Circus. Their presence brought rampant prostitution to the area.

With sex came widespread STDs. Referred to during the war as Venereal Disease (VD), an estimated one-third of VD cases amongst GIs were said to have originated in London.

VD posed a threat to winning the war, as afflicted airmen were grounded from flying combat missions for several days until their health improved.

Airbase leaders combatted VD with lectures, free-flowing condoms, and publicly displaying daily statistics about the number of VD cases on base. Yet, VD proved to be a protracted battle.

A 1944 Medical Report submitted by the 44th Bomb Group noted: “Repeated lectures on venereal diseases, far in excess of that required by Army regulations, have been given to all members of this command. Prophylaxis is available to men, as are condoms. Few use them. This is indicative of the carelessness of and disinterest of the men for their personal good and the good of the service.”

8. English country estates were requisitioned and turned into retreats called “Rest Homes” for war-weary airmen.

Top: Knightshayes Court was built in 1874 for the Heathcote-Amory family. During the war, it became a Rest Home for American airmen stationed in England with the 8th Air Force. Bottom: American airmen, including E.F. Wilson, at the Knightshayes Court Rest Home in April 1945. (Source: American Air Museum)

Run by the American Red Cross, Rest Homes were country estates where war-weary airmen midway through a combat tour to recharge and relax for a week.

The psychiatric strain of combat flying led to the creation of over 20 Rest Homes in England. Manor homes and country estates throughout England were handed over by their owners for use as Rest Homes.

The Rest Home program was viewed as preventative care to keep American airmen in good psychological health. An air crew was typically sent to a Rest Home halfway through a tour of 25 to 35 missions or after a particularly traumatic event.

The goal was to give American airmen a reprieve from the war for a week. Upon arrival, airmen were given civilian clothes. They slept in beds with lush linens. The breakfast menu included real eggs and bacon. Red Cross girls entertained airmen during the day with games and myriad activities on each estate. Rest Home dinners were a nightly lavish affair, including an open bar.

9. Run by the American Red Cross, “Clubmobiles” were bakeries on wheels offering rare treats at airbases — donuts, coffee, & interaction with women.

Top: Ground crews and airmen of the 44th Bomb Group Bottom: American Red Cross Workers Pose Beside the Clubmobile, nicknamed ‘Tennessee’ at An 8th Air Force Base In England, 3 November 1943. (Source: NARA)

The American Red Cross ran a robust assortment of morale-boosting activities for American airmen in England, including the “Clubmobile.”

Described as a service club on wheels, a “Clubmobile” was a London Bus retrofitted as an ostensible food truck.

Upon arrival at an airbase, a “Clubmobile” parked near the heart of combat operations adjacent the runways. American Red Cross girls brewed coffee and fried donuts from the small kitchen inside the bus. A victrola played music while dozens of men waited in line. On an average day, 5,000 donuts were served from a single “Clubmobile.”

Donuts were a treat in short supply, a result of food rationing and the English opinion they were “ethnic food.” The “Clubmobile” brought a slice of home to “donut desolate” wartime England.

10. Dances brought live music, local women, and good cheer to the epicenter of the air war.

Top: Airmen of the 44th Bomb Group at the Aero Club on Base. (Source: Shipdham Flying Club Museum) Bottom: Band play for a dance at the 381st Bomb Group Aero Club on February 14, 1944. (Source: NARA)

Dances organized by the American Red Cross gave airmen an opportunity to blow off steam from the intense stress of the air war.

Aero Clubs on American airbases regularly transformed into dance halls featuring live swing music, often courtesy of an airbase’s band formed from the roughly 3,000 personnel who called each base home.

The 44th Bomb Group band was started by Bombardier Paul Boensch, who studied music before the war. Maintenance men in the group built music stands, and instruments were hobbled together. Boensch recalled, “Our best break came when Major Linck learned that a band of German musicians was captured at St. Lo after D-Day. Twenty-four hours later, we had all their instruments, all in first class condition.”

In addition to the live music, women from local villages were trucked to airbases for evening dances. It was a formal affair as airmen donned their best Class A uniforms.

Typically held once a month, dances proved popular with airmen with a vast majority attending the evening affairs. The music, dancing, and female company gave airmen a few hours to forget about the war.

Fighting for the Freedom of a Foreign People

New Glimpses into the Daily Lives of American Airmen in England During WWII


In the wake of Pearl Harbor, the United States began growing and mobilizing the nascent Army Air Force for war.

In mid-1942, the 8th Air Force’s “friendly invasion” of England began. By D-Day two years later, over 200,000 men of the 8th Air Force called England home base.

From 200 newly erected airbases in England, American flyboys launched bombing raids into Hitler’s Fortress Europe to break the back of the German war machine. Their goal was to liberate a foreign people and bring an end to the Nazi regime.

Such lofty aims meant there was no reprieve from war. Holidays and weekends did not put a stop to combat missions. The 4th of July was no exception.

Ironically, in both 1943 and 1944, American airmen celebrated their nation’s independence in the country their forefathers fought for freedom — England. Unlike the Revolutionary War, the bomber boys in WWII were fighting for the freedom of a foreign people. But it was the American ideals of freedom, liberty, and justice for all that drove both conflicts.


At 1 AM on July 4, 1944, Shipdham Airfield came to life as 262 airmen were jolted awake for a mission briefing. The target was a significant Luftwaffe airfield in Beaumont-le-Roger, France — 100 miles southeast of Omaha Beach where troops landed on D-Day nearly a month prior.


“We’re celebrating our national independence day with plenty of fireworks,” said the mission report. But it was flak, not fireworks, that formed the backdrop of their wartime 4th of July. Over the target, flak bursts filled the sky with black clouds of exploding shells aiming to shoot them from the sky.

75 years later, amidst a backdrop of fireworks and not flak, let us remember the ideals on which America was founded. Let us remember our forefathers who fought for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

My grandfather, Wallace B. Truslow during WWII.

I conjure the image of my paternal grandfather Wally who was one of those bomber boys at Shipdham. He flew through flak fields on 42 missions, but never spoke of the war after it ended.

Seventy-five years after WWII ended, new traces of the war are still resurfacing. In 2020, I came across rare, never-shared Super 8 footage of the bomber boys in England while conducting archival research in England. Robert Krueger, who served as a ground mechanic at Shipdham for all 29 months of the war, recorded over an hour of wartime footage showcasing the human side of combat.

This footage sheds new light on an old conflict, illuminating the combat missions and the long stretches between, in the name of liberty and justice for all.


Getting around Base — Bikes

Like most American airbases in England during WWII, Shipdham was dispersed over 10 square miles. Living sites were several miles from the airfield, mess halls, and showers. The reason behind the design was strategic: should the Germans attack the bases, dispersing the sites would minimize the carnage.

The dispersed design of American airfields required airmen to walk 10+ miles a day for basic necessities. With gas rationed, bicycles became the predominant mode of transit.

Old, used bikes went for hefty sums. Before American airmen flooded England, bikes sold for $15 to $20. By D-Day, the price increased five-fold. Adjusted for inflation, that’s $1500 today. Even so, over one-third of the men on base had a privately-owned bike.

Accidents on bicycles were plentiful. American airmen often forgot the English drove on the left side of the road. Coupled with narrow country roads and the wartime blackout, accidents between bicycles and vehicles were common. In August 1944, a ground crewman was killed at Shipdham when he was hit by a truck while riding his bike.

Vestiges of Home — Baseball

At the communal site on an American airbase, airmen gathered to eat, shower, and socialize.

Here, myriad activities were organized for the airmen to keep their minds occupied while not flying missions. A station theater played nightly movies and hosted USO shows. The American Red Cross Aero Club featured a library, games, music, a duck pond, and snacks. Officers and Enlisted Men’s Clubs offered alcoholic beverages in the evenings.

Yet, it was organized sports that most distinctly brought a slice of home to war. Baseball tournaments were organized among the dozens of American Airbases and games drew large crowds whose allegiances were tied strictly to the base they called home.

Coveted 48-Hour Leave — London

American airbases were scattered throughout the English countryside in East Anglia, a rural landscape separated by quaint villages. There was little of interest for the airmen in these villages so small that the neighboring wartime airbases were more populous.

A 48-hour pass granting leave from East Anglia was coveted. An airman could earn a pass roughly every five missions. The most popular destination to escape to was London. Approximately 100 miles southwest of East Anglia, London was only a two-hour train ride.

Run by the American Red Cross, the Rainbow Club in the heart of Piccadilly Circus offered overnight accommodation to American troops for fifty cents a night.

The airmen packed their hours in London with famed tourist attractions, theater productions, and drinks at the eponymous Savoy Hotel.

The changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace proved a favorite for American troops. During the war, the crowd gathered at the gates was distinguished only by the varying uniforms of the U.S. military branches — sailors, airmen, and infantry.

Maintaining a Fleet of B-24 Bombers — Ground Crews Working on the “Line”

Nearly 3,000 people lived on an American airbase in England at any given time during WWII. Of those, only about 700 were flyboys. The rest were “paddlefeet,” as they were affectionately nicknamed, or non-fliers.

Repairing bombers damaged by enemy flak and fighters, as well as preparing bombers for subsequent missions, required around-the-clock work. A motley group of mechanics of every flavor and ordnance/ammunitions men worked on the line.

Three massive T-2 Hangars were erected at Shipdham. Here, the most intensive B-24 repairs were completed. At 240 feet long, 121 feet wide, and 40 feet tall, the square footage of a T2 hangar was twice that of a football field. Yet, fitting just four B-24s in a T2 hangar was a tight squeeze: the bomber boasted a 110 foot wingspan and 67 foot long fuselage.

As a result, most work happened outside in the elements. Conditions were miserable thanks to the pernicious English weather. “On the line, ground crews had no shelter or protection from cold, inadequate clothing, and worked with bare hands,” recalled Lundy, a mechanic who spent 29 months at Shipdham.

In mid-1944, Shipdham Airbase had a fleet of over 60 B-24s. Ground crews were known to work 36 hours straight repairing a bomber to ready it for the next mission. Their role was no less heroic than that of the flyboys.

After the War — Trolley Missions

V-E Day marked the end of war in Europe on May 8, 1945. Trolley Missions began immediately after.

The purpose of these day-long flights was no longer the destruction of enemy targets, but viewing the results of 2.5 years of bombing. The Trolley Missions were designed to show the ground crews the results of their efforts.

Having arrived in England by ship, some ground crewmen had never been on an airplane by the war’s end. Most had not left England at all during the war, so the low-level flight over important targets along the Rhine River marked their first flight and first sight of the European continent.

Fourteen B-24 bomb groups flew Trolley Missions in early May 1945 carrying more than 24,000 passengers on the sightseeing tour over the continent.

Will Lundy, a ground crewman who spent the entire war at Shipdham, was stunned by what he saw in Europe:

“The destruction that our allied planes had rained down on these German cities was shocking; far worse than we had imagined. […] Here the nearly total destruction would go on for miles with nothing but broken walls standing. After viewing so much of it, we had to start feeling a bit of pity for them. So many had nothing left. […] We really did have a part in bringing Germany to her knees, even those of us who stayed behind on the many airfields feeling left out of the battles.”


History remembers the bomber boys during WWII for their daring in combat. They flew through flak fields and fended off fighter attacks. Fireworks displays illuminated daylight skies as exploding shells and tracer bullets brought flashes of bright light and the lingering smell of cordite.

But it was the less talked about moments between the missions of day-to-day life that shed new light on the war today. Through the herculean efforts that preceded every mission, the youthful desire to explore the foreign land of war, and the creature comforts of home, the human side of WWII continues to be exposed.

For additional wartime footage, visit my You Tube Channel. To learn more about the bomber boys in England during WWII, visit www.ww2truslow.com.

Viewpoints Radio Segment on 44th BG

Over Memorial Day Weekend, Viewpoints Radio aired a feature story about the 44th Bomb Group featuring my grandfather’s war and my journey of uncovering it.

“Memorial Day is on Monday, May 25 this year. It is a day that we remember those who have served and lost their lives protecting this country. To honor our veterans, we highlight a unique story from World War II about the heroic men of the U.S. Air Force 44th Bomb Group.”

Screen Shot 2020-07-04 at 7.31.33 AMThe radio program explores the story behind data dashboard I built to tell the singular stories and collective impact of the 5,000 airmen who served in the 44th Bomb Group during the war.

Behind the dashboard is my own family’s WWII history. My paternal grandfather Wally flew 42 missions with the 44th Bomb Group. He had severe PTSD and never spoke of the war after it ended. Piecing together the fragments of Wally’s war was the impetus for using big data to tell a new story of WWII.

Hope you’ll give the 10-minute story featured on Viewpoints Radio a listen. It’s available here

Screen Shot 2020-07-04 at 7.36.22 AM

10 Little-Known Facts about American Airmen in WWII on V-E Day 75

Wartime Life in England in Pursuit of Victory


May 8, 2020 marks 75 years since war in Europe ended in World War II. On the same date in 1945, V-E day celebrations were raucous after six years of prolonged war.

Commemorating the end of the war in Europe means remembering the men who fought it and the reality of their wartime lives.

We stand alone together” has come to define the ethos of the Greatest Generation’s WWII fight.

Today, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, “we stand together alone” captures the ethos of a very different war, one that can only be won by staying apart.

The only analogy to the current pandemic in living memory is that of WWII. It was a protracted six-year battle. Life was upended. Death was omnipresent. But it was also replete with hope for a victorious conclusion.

Few servicemen had an experience more isolating than airmen. Missions lasting the better part of a day were spent in a tin can with only one’s crew. There was an inherent discomfort in the unpressurized, unheated fighters and bombers necessitating oxygen masks and protective equipment. For Allies, the air war fought from England was the last vestige of hope in the fight for the western world when all of Europe fell to Hitler.

On the eve of the 75th anniversary of V-E Day, let’s take a page from the past to look at ten little-known facts about wartime life in England for American airmen whose collective efforts led to Victory in Europe:

1. American troops invaded England in late 1942. It’s remembered as the “Friendly Invasion.”




Top Row: Airmen of the 44th Bomb Group ride bikes in Shipdham Village. (Source: Shipdham Flying Club Museum) Bottom Left: An English woman works on a farm abutting a heavy bomber base. B-17s are parked in the background. (Source: NARA) Bottom Right: Airmen of the 44th Bomb Group pictured in from of the Royal Standard Pub in Shipdham Village with the English proprietor. (Source: Shipdham Flying Club Museum)

In late 1942, droves of American airmen descended on East Anglia, the protruding thumb of England that looks out on the Normandy coast.

Over 350,000 Americans were based in East Anglia during the War organized under the auspices of the 8th Air Force. The pastoral countryside home to farms and storybook English villages transformed into an ostensible aircraft carrier during WWII. Over 50 air bases were hastily constructed for wartime operations.

Life in villages dotting the East Anglian countryside was quiet. The brashness and vigor of American airmen clashed with the more subdued English way of life. By war’s end, a fondness transcending time developed between the English and the Americans that came to be known as the “Friendly Invasion.”

Today, an American boasting a connection to the air war is greeted in East Anglia with open arms and profuse thanks for what our forefathers did in the War.

2. Flying from the United States to Europe took over twenty hours, including an overnight pitstop in Morocco or Greenland.


Left: A B-24 in flight taken from the waist window of an adjacent B-24. Right: The ice caps in Greenland as a B-24 approaches BW-1 Base in Greenland. (Source: Truslow Private Collection)

Hopping “across the pond” was a prolonged endeavor. Even in the advanced B-24 Liberator, the flight from the United States to England required multiple overnight stops for rest and refueling. All told, the flight time logged from the eastern seaboard of the United States to England was over 20 hours.

Because air traffic from the United States to Europe became so congested during the war, two different routes to England were established, named the Northern and Southern route.

Air Transport Command Ferry Routes, September 1945 (Source: NARA)

The Northern route wove from Canada to Greenland or Iceland, giving crews a glimpse of the Northern Lights and icy fjords before touching down in England.

The Southern route sent crews over lush jungles in South America before hopping east to Africa, with a final stop in Morocco after navigating over the towering Atlas Mountains.

Crashes getting to combat in England were so common that airman James Mahoney recalled: “An Air Transport Command Navigator once ventured that you could navigate the land portions of both routes by merely following the carcasses of fallen planes.”

3. Bomber crews spent hundreds of hours in combat fighting the Nazis but many never stepped foot on the European continent.


Left: B-24 bombers of the 44th Bomb Group over East Anglia in formation for a bombing mission over the continent. Right: The cockpit of a B-24 heavy bomber. (Source: Shipdham Flying Club Museum)

Up until the invasion of Italy and D-Day shortly thereafter, American air bases were located in England as part of the 8th Air Force.

By war’s end, a bomber crew had to fly 35 missions to complete a tour of duty and earn their ticket home. Thirty-five missions amounted to 200+ hours in combat over Fortress Europe clashing with Germans. Completing a tour spanned many months, sometimes taking an entire year.

If an airman was lucky, he never stepped foot on the ground where his war was fought. For bombers of the 8th Air Force, nearly every mission began and ended in England. In most cases, only if a crew was shot down, and survived the crash, did they touch down on the European continent.

4. American airmen wore almost 70 pounds of gear on combat missions to protect against -50 degree temperatures and enemy flak.



Left: Airmen of the 44th Bomb Group in the Drying Room on base where they donned heated flying suit and sheepskins. (Source: Shipdham Flying Club Museum) Middle: An airman of the 392nd Bomb Group in the waist of a B-24 bomber wearing a flak vest and helmet. (Source: 392nd Bomb Group) Right: An airman on a practice mission treating a wounded crew. His oxygen mask and Mae West life vest are clearly pictured. (Source: NARA)

Combat flying was hell. Heavy bombers were unpressurized and unheated. On day-long missions averaging six to eight hours, temperatures in a bomber regularly hit -50 degrees.

At altitude, bare skin would freeze to the aluminum fuselage and .50 cal machine guns. Oxygen masks iced up constantly. Thirty seconds without oxygen could knock a man unconscious; two minutes without oxygen could kill him.

To combat the cold, lack of oxygen, and enemy flak that sent shrapnel careening through bombers, airmen wore over 70 pounds of gear.

Heated flying suits, sheepskins, flying boots/gloves, Mae West life vests, parachute harness, and flak helmets/vests were just some of the gear an airman sported on every mission.

The bulk and weight of the gear made it difficult for an airman to maneuver through the cramped confines of a heavy bomber, but each piece of gear played a crucial role in keeping an airman alive.

5. On every mission, an airman carried a silk escape map of Europe — even though the fabric was in short supply during the war.


Left: A silk escape map showing France. Right: A silk escape map showing Holland, Belgium, France, and Germany. (Sources: Wings Remembered Museum) (Source: Sims Private Collection)

If an aircrew was shot down on a mission over Europe, they relied an escape kit, which was carried on every mission, to avoid capture and make it to friendly lines. A silk escape map was one piece of the escape kit.

Roughly three feet long by three feet wide, different geographic areas were printed on both sides of a silk escape map. As the war went on, the regions changed based on the areas where Allied bombing dominated. The maps showed roads, railways, and other landmarks to help an Allied airman evade the enemy.

However, why it was printed on a most coveted wartime fabric is perhaps the most interesting story.

Paper maps proved ineffective for airmen on the run because of the noise they produced when in use. Paper maps also proved vulnerable to water. Rain caused the ink to bleed or the map itself to disintegrate.

Silk was an effective alternative: durable, water-resistant, and easy to handle. Even though it was in short supply, silk was allocated for escape maps. Over 3.5 million silk and cloth maps were printed for Allied forces during the war.

6. Even in war, dogs remained man’s best friend.




Top Left: Flakko at Shipdham Air Base airfiield site where ground crews prepared B-24s for bombing missions. Top Right: Flakko with 44th Bomb Group ground crewmen Collins, Kinning, and Villemez. Bottom Left: Rusty in the B-24 cockpit “Avenger” with 1st Lt. Peterson. Bottom Right: Rusty sitting atop a bomb waiting to be loaded into a B-24 bomb bay. (Source: Shipdham Flying Club Museum)

English dogs found adopted homes at American airbases during WWII. Beloved by all the men on base, dogs became ostensible mascots of Army Air Force Bomb Groups of the 8th Air Force.

The furry friends brought comfort and joy to an otherwise somber livelihood marked by cold English days, long missions, and omnipresent death.

Roaming bombs and ammunition at American airbases in rural England, dogs adopted by bomb groups lived at the epicenter of war.

On occasion, dogs were tucked inside a heavy bomber and taken for a flight. On the famed low-level Ploesti raid, the dog “Eight Ball,” so named for the 44th Bomb Group who adopted him, flew on the deadly raid. Tail Gunner Steve Bugyie recalled: “When the guns began to fire, Eight Ball curled up under the pilot’s seat and stayed there for the rest of the mission.” Needless to say, dogs did not belong in combat.

While the sentiment that “bomb group dogs” belonged to every man who lived on base, they were typically cared for by a select few. When the war ended and American airmen were sent stateside, leaving behind their beloved pets proved torturous.

At war’s end, ground crewman John Weber consulted the British Kennel Club because he wanted to bring “El Champo,” a Cocker Spaniel adopted by the 44th Bomb Group, back to the United States. When that proved impossible, Weber paid a local farmer to care for “El Champo.” For several years after the war, Weber made a yearly trip from Oregon to England to visit his beloved “El Champo.”

7. STDs were a widespread issue on airbases that posed a threat to winning the war.


Left: Piccadilly Circus in wartime London. American airmen flocked to London on leave and overnight accommodation was available at the Rainbow Club run by the American Red Cross. (Source: American Air Museum) Right: Excerpt of a daily briefing from August 15, 1944, which would have been posted across an Army Air Force Base with mission-critical announcements for airmen. (Source: 44th Bomb Group Microfilm from Maxwell Air Force Base)

Demographically, American airmen were young and overwhelmingly single. According to recently analyzed NARA enlistment data, 77% of airmen in the 44th Bomb Group were single without children when they enlisted.

Sequestration on an all-male airbase, coupled with the life and death stress of combat, led sexual frustration to mount. Leave in London proved an easy release for the pent up sexual tension. From their airbases in East Anglia, American airmen flocked to Piccadilly Circus. Their presence brought rampant prostitution to the area.

With sex came widespread STDs. Referred to during the war as Venereal Disease (VD), an estimated one-third of VD cases amongst GIs were said to have originated in London.

VD posed a threat to winning the war, as afflicted airmen were grounded from flying combat missions for several days until their health improved.

Airbase leaders combatted VD with lectures, free-flowing condoms, and publicly displaying daily statistics about the number of VD cases on base. Yet, VD proved to be a protracted battle.

A 1944 Medical Report submitted by the 44th Bomb Group noted: “Repeated lectures on venereal diseases, far in excess of that required by Army regulations, have been given to all members of this command. Prophylaxis is available to men, as are condoms. Few use them. This is indicative of the carelessness of and disinterest of the men for their personal good and the good of the service.”

8. English country estates were requisitioned and turned into retreats called “Rest Homes” for war-weary airmen.


Left: Knightshayes Court was built in 1874 for the Heathcote-Amory family. During the war, it became a Rest Home for American airmen stationed in England with the 8th Air Force. Right: American airmen, including E.F. Wilson, at the Knightshayes Court Rest Home in April 1945. (Source: American Air Museum)

Run by the American Red Cross, Rest Homes were country estates where war-weary airmen midway through a combat tour to recharge and relax for a week.

The psychiatric strain of combat flying led to the creation of over 20 Rest Homes in England. Manor homes and country estates throughout England were handed over by their owners for use as Rest Homes.

The Rest Home program was viewed as preventative care to keep American airmen in good psychological health. An air crew was typically sent to a Rest Home halfway through a tour of 25 to 35 missions or after a particularly traumatic event.

The goal was to give American airmen a reprieve from the war for a week. Upon arrival, airmen were given civilian clothes. They slept in beds with lush linens. The breakfast menu included real eggs and bacon. Red Cross girls entertained airmen during the day with games and myriad activities on each estate. Rest Home dinners were a nightly lavish affair, including an open bar.

9. Run by the American Red Cross, “Clubmobiles” were bakeries on wheels offering rare treats at airbases — donuts, coffee, & interaction with women.


Left: Ground crews and airmen of the 44th Bomb Group Right: American Red Cross Workers Pose Beside the Clubmobile, nicknamed ‘Tennessee’ at An 8th Air Force Base In England, 3 November 1943. (Source: NARA)

The American Red Cross ran a robust assortment of morale-boosting activities for American airmen in England, including the “Clubmobile.”

Described as a service club on wheels, a “Clubmobile” was a London Bus retrofitted as an ostensible food truck.

Upon arrival at an airbase, a “Clubmobile” parked near the heart of combat operations adjacent the runways. American Red Cross girls brewed coffee and fried donuts from the small kitchen inside the bus. A victrola played music while dozens of men waited in line. On an average day, 5,000 donuts were served from a single “Clubmobile.”

Donuts were a treat in short supply, a result of food rationing and the English opinion they were “ethnic food.” The “Clubmobile” brought a slice of home to “donut desolate” wartime England.

10. Dances brought live music, local women, and good cheer to the epicenter of the air war.


Left: Airmen of the 44th Bomb Group at the Aero Club on Base. (Source: Shipdham Flying Club Museum) Right: Band play for a dance at the 381st Bomb Group Aero Club on February 14, 1944. (Source: NARA)

Dances organized by the American Red Cross gave airmen an opportunity to blow off steam from the intense stress of the air war.

Aero Clubs on American airbases regularly transformed into dance halls featuring live swing music, often courtesy of an airbase’s band formed from the roughly 3,000 personnel who called each base home.

The 44th Bomb Group band was started by Bombardier Paul Boensch, who studied music before the war. Maintenance men in the group built music stands, and instruments were hobbled together. Boensch recalled, “Our best break came when Major Linck learned that a band of German musicians was captured at St. Lo after D-Day. Twenty-four hours later, we had all their instruments, all in first class condition.”

In addition to the live music, women from local villages were trucked to airbases for evening dances. It was a formal affair as airmen donned their best Class A uniforms.

Typically held once a month, dances proved popular with airmen with a vast majority attending the evening affairs. The music, dancing, and female company gave airmen a few hours to forget about the war.

Using Data Science to Unearth New Stories of WWII

75 Years After V-E Day, Leveraging Big Data, Analytics, & Data Visualization to Illuminate the Past

On May 8th, 1945, World War II ended in Europe after five protracted years of battle.

In the 75 years since, little has gone unsaid of WWII. The war’s broad strokes have been hashed and rehashed.

Yet, at the intersection of data science and history is the potential to unearth new histories of WWII that couldn’t have been told until today.


Two years ago, I dreamed up the idea to build an interactive dashboard to tell the story of an Army Air Force combat group during WWII using big data.

Wallace B. Truslow

Behind the dashboard was my own family’s story: my grandfather Wally took his service on a B-24 crew in Europe to the grave. A lifelong struggle with PTSD left his wartime service a mystery to everyone in his life. Because I’m a data scientist by trade, I turned to data in telling Wally’s story twenty years after he died.

When I began researching Wally’s service with the 44th Bomb Group, I eventually stumbled upon newly digitized data sources from WWII. In spite of an increasing amount of digital information available about WWII, the databases housing the data made it impossible to aggregate and analyze the data.

I wanted to look beyond Wally’s story to the 44th Bomb Group at large to contextualize Wally’s service. For example, knowing Wally flew 42 missions in the war meant little without understanding the average number flown of missions an airman in the 44th Bomb Group flew over the course of the war.

With much manual effort and a serendipitous hunch, I determined that Wally flew more missions than 99.5% of all 5,000 airmen in the 44th Bomb Group. It was an insight gleaned from the data that fundamentally reshaped how I perceived Wally’s war and the grandfather I knew.

I knew if I could create a manipulable data set, there were hundreds more insights, like the one I gleaned about my grandfather, waiting to be found.

The dashboard idea was born from my desire to look at the relationship between missions flown, combat losses, and demographics for all 5,000 men in the 44th Bomb Group — a monumental task never done before.

I began by exploring how I could leverage the 21st century digital tools designed for business analytics to tell a new history of the war with big data. These tools, which are the staples of my day job studying human capital issues, proved remarkably useful in looking to the past.

What I learned is that unearthing insights from 75-year-old isn’t markedly different than extracting insights from new data.


Before building the dashboard, I spent the better part of a year web scraping and cleaning 1.5 million data points about demographics, wartime missions, and combat losses for all 5,000 airmen who served in the 44th Bomb Group over the course of the war.

In the process, I learned that 75-year-old data is replete with quality issues. Originally captured by hand, then manually entered into a database, the scale and scope of inconsistencies to rectify was profound. Getting to the final dataset included over 10,000 lines of data cleaning syntax.

With cleaned data in tow, I built the dashboard wire frame aiming to tell a visual story about the collective impact and singular stories of 5,000 bomber boys who served with the 44th Bomb Group.

After a four-month sabbatical from work, the 44th Bomb Group Data Dashboard became a reality in Google Data Studio.


The 44th Bomb Group data dashboard tells a new history of WWII that wasn’t possible until today, 75 years after war in Europe ended on V-E Day.

Drawing from 1.5 million data points and featuring 100+ data visualizations, the dashboard sits at the intersection of data science and history. It tells the story of the 44th Bomb Group’s collective impact in WWII and singular stories of the 5,000 men who served in the group, including that of my grandfather Wally.

What follows is a never-before told big data history of the 44th Bomb Group during WWII featuring data insights and excerpts from the 44th Bomb Group Data Dashboard:


The 44th Bomb Group was the first B-24 Heavy Bomber group stationed in England. They were pioneers of the air war.

https://datastudio.google.com/embed/reporting/1hIZHajwShFth_FQQaHM5B_h5i8SPOD8-/page/5Ftf


The 44th Bomb Group flew into Fortress Europe nearly two years before the Allies touched down on European soil. They flew 29 continuous months from late 1942 until V-E Day in 1945. Over half of the 44th Bomb Group’s missions (57%) were flown in 1944. In five months of combat operations in 1945, 21% of all wartime missions were flown – the same amount flown in all twelve months of 1943.

https://datastudio.google.com/embed/reporting/1hIZHajwShFth_FQQaHM5B_h5i8SPOD8-/page/Q68ehttps://datastudio.google.com/embed/reporting/1hIZHajwShFth_FQQaHM5B_h5i8SPOD8-/page/AHZe


The 44th Bomb Group fought in every major battle in the European Theater of Operations. Over 344 missions, the 44th Bomb Group bombed 8 distinct countries, including 117 unique cities in Germany and 66 unique cities in France.

https://datastudio.google.com/embed/reporting/1hIZHajwShFth_FQQaHM5B_h5i8SPOD8-/page/g4Ye


The 44th Bomb Group’s losses were unprecedented. Over half (53%) of their B-24 bombers were lost in combat. Over one-quarter (26%) of all airmen who served in the 44th were killed or became prisoners of war (n=1280).

https://datastudio.google.com/embed/reporting/1hIZHajwShFth_FQQaHM5B_h5i8SPOD8-/page/y7fh


Completing a tour of duty was statistically improbable. At the end of the war, a tour consisted of 35 missions. 44th airmen killed in action flew an average of 9 missions; airmen who became prisoners of war averaged 11 missions.

https://datastudio.google.com/embed/reporting/1hIZHajwShFth_FQQaHM5B_h5i8SPOD8-/page/Addh


By demographics, the 5,000 airmen who served in the 44th Bomb Group came from every walk of life:

Birth State

  • Half came from 6 most populated states in the country — the other half came from every state in between.
  • They came from every state except Alaska.
  • Almost one-quarter (23%) were born in New York, Pennsylvania, or Massachusetts.
  • One-fifth (21%) were born in California, Texas, Illinois and Ohio — the most populous states in the 1940 census not located in the northeast.

Race & Citizenship

  • The men of the 44th Bomb Group were diverse in nearly every way except race: 95% of airmen in the 44th Bomb Group were white. 
    Note: African-Americans were not permitted to serve as combat pilots in the Army Air Corps — with the exception of a limited number of African American men accepted in 1941 to serve as combat pilots — the Tuskegee Airmen.

Marital Status

  • Almost 8 in 10 (77%) were single when they enlisted. On average, this group was 22-years-old.
  • Only 1 in 10 (13%) were married at enlistment. They were older than their single counterparts with an average age of 27.

https://datastudio.google.com/embed/reporting/1hIZHajwShFth_FQQaHM5B_h5i8SPOD8-/page/qd9r


The never-told big data history of the 44th Bomb Group’s collective impact, which has been the focus thus far, leaves out the singular stories of the 5,000 airmen who served in the group.

The beauty of crafting a narrative with big data are the exponential storytelling possibilities to look at the “big picture” while also zooming in on the granular stories that are “needles in a haystack” — all with just a few clicks of a mouse.

Dashboards are useful tools in filtering big data to pinpoint singular stories. By creatively leveraging the standard data elements available in dashboard software like Google Data Studio, it’s possible to build a user interface that resembles a database so users can easily pinpoint a single data point using a variety of filters.

In telling the 44th Bomb Group’s story, the counterpoint to the story of the group’s collective impact is the ability to search for the story of a single airman, a functionality that is the cornerstone of the 44th Bomb Group Data Dashboard:

https://datastudio.google.com/embed/reporting/1hIZHajwShFth_FQQaHM5B_h5i8SPOD8-/page/QG0ehttps://datastudio.google.com/embed/reporting/1hIZHajwShFth_FQQaHM5B_h5i8SPOD8-/page/mNNf


V-E Day 75 is a reminder of the presence of the past. At the intersection of big data and history is unparalleled opportunity to shed new light on the stories of our forefathers.

Data scientists are in a unique position to creatively leverage the tools of our trade to innovate in unearthing new narratives of the past with big data, analytics, and data visualization.

The intersection of data science and history led me back to my grandfather Wally’s war. The story of his quiet heroism and survival against all odds came to life from data points I cobbled together. It took 75 years to learn of Wally’s profound sacrifices in the war.

44th Bomb Group B-24 Bombers over England (Source: Shipdham Flying Club Museum)

Big data has the capacity to tell deeply human stories from our personal and collective histories.

Let the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of V-E Day encourage explorations at the intersection of history and data science:

  • Continue learning from the collective impact and singular stories of 44th Bomb Group airmen during WWII by exploring the full dashboard at www.44thbombgroup.org.
  • Begin exploring how to leverage your skills as a data scientist in unearthing stories of the past, including those of your forefathers.

A History of the 44th Bomb Group Fit for the 21st Century.

A year in the making using technology the bomber boys couldn’t have imagined 75 years ago, this is a new history of the 44th Bomb Group in WWII drawing from 1.5 million data points.

Screen Shot 2019-10-15 at 2.41.56 AM

The quick links above make it possible search for a veteran’s mission and personnel records or explore the 44th’s missions. The best news — you can explore the journey of one man or the whole group looking at the data by missions, men, bombers, and targets – all with a few clicks.

Explore and learn more about the dashboard here: www.44thbombgroup.org 

At the intersection of data science and history – you get me (Mara Truslow, in case we haven’t met) – the granddaughter of a 44th vet, a management consultant who deals in data by data, a student of the 44th by night.

I spent the last year scraping the world for the 1.5 million data points in the dashboard, which builds on the inimitable 44th BG Dashboard Will Lundy spearheaded. This summer, I took a 4 month sabbatical from Deloitte – the final sprint to finish the dashboard.

Here you have it! A history of the 44th fit for the 21st century.

5 Moments from my Visit to Shipdham Airfield that Brought my Grandfather’s WWII Service on a B-24 Back to Life

In April, I set off on a three-week research trip in Europe following in the footsteps of my grandfather who flew B-24s from there during WWII. I would spend one day visiting the modern Shipdham Airfield, and I looked forward to this day more than any other. 

(Note: In case you missed it, part one of this blog explains how we found ourselves at Shipdham and the long journey to get back there.)

In only eight hours at Shipdham, I had dozens of experiences, each lasting only a few moments, that have become treasured memories. This is thanks to three English gentlemen whose generosity in facilitating every aspect of our visit told of the deep bond built during the war between the English and the airmen. This bond remains intact today in spite of the 75 years that have passed.

Here are five moments from Shipdham that brought its wartime past into full view.

1. Driving down the remaining wartime runway.

Shipdham Runway on Rainy DayGetting to the Shipdham Flying Clubhouse requires driving down the one remaining wartime runway. This half-mile stretch of reinforced concrete was the literal launching point for the monumentally difficult task of strategic daylight bombing. As the rain slapped against Mike’s car and the potholes formed from this harsh climate jostled our bodies, I looked out the window lost in the scenes that unfolded here 75 years before.

I was reminded of a letter Mike Whalen, the Radio Operator on my grandfather Wally’s crew, sent to Wally in 1998 when some fifty years after the war, his crew located him just before he died. Whalen recalled: “In 1976 I went to England and visited the base at Shipdham. […]. The main runway was still in place with grass growing up through cracks, a stack of hay in the middle of it, and cows grazing on the field. In the stillness, I could still feel the thrust of power as [Captain, Pilot] Emmett took us down that runway so many times headed out for Europe.”

GJ Bar L edited
B-24 taking off from Shipdham’s runways.

Conjuring these words as we sped down the runway, I could see Wally’s crew in their silver B-24J named Bar L speeding alongside. Wracked by nerves in the lead up to a mission, they’d take off wondering if lady luck was on their side, but equally cognizant that whatever happened, it would be alongside this crew whose bond would be unshakable in their lifetime and the generations beyond.

2. Meeting the storied G-Fizz that foretold of our next adventure from Shipdham.

G Fizz
Mike’s Piper, G-Fizz, in the Shipdham hangar.

Early in our visit, Mike, the owner of Shipdham Flying Club, led us from the clubhouse to the hangar. Home to an impressive collection of warbirds and light aircraft, we ducked our heads to avoid hitting the wings and fuselages tightly packed in the hangar. Mike led us to the very back of the hangar to G-Fizz, his pride and joy that we’d heard much about on the way to Shipdham.

Previously owned by the Schweppes family, ‘Fizz’ pays homage to their empire of sparkling beverages. Mike brought G-Fizz, a four-seater Piper, back to life. My dad’s lifelong love affair with aviation left him swooning over the hangar and G-Fizz’s impeccable condition. As we meandered back to the clubhouse, Mike whispered to me that he wanted to take my dad and I flying later in the week. He’d known us for two hours; this offer another resounding example of the innate bond built because of what Wally and his comrades did at Shipdham a lifetime ago. In that moment and all those since, Mike has exuded a generosity of spirit that is befitting of the place he loves to fly from – Shipdham.  

Screen Shot 2019-06-10 at 3.35.41 PM
Mike, Glen, and Mara.

Coincidentally, before we left for Europe, my dad called asking if we’d be able to take a flight from Shipdham during our visit. Even dreaming about taking off from the runway at Shipdham alongside my pilot dad and feeling Wally’s presence in the skies above made me emotional. Yet, I was sure it was not possible. Barry, John, and Mike were strangers who were already going out of their way to make our visit to Shipdham happen. Happily, I couldn’t have been more wrong, and our day flying from Shipdham exceeded my wildest dreams. (That story coming soon.)

3. The serendipity and shock of stumbling upon a never-before-seen photo of Wally’s crew in the skies over Europe.

Screen Shot 2019-06-13 at 5.03.17 PM.png
Shipdham Clubhouse.

Spending decades getting to know the veterans of the 44th personally, John retains a history of the 44th no book or database parallels. Perched on the edge of my seat for many hours, we (Barry, Mike, my Dad, & John) sat around a table in the clubhouse lost in conversation that jumped from Shipdham to the skies above and zig zagged from the war to the years after. As we talked, I paged through two photo albums John brought for me to peruse.

Screen Shot 2019-06-13 at 5.04.33 PM.png
John Page’s photo album.

The worn leather covers printed with the Flying 8 Ball Emblem suggested his priceless collection was amassed over decades, not years. This hunch proved true as John told me many of these photos were gifted by 44th veterans. Paging through the album, the individual photos collectively told a visceral story of the group’s 344 missions that spanned nearly three years. I lingered over each photo, jogging my memory for any connection to the boys and bombers pictured.

Turning through the final pages of the album, I stopped at an image of a B-24J that was suspended in the clouds; the crispness of the image would fool you into thinking it wasn’t taken from another bomber speeding high above the earth. Nestled elegantly in a thick cloud formation, Bar L flew just to the right of another Liberator visible in the background. Glancing at the caption below it, something caught my eye: “Bar L 44-10524.” My heart racing, I re-read the caption over and over.

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A photo of Bar-L, Wally’s B-24, which I discovered while at Shipdham.

Nearly a month into combat, my grandfather’s crew was assigned a brand new B-24J after flying war weary B-24Ds on their early missions. Wally flew 28 missions, almost 75% of his tour in this sparkling tin can named Bar-L. It was through the bottom of this bomber that Wally was shot during Operation Varsity. Wally’s crew and 10 passengers would return to the United States after V-E day on this Liberator. And yet, I could never find an image of Bar-L. Photos of a crew’s bomber on the ground and in the air were commonplace; yet, I’d combed the digital annals of 44th history to no avail. 

Screen Shot 2019-06-13 at 5.07.42 PM
Example of 44th BG tail markings.

I could not have conceived of something as improbable as finding an image of Bar-L while visiting Shipdham. Examining the bomber more closely, I looked for a sign that I was wrong, that this wasn’t Wally and his crew.

The identity of a B-24 can be discerned through multiple markings: The direction and color of a painted stripe on the vertical stabilizer indicated the bomb group. The symbol above, below, or beside the bomber’s assigned “letter” (e.g. ‘L’) indicated the squadron the plane belonged to. The unique seven-digit serial number assigned to each bomber on the production line was painted on the vertical stabilizer. Staring at the image, I began checking the bomber’s markings – the group, squadron, serial number.

Each one checked out; this was in fact Bar L, and I was almost certainly staring at Wally and his crew in the skies over Europe.

5 Crew After 35 Missions
Wally’s crew.

Interrupting the conversation, I couldn’t help but blurt out the news. Around the table, I was met with looks of disbelief. “You’re kidding,” was my dad’s first response. John chimed in saying, “I got that photo from Elwood Matter.” I knew then without a shadow of a doubt this was Wally’s B-24, as Matter had flown later in the war on many missions with Wally. The clouds surrounding the bomber were a stark reminder of the context – the crew either en route to a bomb run or eagerly heading back to Shipdham – the very place I was sitting as I clutched the photo. The open-air right waist gun window and plexiglass covering the cockpit provided a portal inside Bar-L; I could so vividly imagine Wally and his crew inside that tin can far above the earth.

Not just a picture of Bar-L, this was a palpable depiction of Wally and his crew in the heat of battle. Turning toward my dad, I saw the tears welling in his eyes. 353 bombers flew at Shipdham during the war. The odds of finding Wally in John’s albums were slim to none. But Bar-L revealed herself at Shipdham, floating in the clouds of Fortress Europe on a mission that began and ended on the runway I sat 100 yards from me. The present and the past converged connecting three generations of our family together for the briefest of moments in this fateful place. 

4. Wandering the 44th Bomb Group Museum and soaking up the history on the very site where it unfolded.

Screen Shot 2019-06-13 at 5.14.29 PM.png
Shipdham Museum.

Shipdham Flying Club boasts a small but mighty museum preserving artifacts from the war and telling a deeply human history of the group. Built from the decades-long relationships formed between the 44th vets and the Shipdham Flying Club members, the museum adjacent to the clubhouse is a portal to the humans behind the 44th.

Bill Cameron, a decorated Commanding Officer of the 67th Squadron, was also an avid photographer who gave his collection to the museum. His photos share an intimate glimpse of life at Shipdham from the mundane days between missions to the tension before a mission set off. Dozen of his images are featured offering a deeply human glimpse at life on base from the vantage point of a man an airman. In one image, a snowy winter wonderland blanketing bikes and Nissen Huts is juxtaposed by the with the misery it posed for the airmen living in ostensible tin cans on a sprawling base.

Shipdham Museum on the 44th
Bill Cameron’s photos in the Shipdham Museum.

The perimeter walls are blanketed with priceless artifacts donated by veterans and found on base post-war. Oxygen bottles, sheepskins, and navigational computers used in the skies above Fortress Europe line the walls. Barry and Mike have made no small effort to preserve the history of the group and honor the American airmen who they came to know as young boys during the war. Their dedication is evident in the myriad veterans who entrusted this museum with their most precious artifacts from the war.

Dad at Shipdham Flying Club 44th BG Museum in a Chair Made of Bomb Crates
Dad in chair made from bomb crates.

Tucked in every nook is another treasure from the 44th. Needing to rest a sore leg, I suggested my dad sit for a moment in a chair beside the door. Our guide Barry ushered dad to the chair and nonchalantly added it was made by the ground crews during the war using bomb crates. A flak vest hung on the wall; as the name suggests, armor plates were sewn between the canvas to protect the mid-section from exploding shells. I struggled to lift it from the wall trying to imagine wearing this on top of 70+ pounds of other equipment in the cramped confines of a B-24.

The back room of the museum is lined with boxes and shelves of metal and twisted shrapnel pulled from Shipdham’s ground after the war. These are remnants from the all too frequent crashes on take off or landing; these are fragments left behind from ground crews who worked around the clock to repair bombers.

The museum at Shipdham is not grand or large. It’s an unadorned mosaic revealing the deeply human experience of waging war in the skies above Shipdham. A personal look at war because of the spectacular hospitality provided by the Flying Club to the scores of veterans who returned after the war.

5. Driving the sprawling base spotting the few remnants of the war, including the Control Tower.

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Nissen Hut at Shipdham.

Unsurprisingly, little remains at Shipdham from the war. The Army Air Force stood up and operationalized the Eighth Air Force at an unparalleled pace. The speed with which the airfields in East Anglia were activated, coupled with the dearth of construction workers in England made only mission-critical infrastructure the priority. Building the steel-reinforced runways that wouldn’t buckle under the 60,000 pounds B-24s was a colossal undertaking leaving little time, men, or materials for anything else. The bare minimum infrastructure would be built. Corrugated metal Nissen Huts fit the bill as they were pre-fabricated, requiring hours, not days, to assemble, and they made efficient use of the scant building materials available in wartime England. Used primarily for living quarters, Nissen Huts provided little protection from the notoriously harsh weather in East Anglia, and the airmen grew to loathe these ostensible tin cans. After the war, the Nissen Huts that covered the once bustling Eighth Air Force bases deteriorated with the decades as the war became a memory.

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Shipdham Control Tower during the war.

Yet, there was one standard structure at the bases that remains on most bases in some form: the control tower. This nerve center of operations perched on the edge of the runways necessitated and merited a sturdy structure from where missions could be orchestrated. A standard design was used for the Control Tower at every East Anglian base. Built from brick, the Control Tower boasted two stories, with a balcony wrapping around the second floor enabling Group officers to closely observe the movements of a mission, be it forming up or bombers returning from a mission with wounded aboard.

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Shipdham Control Tower today.

While Control Towers at bases like the 100th and 453rd have been restored to their former glory since the war, Shipdham’s Control Tower has weathered 75 years at nature’s mercy. Cordoned off on the modern industrial site of Falcon Cranes, it’s a shell of its former glory. But it remains the symbol of wartime Shipdham; its slow deterioration a reminder that we’ll never be closer to WWII than we are today, and the fragments that enable us to piece together singular stories from the war are fleeting.