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Shipdham Air Field in April 2019.

Shipdham has occupied a prominent place in my mind over the last year and change. Some days it has consumed me in the wee hours of the morning after I finished my day job at Deloitte, but no day has passed without me at least thinking of the place, the 5,000 airmen who took off from its runways, and the thousands of ground crew and support staff who worked tirelessly to get the bombers and men airborne.

In fact, Shipdham has occupied so much air space in my life that I can’t remember the 27 years when Shipdham wasn’t in my vocabulary.

When I begin to describe the intensity with which I’ve chased this history, I’m most often met with the question: What sparked your interest now? It’s a question I often reflect on when I look back at the pace of the last 365+ days. But mostly, I ask myself with some semblance of regret and guilt, why didn’t I care before?

The history of WWII isn’t a new interest. I studied 20th century American history in college. I focused on the Second World War and the Cold War. In fact, an oral history report I wrote for the WWII course I took as a freshman featured both my maternal grandfather’s service in the Pacific, as well as my paternal grandfather Wally’s role in the European Theater (featuring the little we knew about his service). Looking at this paper 10 years later, I’m dumbfounded that the most basic facts of Wally’s war did little to shake me. The paper highlighted that Wally flew 40+ missions, extended his tour, was hit over Cologne by a machine gun nest, was Awarded the Purple Heart, and saw bombers shot from the sky. Yet, it was lost on my 19-year-old self. At the time, I lacked basic knowledge of the air war, be it flak, fighters, or the -50 degree, unpressurized bombers. Instead, I’d assumed the skies about Europe were a relatively safe battlefield. I’d assumed that since my family knew so little of Wally’s war, no research I did would close those gaps. Assumptions and apathy left no space for the questions, big or small, that have driven my research about Wally a decade later.

Noticeably absent from this paper was any mention of Shipdham, where Wally’s missions began and ended. As the first B-24 base in East Anglia, Shipdham saw 29 months of continuous combat thanks to the 44th Bomb Group that called it home base. Hastily constructed in 1942, Shipdham was the product of the American Army Air Force’s efforts to operationalize the Eighth Air Force as quickly as possible in the wake of Pearl Harbor. Seventy-seven years after the the 44th Bomb Group flew their first mission on the freshly poured runways, I became acquainted with Shipdham.

First Mention of Shipdham

With a renewed interest in WWII a decade later in 2018 (thanks to a litany of narrative non-fiction about WWII), I was increasingly eager to study the war in person. In early 2018, I nervously asked my dad to accompany me on a WWII historical tour in Europe that summer focused on the famed “Band of Brothers” story.

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Glen & Mara in Best, Holland on the Band of Brothers trip.

Shortly after I broached the idea, I received a text from my dad: “Thrilled you’d like me to accompany you on a historical tour through Europe. I think it would be unbelievable. Maybe a side trip to Shipdham where Wally spent his years, either way a historical adventure.”

I was thrilled my Dad wanted to accompany me on the trip, but I was equally curious about the foreign place linked to Wally’s service he’d mentioned. That evening, I did a cursory search of Shipdham, first learning of its location in the pastoral East Anglian countryside, then of its role in the war serving as home base to the 5,000 men who served in the 44th Bomb Group over three operational years. Three years stuck out to me – the 44th flew missions into Fortress Europe nearly three times as long as troops were on the ground fighting the same war. The time from D-Day, when the ground troops finally invaded the continent, to V-E Day,  was just shy of a year. What were the heavy bombers doing in combat in the European Theater of Operations (ETO) two years before ground forces stormed Normandy?

The Mystery of Wally’s Service at Shipdham

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B-24s fly through a flak field.

The further I dug into Shipdham, the more I was met with the foreign vernacular of the air war. In an effort to decode the highly technical nature of a B-24 mission into Fortress Europe, I continued down the rabbit hole of research. As I became aware of the air war’s physical and mental toll, curiosity about the specifics of Wally’s service plagued me. Phone calls to my dad and grandmother revealed just how little Wally ever shared of the war; nearly everything he said in the six decades after the war was captured in the college paper I wrote a decade ago.

I had a nagging feeling that whatever Wally saw on his missions was so disturbing that it was both an impossible and insufferable task to relive it. Even without specific information about his missions, digging deeper into the history of Shipdham and the 44th Bomb Group alone painted a new picture of Wally as a young man in the fight of his life.

Even before I’d uncovered the specifics of Wally’s service, I struggled to reconcile how the Wally I knew – a man who disliked leaving the four walls of his home, a man who struggled to communicate with the world after multiple strokes – was also an airman in the elite 44th Bomb Group who saw untold horrors in the skies above Europe and willingly flew more missions than required because he didn’t have a wife and children at home. I asked myself this question the day this research began, and it’s remains the central driver of this work. Chasing answers to this most complex question is a deeply motivating endeavor because it brings me closer to the grandfather I barely knew in this life.

Finding any mention of Wally’s service was a needle in a haystack. The more dead ends I encountered as I scoured the web for traces of Wally, the more my will to find anything intensified. As the days passed and hope ran short, my focus shifted to locating his personnel record in the National Archives to serve as a jumping off point to dig deeper. As I prepared to push “submit” on the FOIA request for his “Official Military Personnel File,” I was met with a note from the National Archives indicating that 80% of WWII records were burned in a catastrophic fire in the 1970s.

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Article detailing the 1973 fire at the National Archives.

Excuse me, what?

I was devastated to confirm this true. The fire was an incomparable loss to preserving the collective history of the individuals who gave everything in the fight for freedom that was WWII.

I was back to square one in the search for Wally’s service record.

Uncovering Wally’s Missions

Some days later, I stumbled back to the only dedicated website about the 44th Bomb Group. It was an act of desperation to see if it was possible I overlooked some goldmine of information that would lead me back to Wally. Built in the early years of the World Wide Web, I soon realized on this second visit that there was a treasure trove of information buried deep in the 44th Bomb Group site. Lo and behold, after much clicking, a “Military Records” page revealed itself. Selecting this tile opened a search box to enter a veteran’s name.

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44th Bomb Group Database

There’s no way I’ll find anything, I thought to myself, as I hesitated entering Wally’s name.

I clicked search. 28 mission records for Wallace B. Truslow appeared. The records included the date of the mission, a list of the 10-man crew and their positions, the serial number of the B-24 flown, the city and target for the mission, and an unofficial mission summary narrative – essentially an operational summary of the mission.

I was dumbfounded. It had been under my nose all along.

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Wally’s 28 missions listed in the 44th BG database.

This was the first of many intensely satisfying moments when a compulsive search related to Wally’s service that lasted days or weeks finally yielded new information. As I excitedly called both my dad and grandmother to share the news, each emphasized this mission count could not be correct, as one of the few facts Wally ever mentioned about his service was flying 40+ missions. The discrepancy bothered me tremendously, and ignited a second furious search for the missing missions.

In short, it required digging into the dredges of the interwebs, where I located a 700-page typewritten history of the 506 Squadron that was not searchable by any modern digital tools. The appendix included a list of all 506 Squadron personnel, and I was pleased to find Wally’s name. I then began the onerous task of reading the 700 page operational history looking for any mention of Wally or his crew. I’ll spare you the details.

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Emmett J. Burns Pilot of Crew of B-24 J (Wally’s Crew)

I’d managed my way through half of the 506 Squadron tome when I first saw the name “Burns,” which I instantly recognized as the name of Wally’s Captain and Pilot of the crew. Burns’ name was mentioned in relation to missions taking place in December 1944, which fell in the three month period from December 1944 to February 1945 when Wally’s record had no missions listed. I’d hit the goldmine.

I continued reading the 506 Squadron history and attempted to document the additional missions I believed Wally flew based on mentions of the Burns crew. At some juncture, it dawned on me that I should search for “Burns” in the database where I initially found Wally’s 28 mission records. If the list of missions Burns flew was different than Wally’s missions, I could review the crew lists for any additional missions listed for Burns to see if Wally was in fact listed, or if someone else had replaced him.

Back I went to the database, eagerly searching “Burns.”

46 missions appeared.

Anxiously clicking through the crew lists, the answer was right in front of me: “Wallace B Trullow.” The mystery of the mission count was a result of a simple clerical error. The spelling of “Truslow” was incorrect for 14 of Wally’s missions.

Armed with the complete list of Wally’s 42 missions, I began studying the mission summaries. Time and again, I was horrified by these objective operational histories that still managed to paint a vivid picture of horrific, continuous violence and loss.

The mission summaries also revealed the monumental historical significance of Wally’s missions: he flew tactical missions during Operation Market Garden, the Battle of the Bulge, and Operation Varsity. I knew enough about WWII to know that his participation in all three campaigns was of untold importance.

My initial plans to print the mission summaries and bring them on the WWII trip my dad and I would take that summer did not materialize. I wasn’t satisfied with what I’d found, so I set out to dig up more, which turned into the book summarizing Wally’s service that I finished for my family in September called “Wings of Steel.” I felt it imperative that our family have a record of Wally’s service, particularly because of his silence on the matter; his legacy merited preservation.

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When I finished “Wings of Steel,” I had an overwhelming feeling that I wasn’t done with the research, and a series of stranger than fiction encounters solidified that feeling. Shipdham led me to Wally, then to his crew, and finally to all 5,000 men in the group. That part of the story is coming soon.

The Hell that Began and Ended at Shipdham

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The runway at Shipdham today.

Shipdham, where every mission began and ended, was the impetus for all the research I’ve done to date about the 44th Bomb Group. When I came to know Shipdham, my focus shifted to piecing together Wally’s missions that took place in the skies between Shipdham and the heart of Nazi Germany – the space where life and death hung in the balance. Reviewing Wally’s missions in excruciating detail painted a clearer picture of the hell that he experienced forty-two times over.

Historian Martin Bloch posited that, “Intelligence is stimulated far less by the will to know than the will to understand.” I obsess over the most granular details of Wally’s missions and days between that he spent at Shipdham because the more I know about the long seconds and minutes of combat, the more I can understand Wally’s inner life during the war.

In trying to reconcile the Wally I knew as an old man after many strokes with the 20-year-old Wally who extended his tour and flew 42 hellacious missions into Nazi Germany, I had to understand the war through his eyes. The records of Wally’s 42 missions were replete with unpredictable death, enemy fighter attacks, accidents on take off, foes in the form of weather, and horrific flak wounds. It’s hard to imagine any human not experiencing PTSD after the frequency and severity of violence and death Wally lived through on his missions. 

Becoming acquainted with Shipdham and Wally’s 10 months and 6 days there led me to often wonder who I would have been in the war, and how the traumatic memories would have shaped my life thereafter. A decade ago, I was a freshman in college writing a paper about my grandfather’s service during the Second World War. At the close of Wally’s freshman year at Los Angeles Community College, he enlisted in the Army Air Force. Seeing myself at 19, I’m reminded of just how little life Wally had lived before the war. In uncovering Wally’s war, I began to form a post-humous relationship with the grandfather I didn’t know well in this life.

The Long Legacy of Shipdham Air Base

My dad and I didn’t make it to Shipdham last summer. But we did last month. While the physical presence of the 44th has disappeared, truncated versions of the runway remain, as do the walls of the once great control tower that orchestrated the movements of the 44th. But the memory of Wally and the men he served alongside is as vibrant as ever. Standing on the remains of the concrete runway at Shipdham, Wally’s presence looms large in the heavens above, which brought three generations of the Truslow family back together for a fleeting moment.

My gratitude for the sacrifices Wally and the extraordinary men of the 44th made during the war grows exponentially with each day that passes.

Mara at Glen at Shipdham in the Club House
Mara and Glen at Shipdham Flying Club, April 2019. Glen says this is the moment when 3 generations of the Truslow family were reunited at Shipdham.

 

One thought on “When Shipdham was a Stranger

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