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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Getting 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Beginning in Berlin and ending in London, it was three and a half weeks of historical bliss. While my trip ended in England, it’s a fitting place to start because it marked the start and end of each of Wally’s 42 missions.
A motley crew of individuals have made it possible to piece together the operational history of my grandfather’s 10 months and 6 days at Shipdham and bring his service back to life, so it feels right to begin the story of our visit to Shipdham with the men who made our visit there possible.
From City to Country
Finding my way to England from the continent (Paris, specifically) was replete with anticipation. I would be gaining a new travel companion on this leg of the trip with my dad making the long trip from Idaho to spend a week with me in his father’s wartime footsteps. Selfishly, I was also looking forward to speaking English after two weeks of communicating in broken French and German.
The pre-dawn EuroStar in Paris, a shlep on the Tube, and a struggle up stairs with a month of luggage gave way to Liverpool Station in London and the much awaited Greater Anglia train line. My eyes looked down from the train platform assignments flickering above, and an unmistakably familiar suitcase came into view. A familiar figure brought instant joy. Glen Truslow, my dad, was 50 feet away, engulfed in a sea of people. Serendipity was in the air, as we’d planned to meet in Norwich since neither of us were using our cell phones internationally. I was grateful for a slice of home as we boarded the train to Norwich.
Arriving in London brought me within 100 miles of Norwich and the heart of East Anglia, which would be our jumping off point for the week. Situated northeast of London, Norwich has viking roots and a long history. The aphorism lovingly recited by locals, “a pub for every day and a church for every Sunday,” may not be reflective of modern Norwich, but it underscores the activities that have defined life in the pastoral East Anglian countryside for centuries.
Norwich would serve as our home base for the week. Situated on the River Wensum across the street from the Train Station that’s changed little since the war, the trees lining the river audibly swayed in the breeze, exuding the peace of the place. Meandering, cobbled roads constructed over many centuries connect a selection of the oldest pubs in England. We were welcomed to Norwich with glorious weather, namely the sun shining, which would prove to be the exception, not the norm for the remainder of the week.
Separated by 30 miles of winding one-lane roads, Norwich is the nearest town of any size to Shipdham Airfield. A sleepy village built on agriculture, Shipdham boasts but a handful of pubs and churches. The airmen lived for the evenings they could hitch a ride on the “Liberty Truck,” from Shipdham to Norwich so they might enjoy a night at the dance hall or pub. Even though Norwich lacked the hustle and bustle of the cities back home, it provided a welcome respite from Shipdham. The airmen happily endured an hour-long drive in blackout conditions jammed in the back of an open-top 2.5 ton truck if it meant a night away from base.
Anticipation of Shipdham
As we sipped scotch after dinner, we relished feeling Wally’s presence at every turn catching ourselves saying, “I wonder if Wally ever came here,” as we walked through cobbled streets. In the morning we’d no longer wonder if Wally had been there. The remnants of the air base at Shipdham Airfield awaited in the morning. For almost a year, Shipdham was the epicenter of Wally’s life. 2,534 called Shipdham homebase during the 10 months from 1944-1945 when Wally flew combat missions. The airmen were the tip of the spear; many times more personnel were needed to keep the base operational in support of the one overarching goal: dropping bombs on strategic targets in enemy-occupied Europe. With thousands of men living on base, Shipdham was a village unto itself during the war. Today, little remains of the base beyond one runway, a concrete slab harboring an untold history.
My dad asked for a refresh on the cast of characters who’d show us to Shipdham. I kept it short and sweet: Barry, the Administrator of Shipdham Flying Club, the gatekeeper to the museum and history of the 44th. John, an ostensible historian of the 44th after decades of meeting and commiserating with the veterans. Mike, whom Barry arranged to pick us up from our hotel; the mystery man who we’d soon learn more about.
When my dad asked how I found Mike, Barry, and John, I found it difficult to explain exactly, as it was the result of many months of internet sleuthing and getting in touch with a maze of contacts. Ultimately, it was Barry and John who agreed to show me Shipdham; their generosity evident before the visit began when Barry arranged transit for us to Shipdham in lieu of a taxi. Because of the sacrifices and ordinary heroism of Wally and his comrades, an innate, deep friendship remains between those who knew and loved the men of the 44th.
Barry gave me fair warning that almost nothing remained at Shipdham Airfield from the wartime years. The shell of the Control Tower and one-third of the runway are the last remnants of the men who fought tyranny to free a foreign people 75 years ago. Yet, it wasn’t the structures that drove my emphatic desire to visit Shipdham. Instead, it was to stand where Wally did, feeling the presence of my grandfather and his crew at the only home they knew during the war, and to share this experience this with my dad, Wally’s son, thereby bringing three generations back to Shipdham Air Base for just a moment.
Nice to Meet You, Shipdham
Waiting in the lobby of our hotel the next morning, I scanned the lobby for a man I’d never met who would take us to Shipdham – Mike. Right on time, I spotted a man sporting a fleece with an emblem of the 44th Bomb Group, a Flying Eight Ball, and felt safe in assuming this was Mike.
Introductions aside, I asked his connection to Shipdham. Without any airs, he told us that he owned the Flying Club. I was taken aback that he would have any interest in chauffeuring us to Shipdham. One moment Mike was a stranger, the next a dear friend, as he and my dad talked all things aviation, and I chimed in about the history of the 44th on our drive from Norwich to Shipdham.
The road to Shipdham was quintessentially English – so narrow only one car could fit on the two-lane road and constant curves despite the flat, pastoral countryside that flanked it. This was the only road to Shipdham during the war.
As we entered the gate that once marked the perimeter of Shipdham Air Base, the runway came into view. The runway bifurcates an operational farm. Industrial farm equipment raked the fields on either side as we drove down the runway towards the flying club. The stench of manure wafted with the wind, an unusual smell to associate with an active airfield. 75 years ago, I’d venture that this same smell was equally off-putting to the airmen arriving here.
A low cloud ceiling hung towards the ground over Shipdham Airbase that welcomed us with a cold rain. While I’d been warned of the unpredictable precipitation in East Anglia, I hadn’t expected the accompanying frigid wind that knocked the air from my lungs like a sucker punch to the gut. It was late April and the temperature hovered in the low 40s. I wondered how Wally survived here in the winter after growing up in Southern California.
We made the quick jaunt from the car to the clubhouse and hangar situated just beyond the runway. The clubhouse is a moving tribute to the 44th Bomb Group. Privately owned, the club has no obligation to honor the Flying 8 Balls, and yet, they pay homage to the group at every turn. Inside the clubhouse, the eye was drawn to mural featuring dozens of B-24s flying through fluffy, cumulus clouds. Group markings were meticulously painted on the fuselage and tail of each bomber that hangs in this landscape amongst the heavens. As the day revealed itself, so too did the many talents of Mike’s arsenal of talents, including painting this focal point of the clubhouse.
Opposite the wall is the “Liberator Bar,” which serves food and drink to those who fly in from neighboring war-era bases that still operate for pleasure flying. Here, Barry, the Administrator of the club who coordinated our visit, was awaiting our arrival. Just as soon, John arrived sporting his original airmen’s A-2 leather jacket with the 44th Bomb Group patch. Facebook friends, John and I spent many months messaging about the history of the 44th because of the unique knowledge built from decades building relationships with the airmen and their families who returned to England after the war.
Moments at Shipdham that Linger
Wally’s presence was palpable throughout the day in a series of moments that brought his service back to life. While visiting Shipdham was a portal to the past, the experience of being there cemented the future with new friendships across the pond forged because of the history made at Shipdham.
Five moments at Shipdham are the next stop: Finding Wally at Shipdham. The gift of flight. Throttling down a runway seeing the past and present blur. Generosity beyond reason and expectation because of a 75-year-old bond.
These seconds and minutes at Shipdham underscore that the past is prologue and that Wally’s actions 75 years ago foster a generosity of spirit today that lingers large in my mind.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.