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.

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.

The Air War Wally Fought & My Research Sabbatical 75 Years Later

Monday marks the beginning of a 4-month sabbatical from my job in the Survey Research and Analytics Center at Deloitte to chase a story that began 75 years ago.

Before I dig deeply into how I pieced together the story of my grandfather’s fight against the Third Reich in the skies of Europe and the research I’m chasing during sabbatical, I want to lay the foundation of the strategic daylight bombing offensive in Europe and formally introduce you to the protagonist of this research.  

The Mighty Eighth Air Force Bomber Command

eighth2During WWII, the bomber boys of the Mighty 8th Air Force were the pioneers of the air war. Flying primitive technology into Fortress Europe, they struck enemy occupied Europe and Germany two years before troops landed in Normandy on D-Day. Daylight strategic bombing carried out by the 8th Air Force proved to be among the deadliest battlefields; 26,000 airmen from the 8th Air Force were killed, more than the Marines lost in every theater of the war.

xb24-1a
B-24 Liberator

The groundbreaking B-17 Flying Fortress and B-24 Liberator were the bread and butter of the 8th Air Force Bomber Command. Crews of 10 men, including a Pilot, Co-Pilot, Bombardier, Engineer, Radio Operator, and six gunners flew at 20,000 feet carrying 8,000 pounds of bombs they dropped on myriad strategic targets. The bomb bay racks gave the B-24 its notoriously bulky shape and nickname as the “flying boxcar.” The sleek shape of the B-17 “Flying Fortress” alluded to its efficacy: the B-24 could carry a payload two times the weight of a B-17 (3,000 pounds). The revelatory Norden Bombsight technology purportedly made dropping a dime in a pickle jar at 20,000 feet a possibility; the technology was top secret and airmen to protect it with their lives. Mounted above the plexiglass nose of a B-24, the Norden enabled the Bombardier to drop the payload squarely on a pre-identified target. There was one catch: it only worked on a clear day.

The Hell of Flying a B-24 Bomber

Flying in a B-24 was hell: open waist gun windows let in a continuous stream of outside air as the B-24 chugged along at 200 MPH. At altitude (typically 18,000-20,000 feet), it was -50 degrees inside the bomber, necessitating the faulty heated suits and sheepskin coveralls every airman wore. Touching one of the six .50 cal guns with a bare hand would immediately cause skin to freeze to the metal. Oxygen masks were essential on the 6-10 hour missions. Sweat and bile would cause an oxygen mask to freeze; an airman had two to three minutes to clear his mask before he died.

b24-22a
A B-24 in Flames from a Flak Hit and/or Fighter Attack

Weather, flak, and fighters were the preeminent enemies of a B-24 crew. Flying in formation just feet behind, above, below, and in front of other B-24s of a bomb group was no small task; propwash, or turbulence from the preceding bomber, could send a B-24 spiraling out of control. German fighters picked off B-24s with ease, sending a spiraling inferno descending to earth. Germans fighter techniques to pick off bombers devolved as the Luftwaffe’s (German Air Force) strength diminished: targeting a bomber’s fuel tanks (located in the wings) full of high-octane gas to instantly engulf a bomber in flames, dropping rockets on top of the bombers causing a massive explosion at 20,000, and eventually launching suicide missions by ramming the bombers head on.

1_wgDJN_DckvnZ7Q8Wpvt2rg
B-24s Flying through a Flak Field

The greatest fiend late in the war was flak, or anti-aircraft fire. When I began this research, I had not yet been acquainted with flak. At first read, I learned flak was an .88 mil shell shot from a large, narrow gun on the ground that could be programmed to hit the specific high-altitude of a bomber formation. Moreover, German flak guns could target one specific bomber in a formation using sophisticated sighting devices to get a reading on the B-24’s altitude and speed. Furthermore, the Germans were acutely aware that once a bomber began its bomb run on the target, it was no longer permitted to take any evasive action; as a result, German flak guns were strategically located around key strategic targets to create “flak fields” at 20,000-30,000 feet spanning hundreds of feet deep and wide in the direct path of a B-24 formation on a target run. Flak shells materialized as puffs of black smoke filling the sky around a bomber formation. If a flak burst came within a few feet of a bomber, crews described their plane shaking and jolting.

A direct hit would rip into the thin aluminum of a bomber, sending shrapnel flying and ricocheting through the flesh of airmen. Flak wounds were invariably of the most gruesome nature.   

If a crew dropped their 8,000 pound payload and successfully navigated the weather, fighters, flak, and treacherous flying conditions to make a safe return to their base in the East Anglian (SE England) countryside, he steeled himself to do it again.

Slim Odds of Survival

Wally Bomber Gear
Wallace B. Truslow in his Sheepskins

By mid-1944, an airman had to fly 35 missions to complete a tour. The odds of survival were slim, by some estimations less than 50%.

My paternal grandfather, Wallace B Truslow was one of these airmen in the Mighty 8th Air Force. He flew 42 missions with the 44th Bomb Group from Shipdham Air Base in East Anglia. Serving on a replacement crew, he filled the gaps left by heavy casualties in the spring and summer of 1944.

The Protagonist of this Story: Wallace B. Truslow

Wally flew pivotal strategic and tactical missions, including a low-level resupply to the 101st Airborne during Operation Market Garden, 7 tactical support missions during the Battle of the Bulge, and a low-level resupply during Operation Varsity, the largest airborne operation of the war.

By the spring of 1945, Wally’s crew had been named a Lead Crew for the 506th Squadron of the 44th Bomb Group after five of his crew (him included), chose to extend their tours and continue flying missions. Wally felt that because he didn’t have a wife or children back home, coupled with his invaluable experience from the preceding 35 missions, it was his duty to continue flying until the war ended. His willingness to sacrifice his own life, even after he flew a tour of 35 missions, is a testament to his moral fiber.

On March 24, 1945, Wally’s crew led the 506th squadron on the low-level mission to drop supplies for the 17th Airborne division on the east side of the Rhine as the Allies finally invaded Germany. They flew at 150 feet dropping 2,500 pounds of supplies for the troops below. Small arms fire abounded. Two bombers from Wally’s 9-plane squadron were shot down. Simultaneously, Wally was hit by small arms fire that ricocheted through the bottom of his bomber and ripped into his right thigh. After witnessing the death of 19 of his comrades, he faced the hellacious two hour flight back to Shipdham in excruciating pain. He was later awarded the Purple Heart, in addition to the Air Medal with 5 Oak Leaf Clusters.

image3
Telegram Wally’s Mother Received after he was Wounded over Wesel, Germany

Wally and the four men who he stayed with to continue the fight against Germany flew more missions than 99.5% of the 5,000 men in the 44th Bomb Group.

Some combination of luck, skill, timing, and teamwork kept Wally alive and flying through the end of the war, which could not be said for nearly 30% of the 5,000 men who served in the group and were either killed in action or in a POW camp.

Scars from the War

wallyYet, Wally was not unscathed by the war. In the wake of WWII, PTSD remained a diagnosis of moral weakness. Wally’s PTSD intensified as the years passed. He mentioned the war only a handful of times over the subsequent 50 years. Guilt over the women and children killed who were collateral damage of the strategic bombing offensive plagued him. Wally bled shrapnel from him right leg his entire life, a result of the wounds he sustained over Wesel, Germany. After suffering several strokes, his nightmares about the war intensified. He once tried to throw his medals in the trash; when my grandmother confronted him, he simply said, “I can’t escape the war.” He passed away when I was eight years old.

The information my family was privy to about Wally’s service during the war could be counted on two hands. He never talked about it; they never asked. Silence on the matter was an all too common theme of the Greatest Generation who saw truly unspeakable combat. A common refrain I’ve heard over the last year is that the men who were truly heroic, who fought on the front lines, are the very men who are least likely to discuss them. After unearthing Wally’s service, it’s all too clear why: what man must do to be heroic often requires more than a human body or mind can handle. If great events leave great scars, 42 missions leaves cavernous wounds.

My relationship with Wally lasted eight years in this life. By the time I was born, he’d suffered numerous strokes and lost the ability to speak clearly. I have one distinct memory of him sitting on the couch in my parents’ Idaho home sporting slacks, a long-sleeve button down, and a sweater vest, his standard uniform that always included long sleeves. A slender man not more than five foot six, he sat stoically on that couch as the day passed, notably distant from his grandkids. I sensed something different about Wally in my earliest years that made me hesitant around him. In retrospect, it was likely a result of his PTSD, which my grandmother described as an impenetrable shield he put up that became thicker as the years passed.

Wally died almost 20 years ago. WWII ended almost almost three-quarters of a century ago. Over the last year, I’ve begun piecing together a story that did not want to be told: the 42 missions Wally flew during his 10 months and 6 days at Shipdham. The 10 months and 6 days Wally spent at Shipdham flying 42 combat missions charted the course for the remainder of his life. Yet, Wally first buried his memory of the war in himself, then he took it to the grave.

Meeting the Grandfather I Never Knew

After Wally's Funeral
Wally’s Children and Grandchildren Together after his Funeral in 1999 (I’m the 8-year-old sporting spandex athleisure in the middle.)

When I began this research, Wally was in many ways a stranger to me. I’d never heard of the esteemed Eighth Air Force. Naively, I assumed flying in a bomber was comfortable, relatively safe, and kept him out of the action below. With each revelation about the nature of the air war and Wally’s role in it, the sheer horror of the war he fought kept me furiously digging for more information.

Over the last year, I wrote a book about Wally’s service for my family. On sabbatical, I’m undertaking a new writing project about the 44th more broadly, as well as building a data dashboard to include over 100,000 mission records for all 5,000 men in the group.

This journey began serendipitously, which I’ll discuss more in my next blog. The last year of obsessive research has not been unlike the dog leg’s course a bomber formation would fly on the way to a target. With the critical voice of the veteran missing, telling this story requires finding a need in a haystack 100 times over. The men I’ve come to know over the last year are what makes me relentless in this chase. Seeing the war Wally fought has formed a posthumous connection with him that I never had in this life, and it also introduced me to the remarkable men he served alongside on his crew, as well as the other 5,000 men who served in his group.