When They Arrived, I Was Nine

By Margaret Meen-Parker, English schoolgirl

© Copyright 392nd Bomb Group Memorial Association 2017 - All rights reserved

There are so many memories of the airfield at Wendling, both happy and sad: being given "lifts" home from school, sitting on the crossbar of the GI's bicycles; sadness in the classroom at Wendling School when we learned that planes had not returned; the excitement and relief as we watched the stragglers, badly-damaged solitary planes, at first appearing as tiny specks above the distant horizon, limping back to land safely in the late afternoons, long after the main group of Liberators had returned; my mother scrubbing dungarees and washing other clothes for the GIs; long convoys of trucks hauling bombs for the B-24s from Wendling Railway Station to the airfield's bomb dump in Honey Pot Wood and the frustration of the drivers as they occasionally failed to negotiate the sharp bends on narrow country roads, resulting in long delays while trucks and bombs were recovered from roadside ditches; precious sugar and tea used to take cups of hot drink to the truck drivers, most of whom seemed to be named "Hank" or "Tex"; the children in Wendling and the surrounding villages who were wartime evacuees from the heavily-bombed cities of Norwich. London, etc. At nearby Dereham there were so many evacuees that a shift system was introduced to ensure that all children had at least a basic education.

I was 9 years old when the first American airmen arrived at the newly-built Wendling Airfield during the late summer of 1943. Our family lived in a row of houses near the bomb dump which was located in Honey Pot Wood. My mother and father, who had both grown up and married in Wendling, had five of us young children. In addition to bringing us up, my mother had a sister (my aunt) who was an invalid and whose husband (my uncle) was a baker at the village bakery. As he worked during the nights, I often slept at my aunt's home (a white clay cottage known as Honey Pot Cottage near the bomb dump and the last cottage before entering the Restricted Area) to run errands for my aunt during the night, if needed. Consequently, my mother had, in effect, two homes to run, and I grew up very quickly.

Mr. Bowman, from Longham, also worked at the Wendling Village bakery. The Americans liked the freshly-baked hot bread. I recall a GI walking up the road with a large loaf he had just bought, breaking lumps from it to eat as he went along.

In spite of the undoubted pressure and extra work involved, I never knew my parents to turn anyone away from our door. During those days of evacuees, strict rationing, etc., we were often overcrowded. The billeting officers, when desperately seeking extra accommodation, would come to them, knowing that something would be managed for servicemen, for bewildered and homesick evacuees, or for a GI's girlfriend requiring a night's lodging.

Most of the American airmen I knew were ground crew, or guards looking after the bomb dump. My mother did their laundry for them and she also did the laundry for some of the flyers, including officers. No matter what rank, their dress uniforms all got special attention. I wish I could recall their names which I saw many times as I had to check Mum's laundry lists. I think several were regarded as her additional "children" and can clearly recall one young GI who, after showing Mum a letter from home, was sobbing his heart out. Mum, her comforting arms around him, was also weeping tears of sorrow.

We were sent out of the room, told to leave him alone and that he would soon be all right. He seemed so young and ready to come out and play with us. Sometimes 1 wonder what was in that letter. Was it bad news concerning a close relative? Or a "Dear John" letter? Or was he just homesick? Whatever it was, he had come to the right place for comfort, understanding and sympathy.

Fortunately, I was one of a small group of five or six schoolchildren for whom the Military Policeman, guarding the entrance to the airfield, bent the rules and allowed us the enter the base, stand by the roadside and talk with the ground crews. Occasionally we saw the flight crews before they left for a mission.

1 also have vague memories of watching one of the ground crewmen painting the "nose art" on a B-24 Liberator named "War Horse" and of someone saying that I was their "good luck" girl. Something in this connection was also painted on the plane. The name had originated because the bomber had returned from a raid badly damaged and the maintenance crew joined us local children in compiling a ditty; "The poor old war horse ain't what it used it be," etc.,

Of course, there were many other Liberators on the airfield, but for some reason I took a special interest in the "War Horse," cycling up to see it every evening. Then one day it failed to return from a raid, and I recall being too upset to go to school the following morning. An added verse to the ditty was subsequently sung by the other children which began; "Poor old Hank bailed out over Germany" etc., but I refused to sing it again. I believe there was another replacement Liberator named "War Horse II."

Being predominately a farming community, most village men were exempt from military service, so it was genuine family friendship, with very little of the "fraternizing" which was supposed to have happened in those days, although in a village there are always rumors, usually originated by either jealous or malicious people. While realizing that there may have been a few occasional cases of disloyalty, the vast majority of GIs were homesick men and boys who, I feel, fully appreciated the family life and friendliness that village folk were eager to provide.

Several local people worked on the airfield, others helped in the American Red Cross canteen. Ladies I recall who worked at the ARC were Mrs. May Ansell, Mrs. Winnie Graver, Mrs. Annie Claxton, Mrs. AmeliaBrown, Mrs. Joan Shrewsbury, WinnieBurton, Peggy Bloomfield, (both unmarried at that time), and Miss Eagle, a schoolteacher also helped occasionally, as did Olive Codling, a Royal Navy Nurse, when she was home on leave. Some of the ladies who worked in the ARC canteen were, in fact, also in the St. John's Ambulance Brigade and voluntary workers.

My friend, "Girlie" ("Red") Richardson, was a newspaper girl at the Beeston end of the base where the airmen's living quarters were. She used to stand near the Guard Room selling papers, also taking them to the various billets. One morning, as she started her paper-round she was horrified to see a small plane swoop low over the airfield then crash into a tree, the pilot having bailed out just before the crash.

Her bicycle had to be numbered, with the name "Red" also inscribed on it, very much to her annoyance. She had red hair, which she detested, but "Red" was the airmen's nickname for her. There were, of course, always sweets in her newspaper bag when she got home at Dunham, from where her father sold fresh eggs to the GIs.

I remember several other crashes involving the big Liberator bombers from Wendling, often with tragic consequences for the young flight crews. There was a Searchlight Station at Wendling and we also saw soldiers of various nationalities in and around the village at different times, i.e. Australians, Canadians, Ghurkas, New Zealanders etc., during military exercises in the surrounding area. Wendling also had its own Home Guard unit, local men who regularly trained and patrolled the local area, in addition to continuing their peacetime occupations.

Incidentally, in more recent years, several episodes of the popular TV series about the wartime Home Guard, "Dad's Army," were filmed at and around the Wendling Railway Station before the station was demolished to make way for the bypass road.

For relaxation away from the tensions of an operational wartime airfield, the GIs enjoyed amiable off-duty hours at the numerous pubs in the district. The local pubs were "The Chequers," on the Beeston road, a small pub run by the Woodgate family; "The Rose," hosted by Jimmy Bunn, who sadly lost his only son during the war; and "The Spring," which had the village blacksmith's forge beside the pub, run by Allan Walker with his daughter, Dorothy, providing music on an accordion or the piano.

Other pubs popular with the airmen were: "The Ploughshares" at Beeston, "The Ostrich." kept by the Bowman family, "The White Horse" at Longham, "The Crown," kept by the Symonds family and "The Lord Nelson" at Fransham, kept by the Mayes family. A favorite meeting place for the airmen from Shipdham and Wendling airfields was "The Lord Nelson" pub at Bradenham.

All these villages and many more were visited by GIs riding their bicycles round the countryside. For longer journeys they went by train from Wendling Station to visit Norwich, Cambridge, London, etc., or used their trucks and jeeps when going to and from towns and cities such as Kings Lynn and Norwich.

As a 10 year old in 1944, I didn't realize the gravity or the tragedy of the war until the day my family received an official telegram with the news that a beloved relative had been killed in action.

There was also much sorrow in 1945 when the trains slowly pulled out of Wendling Railway Station taking the deceased American airmen on the first stage of their long journey back home to their families. I remember standing on the school perimeter wall as the trains left, with tears streaming down my face, realizing the sadness of it all.