Memories of the GI's in Suffolk
PUBLISHED: 10:49 26 May 2010 | UPDATED: 17:16 20 February 2013
Sixty-five years after the end of the World War II, Ross Gilfillan looks back at how the thousands of American airmen, sent to live and work here during the war, made a long-lasting impression on the county
The friendly invasion
By Ross Gilfillan
All over East Anglia, from Duxford to Debden and Attlebridge to Alconbury, can be found evidence of an invasion which ended 65 years ago this year. Crumbling concrete strips in farmers fields, rusting corrugated-iron Nissen huts now housing agricultural machinery and lonely brick towers with glassless windows are the tangible reminders of an extraordinary era in the history of this part of England: of when we woke up to find we had been invaded. But not, as feared, by Germans. This invasion was an all-American affair.
Visitors to the the Swan in Lavenham will find more personal evidence of this occupation, autographs scrawled on walls and preserved in honour of their authors, the aircrews and groundsmen of airbases at Ridgewell and Lavenham. Traces of these long departed Americans are to be found throughout the region, as well they might: the operation to turn Eastern England into an enormous airfield from which the Americans together with the RAF could carry the war deep into Hitler's Germany was staggering in its ambition.
Over two million GIs passed through the United Kingdom on their way to the war in Europe. The main US air presence was the 8th Air Force, which began arriving on these shores in 1942 and started operational flying in 1943. Before this could happen, airbases had to be built throughout the region. Seventy-five were originally planned. The plan was as costly as it was bold: each base would cost over 1 million to build, perhaps 90 million in todays money. A mainly Irish work force was employed in what was to be, in terms of labour and materials, the biggest civil engineering programme ever mounted on these isles.
Usually between five and seven miles apart, these bases, once completed, were like small towns with their control towers, hangars, hospital units, bomb dumps, and all the other necessities scattered over a wide area to present a smaller target for enemy attacks. Their A shaped configurations of three runways can often be detected still, even though the areas might now be overgrown with crops.
The bomber bases swamped and sometimes included local villages. The influx of men needed to man them was enormous and in some places locals were outnumbered by their foreign guests by 50 to 1. To the farm labourer who had perhaps only travelled as far as Ipswich, these invaders would have appeared alien indeed. They dressed with a smartness unknown among British military ranks, in peak caps, well-fitting tunics and olive or even pink dress pants. They talked like the stars on the cinema screen unless they were farm boys from Arkansas or Alabama in which case their speech could be as hard to fathom as the deep Suffolk burr the Americans puzzled over.
GIs were soon a common sight in the local pubs and dance halls. They were friendly, outgoing and made friends with locals and especially children, who followed their progress with hopeful calls of Got any gum, chum? Associations were set up to promote friendships between Americans and their local hosts. GIs were invited into family homes to take a meal and regain a sense of family life. The airmen, briefed about shortages and rationing, often arrived with welcome gifts of groceries and items unobtainable elsewhere in England.
And what must the Americans have made of us ? For some it must have been like a trip back in time. Not only were there venerable buildings built before the American nation existed, but the plumbing appeared to be of a similar vintage: sanitation was often rudimentary, with outside lavatories and tin baths by the fireside. Many villages retained a village pump.
East Anglia was a much sleepier place than it is today. London overspill meant evacuated children. The people of the region seemed strange at first, and the affable Americans often mistook English reserve for cold aloofness. And as for our diet, this often seemed inedible. GIs were as disgusted by powdered eggs as they were by the prevalent local vegetable, brussels sprouts. A commander famously finished a briefing by advising aircrews that if they must make a forced landing, to be sure they made it on the sprouts field.
Over paid, over sexed and over here was the wry judgment made of the Americans by some. They were certainly over here, and they were indeed a lot paid better than their British counterparts.
As for oversexed, these were young men in their late teens to mid twenties, thousands of miles from home looking for a little fun and relief amidst the stresses and strains of war. Lively, fun-loving and often cheeky, they had a charm many local girls fell for and the olive green trucks that transported local girls from town centres such as Bury St Edmunds to the regular base dances were usually full. There were quick flings and one night stands but also the beginnings of relationships that would end with permission being sought from the base commander from one of his men to marry. After the war, some 100,000 GI brides left these shores to begin new lives in the United States.
Sixty-five years ago the GIs went home, leaving behind them not only the souvenirs and memorabilia you can see today at airfield museums such as those at Framlingham and Thorpe Abbotts, but a lot of memories too. An older generation will remember that the boys who responded generously to their calls of Got any gum, chum? were all too often those who later lost their lives in the skies over Europe.