The 95th Bomb Group Hospital Museum: Untold stories of American servicemen in Suffolk
PUBLISHED: 17:27 09 July 2018 | UPDATED: 17:27 09 July 2018
A visit to the 95th Bombardment Group Hospital Museum and Red Feather Club near Eye reveals two sides of a poignant local story | Words & Photos: Lindsay Want
You can bet your bottom dollar that when you’re hunting for something down the leafy lanes of Mid-Suffolk, the more you escape to the country, the more the place you’re looking for escapes you. Just sometimes though, you can get more than you bargained for.
Whichever way you motor out purposefully (or get hopelessly lost!) around the gentle folds of Horham, south of the great modern-day propeller-lands of Eye, chances are you’ll happen upon an old guardroom masquerading as Denham village hall, or a straight concrete swathe that’s simply too wide to have been constructed just for a tractor or two.
Strange how wartime airfields were so ten-a-penny in our Suffolk parts that we can pay so little attention to the tiny, fragmented survivors of these vast and once so very much valued military installations.
Back when Britain was one giant aircraft carrier anchored off mainland Europe, rural East Anglia accommodated 70 airfields, with 71,000 American service personnel calling the place home by 1944. It’s hard to take on board that each bomber or fighter site suddenly plonked on some unsuspecting parish was a bustling community with around 400 buildings.
Now, when barely a handful of their huts remain, you can’t help thinking that maybe someone should take them under their wing, for old time’s sake.
It’s a sunny Suffolk last Sunday of the month and, sitting with friends out on the wide concrete ‘patio’ in front of the green horsa huts, Tony Albrow is in his element. “Found us ok, then?” he smiles.
Fortunately, the brown ‘Airfield Museum’ signs had been spotted eventually, although it hadn’t been obvious where they would end up. But never mind.
A heartening cuppa from Tony’s wife, Val, at the café counter later, soon sees frustrations forgotten. “That was my original workshop over there,“ starts Tony, pointing to the green garage just up from the air-raid shelter, where a military ambulance complete with stretchers and accompanied by crumpled bits of B-17 had already been reconnoitred on arrival.
“It was the old mortuary. . . “ There’s a raised eyebrow or two among the visitors. Then the tale is told, with just the right amount of gory detail, how the one-time workplace of army surgeons, nurses, doctors and dentists - the 95th Bombardment Group (H) Station 119 field hospital - had been brought back from the dead, restored from dereliction after decades of additional service to the farming community.
As hastily constructed, temporary structures go, the huts built to house the consulting rooms and operating theatre, post-op and main wards of the ‘sick quarters’ haven’t done too badly to have survived service as chicken sheds and pig units, grain stores and even a mushroom farm.
When Tony bought the buildings 30 or so years ago, he’d simply been after a bit more space for his vehicle restoration projects. “I’d be getting on in my workshop, then there’d be American visitors coming along to the site, unannounced and out of nowhere,” he recalls. “The more they came, the more it got me thinking it would be nice to have a memorial for them to visit.”
That was just the start. Slowly he managed to restore things – funding everything privately - and opened to the public in 1997. Now, after years of continuous restoration, gathering donated artefacts, collecting exhibits and local memorabilia, the place is a precious, if stark and sober, somewhat unnerving and wholly haunting reminder of the realities of life and death on the US wartime airbase.
“After the war, when the Americans went home in May ‘45, it was a bit of a free-for-all. ” One of Tony’s enthusiast friends explains how he has enjoyed tracking down the hospital’s original doors and cupboards from local homes.
There’s a door panel on show, proudly painted ‘Buzz’ Banks & ‘Shakey’ Davis crews. “It probably came from the accommodation area – it adds a bit of life to the place, so it’s not all bare corridors and medical instruments.
“There’s the piano from Bush Farm across the field too, where air crews were sometimes entertained before missions. And we’ve also got a clock found in Hoxne which some local lads ‘borrowed’ back in 1945. It came from the Officers’ Mess down the lane. That’s the Red Feather Club. Should be open today.”
Hmmm. Perhaps that explains the insistent, but strangely placed ‘Airfield Museum’ signs?
Bars, bands & brylcreem
There might be barely a mile or two between them, but the field hospital museum and Red Feather Club ‘off duty lounge’ have always been worlds apart.
Like Tony’s place, there’s real pride taken in restoring things to how they were at the NCO’s club, and that includes recreating the atmosphere.
But step through Brad’s Bar, past the original cheeky murals of Nathan Bindler’s cartoon knight in shining armour and Elizabethan courtly pleasures, and on certain Saturday evenings you can dance the night away to the sounds of the Skyliners, swinging on the dance floor where US servicemen once enjoyed live music from Glenn Miller himself.
It’s a lively little outfit and a serious place to remember - a living memorial, perfectly restored, saved by the endless efforts of a group of local enthusiasts, grant funding and ongoing overseas connections.
Once home to farmer Mager’s rabbits, chickens and machinery, the collection of curvaceous Nissen huts and their precious paintings were secured back in the early 1980s. The rest is the down to the dedication of volunteers.
Enter the old kitchen block and almost the entire surface area is taken up with a hugely impressive diorama of Horham airbase. But you won’t go short of a cuppa as you survey the territory and pinpoint where you probably saw that bit of runway, where you got lost near Redlingfield woods, the location of that village hall and those haunting ‘sickness quarters’ on the outskirts.
Display cases and exhibition boards round the mighty map’s edges bring together little local finds of ‘every day’ life from Brylcreem tubes to bomb fuses, but step through the bar, past the bravado-filled slogans of ‘Gentlemen enjoy!’ and the old beer hall is dripping in so much more than just nostalgia.
There are exclusively 95th Bomb Group uniforms, buttons and badges, mission records and micro-film, machine guns and medals, rings ‘folded’ from dollar bills and real bomber jackets also decorated by Bindler-the-Swindler, an apparently ‘cute’ poker player who painted lighted-hearted motif’s on war-plane nose-cones too.
And amid the poignant photos of flying companions lost, tales of daring daytime raids over Berlin, not to mention local love affairs, there are stories of ‘missions’ to Scotland on the whisky run, of the wire-haired terrier who could hear the German bombers before anyone else, and days out exploring Suffolk by bike.
Under vast Suffolk skies, where once US personnel mustered for missions, grieved and got on with things, where locals picked up the pieces and put them in a draw, where farmers planned fresh harvests, Mid Suffolk’s fields stretch on regardless.
The two tiny outposts on Horham’s old airfield paint a powerful picture - bright murals and bare walls, defiant reds and calming greens, the smells of warm camaraderie and wafts of TCP, pain relief and sweet relief, hospital wards and fun rewards, places full or spirit or haunting, stark emptiness.
Yet when you drive along the lanes, nothing much really gives the game away.
There’s little obvious trace of the past’s true heroes and heartache – but you can always follow the signs.
Need to know
- 1943-45 Home to the 95th Bomb Group (H) part of 8th Airforce
- First B-17 to operate daylight raids over Berlin
- Awarded a record three Presidential Unit Citations
- 321 missions
- 617 lives lost
- 180 wounded
- 859 POW
- 196 bombers lost
- 425 enemy shot down
95th Bombardment Group (H) Hospital Museum
Shingle Hill, Denham, Eye IP21 5EU
95thbghospitalmuseum.co.uk Tel: 01379 870514
The Red Feather Club (95th Bomb Group Heritage Association)
Horham Road, Denham, Eye IP21 5DG (off the B1117)