By Chuck Woodbury
Originally published in August, 2011
I am on vacation in England. I was traveling the A11 highway this week north from Cambridge to an abandoned American air base in Attlebridge, now a turkey farm, where my father was stationed as a B-24 bomber pilot in 1944 during World War II.
About 20 miles before arriving I spotted a road sign for “Combat Paintball.” I thought of today’s youths and young men “playing war” there and then reflected on the men who decades earlier faced death doing the real thing.
My father, Charles M. Woodbury, Jr. (I’m Charles the third), didn’t talk much about his time at Attlebridge with the 466th Bomb Group until the last 10 years of his life when he opened up — so much so that at times I turned a deaf ear. He died in 2008.
About a month ago, I had the opportunity to fly in a B-24 on a tour stop in Seattle. It was a remarkable experience that made me realize how difficult my father’s task must have been. Besides risking life and limb each time he flew, the Liberator was too noisy to talk in without shouting, it was a beast to fly, and at 20,000 feet during a mission the non-insulated cabins could dip to a bone-chilling 40 degrees F. The guys had warm clothing, but it was often inadequate to keep them from half-freezing to death — and the average mission was seven hours!
I spotted the Attlebridge runway through several rows of trees. I soon arrived at the end of the runway where my father lifted off as an anxious 23-year-old to face Hitler’s guns and fighter planes. My father always returned, but 6,900 other fliers in the 2nd division of the 8th Air Force did not. The odds were terrible: in the early missions, fighter planes did not have the range to accompany the Liberators and B-17s, leaving them sitting ducks. Two-thirds of those early fliers were shot from the skies and killed.
A quarter mile from the airfield, in tiny Weston Longville, I stopped at a church with a small memorial to the 466th Bomb Group. I found my father’s name in the history book. Across the street, I had coffee at The Parson Woodforde restaurant, where my father and his chums surely gathered at the bar for many a refreshment. Photos of the Americans and their B-24s occupy one wall.
WHAT I UNDERESTIMATED before this visit was the huge impact the Americans had on the people who lived here, many of whom had endured Nazi bombings and rationing. Thirty-five air bases were bulldozed in farmland in the East Anglia area, five to ten miles apart, and in most cases near rural settlements of only a few hundred people or less. The Yanks were beloved by these locals — heroes to the children and prize catches to the young ladies. The English of today have not forgotten them, just the opposite.
Later that day, at the 2nd Air Division Memorial Library in Norwich, I met Malcom Metcalf who was a boy of about 11 when my father was at Attlebridge. “We loved them,” he said of the Yanks. “They gave us food. We were so hungry we ate turnips in the fields. One American asked me if I had ever eaten peaches. I said no. He handed me a can from his mess kit. I’ve loved peaches ever since. People nowadays do not know how good they have it.”
Malcom Metcalf fell in love then with Americans and America. He has since visited the United States 20 times, criss-crossing the country 175,000 miles on Amtrak. “I have friends everywhere I go,” he said. I invited Malcom to visit me. I want to hear more of his stories.
I asked the museum librarian about a guest book my father signed when he returned to a dedication ceremony in the 1970s. She told me it had perished in a fire, which saddened me. My father was proud to have left that signature. The librarian said that while many Americans visit the 2nd Air Division Memorial Library, they’re now mostly the children and grandchildren of those brave guys back in the ’40s.
On the way back to Cambridge I again passed the paintball sign. It messed with my emotions — 2011 and 1944, 67 years — different worlds. War is a terrible thing, but for me, to be reminded about how we Americans came to the aid of our English friends and other Allies with commitment and high purpose makes me very proud.