The soldiers, sailors and airmen who served in the Second World War have been called "the greatest generation," and their sacrifice has been celebrated in recent books and movies. But many of their stories remain untold. Hundreds of thousands of U.S. airmen served in Britain during the war. Those at this reunion belonged to a single bomb group in the U.S. Eighth Air Force.
Based in the tiny village of Grafton Underwood, 120 kilometers north of London, the group flew more than 300 missions in airborne armadas of B-17 bombers. More than 1,600 flyers from the base were killed. They are among the 30,000 U.S. airmen who gave their lives while serving in Britain.
Bill Harvey is one of only three members of his original 91-member squadron who survived the war. He regularly attends the group's reunions, like one held this year in San Diego.
Mr. Harvey is a fit 81 years of age. In 1944, he was a young pilot-instructor who flew bombing missions over Germany, France, and other parts of Nazi-occupied Europe. On April 24, 1944, he was flying with Dick Rader when the two were shot down with eight of their crewmates. "We all bailed out. And luckily, we all got out," he says. "Four of us eventually got back to England and six of them were prisoners of war."
The men walked 400 kilometers, hoping to reach Spain. Along the way, they received help from ordinary Frenchmen and the French resistance. "The French people were wonderful. Wonderful," recalls veteran Dick Rader, now 79
The pair had their share of narrow escapes as they evaded German troops and moved from one safe house to another. Bill Harvey remembers their most daring exploit. "We rode with a postman who drove us right through a German air base. The reason was that he had been delivering mail there for years and they knew him and they did not pay any attention to him," he says. "There were three of us, an Englishman and Dick and myself in this car, and we drove in the front gate and drove out the back gate. We watched them drill, we watched them do athletics. We looked at the planes lined up, Focke-Wulf 190's and Messerschmitts."
On D-Day, June 6, 1944, Allied troops invaded Normandy and began to fight their way toward Paris. Word finally reached the downed American flyers that General George Patton's troops had arrived at a nearby village. The two young airmen set off to meet them. "Well, we got to the village," says Mr. Harvey. "Dick, do you remember, there were three light tanks there? Those guys had not shaved in weeks, dirty, rough. They looked like Greek gods to us."
Former pilot Jack Hoppen was shot down in Belgium. Luckily, the retreating German troops had left the village near Brussels the day before. Mr. Hoppen says the local people also gave his crew a warm welcome. "We had a little bit of a problem convincing the people who we were, but after they found out that we were Americans, everything went along very smoothly," he says.
Eldon Kyllo had a close call of his own in May of 1944. He recalls that his plane was hit as it headed back to England after a bombing run. The crew skimmed the English Channel and barely cleared the coastline. "And we were going along thinking everything was probably going to be O.K. and then all of a sudden, we heard a crash and a terrible scream from the pilot because he had hit a tree," says Mr. Kyllo. "So he did not make it." The rest of the crew, however, was safe.
For Eighth Air Force veterans, wartime bombing runs involved hours of monotony, interrupted by moments of terror. Flight navigator Tim O'Sullivan says his duties kept him busy. "And once in a while, there were interruptions by fighter attacks or by heavy barrages of flak. But the good part of it was you were constantly occupied, whereas the gunners just sat and waited and stared out their portholes or windows awaiting attack."
The war for these veterans was a life-changing experience. Some, like Tim O'Sullivan, married English girls who they met while stationed in England. And many of the veterans still have friends in Europe.
After the war, Bill Harvey and Dick Rader returned to thank the French families who had taken them in, fed and helped them to safety. Jack Hoppen later met Belgian villagers who recalled the day the American bomber crash-landed near their village.
Lloyd Whitlow, a retired airline pilot, became good friends with a German businessman he met while on vacation in Germany. "He said, "did you fly during the war?" I said, "yes." He said "what did you fly?" I said "B-17s." He said, "were you in the Eighth Air Force?" I said "yes." He said, "I was a Luftwaffe [German Air Force] pilot. I flew ME-109s." I said, "Egbert, you scared the hell out of us!" He said, "You scared the hell out of me!"
Many Englishmen have fond memories of their wartime guests. Quentin Bland became interested in the American air base at an early age. "I was born in Grafton Underwood in 1941. And as a youngster, my father's vegetable garden joined the airfield," he says. "And apparently as a youngster of three-and-a-half or four, I used to crawl through the hedge and go in the aircraft parked the other side of the hedge."
Mr. Bland later became the honorary historian of the 384th Bomb Group and has arranged nine of its reunions in England. He also helped set up memorials in both England and the United States, including one at an air force base in Utah, where the 384th Bomb Group first trained during the war. "I swear our customs and excise think we are trying to export England bit by bit, really," says Mr. Bland. "Because I have shipped pieces of concrete from the runway, doors off barracks, and I suppose the ultimate thing is a 500 pound [225 kilogram] chunk of the white cliffs of Dover, which is now in the museum at Hill Air Force Base."
Mr. Bland says those bits of history are helping keep the memory of these veterans alive, and the story of the sacrifice of their fallen crewmates.
Photos courtesy of Mike O'Sullivan