Written by Debra Kujawa
Corner of England That Will Be Forever America by Martin W. Bowman
In the remote and quiet heart of the Norfolk countryside where B-24 Liberators once flew, there is a corner of a ‘foreign field’ that will be forever America.
In 1942-45 Shipdham airfield was the home to the 44th ‘Flying Eightballs’ Bomb Group. Just off the main airfield site is Cranworth (can one get more English than this?) where the 14th Bombardment Wing Headquarters controlled the 44th BG, 392nd BG at Wendling nearby and the 466th Bomb Group at Attlebridge near Norwich.
When I was a teenager I investigated the myriad number of airfields (fourteen) in the local areas around my fair city of Norwich, often taking to my motorbike to explore these talked about airfields which had just been featured in a book called The Mighty Eighth by one Roger Freeman. Having previously thought that these bases were occupied by the RAF Bomber and Fighter squadrons in WW2, I was intrigued to discover that they had in fact been ‘invaded’ and taken over by the US 8th Air Force.
At first my friends and I sortied to bases near Norwich as we did not immediately have the ‘range’ to visit airfields further afield and precious little film in our basic little Kodak ‘Instamatic’ cameras to record what we saw. My co-conspirators thoughts were of finding machine guns, ammunition and bits of bombs but like Howard Carter, my head was turned in another direction. A sickly child, Carter was sent to live with his aunts in Norfolk. His father worked on a painting for William Amherst of Didlington Hall at Swaffham, a short hop from Shipdham and Wendling and Howard accompanied him. William Amherst was an Egyptologist who collected Ancient Egyptian artifacts and Howard became interested in this subject. The rest, as they say, is ‘history’.
I too soon discovered ‘wonderful things’ – ‘wall art’ we now call it; that adorned the walls of the old USAAF buildings. No 3,000 year old tomb of the pharaohs adorned with hieroglyphics or elegant paintings set in amber or slim limbed figures in precisely curled wigs, shining gold necklaces and fresh green fruits and leaves from the field, all arranged in simple harmony, but 1940s American ‘Varga girls’ and Gil Elvegren ‘pin ups’, cartoon characters and murals and much more to behold. I was hooked and have been ever since. It led me, in the early 1970s, to begin compiling stories of the young GIs and their aircraft that populated and flew from, these Fields of Little America. Over 200 books on various aviation subjects later, the fascination of those early years has not diminished.
While I tried valiantly to record the wall art images for posterity the majority, ravaged by almost biblical winters and heavy rains have now disappeared forever. Back then businessmen were already using the last remaining buildings as their premises and farmers were ploughing up the runways and taxiways. Few, if any were interested in preservation. But now, there is a time capsule at Shipdham, in the former 14th Combat Wing HQ, where American WW2 art work has been preserved in all its glory and the former quarters will be let as holiday cottages.
Twelve years ago a young couple, Barrie and Lesley Adams, met some people they knew in a local pub. Lesley recalls:
‘We got talking about the ‘H block’; a property owned by the man we were talking to. He knew we had an interest in old properties and invited us to have a look. The entire site was overgrown and appeared as a large green tree on Google earth. On further investigation the property seemed a perfect place for us and our family.
‘We discovered many gems on the site and finding the American murals was the icing on the cake for us. We were determined that we wanted to preserve the paintings and covered all of them so we could continue to work around them without causing further damage. We decided our first job would be to ensure the properties surrounding the murals was weather proofed so we set about putting a new roof on and changing all the old broken windows. The largest mural, a bar scene, which is in our house, was painted by someone called Wingate and the paints came from Jarrolds department store in Norwich. As the pictures have been uncovered we have been amazed at how lovely they are and we are in awe of the men that painted them. We have many visitors from America and are always delighted to show them the pictures. Some of our visitors had relatives that served in the war and were stationed here. They have taken photos of the murals and the site.
‘We feel very lucky to have been able to preserve this part of Norfolk history and will always do everything we can to ensure they remain as good as possible and are available for people to visit. We have named the Quarters Cottages’, appropriately we feel, ‘Lemon Drop Cottage’ [after the famous Liberator of the same name].
‘Leon Cottage’ [in honour of General Leon Vance who was awarded the Medal of Honor for leading his group against the Ploesti oilfields on Sunday, August 1st 1943], ‘Wingate’ and ‘Eightball House’. Letting could start in July when we have finished the fence and garden.’
Any 8th Air Force veteran who endured his early years in the primitive, rudimentary and often freezing conditions on base would have difficulty coming to terms with the ‘five-star’ ‘Quarters Cottages’ with its hot showers, efficient plumbing and comfortable beds.
In the words of Rupert Brooke, Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness, In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.
Fields of Little America were never like this!