Circle of Remembrance

By Janet Collins

“Somewhere in England.” During World War II, how many thousands upon thousands of sweethearts and wives, mothers and father, brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts, cousins and friends, here in the United States, had received letters with that restricted address information? How many, in hope, answered their loved ones, writing to an APO number here in the states, their words to be forwarded to place without a name? And how many suddenly stopped receiving letters from “somewhere in England.”

This past summer I decided to take a trip to that part of England where my cousin, Jack Graham had been stationed before he was killed in action over Holland in December, 1943. Resolve has a way of bridging the years, and I wanted to be in that place where he had spent the last six months of his young life, in some way to be part of it – to see the same sky, walk the same land, breathe the same air. I could not have predicted the resulting awakening of my every sense and emotion.

It had been over a half century since we had last seen Jack. I had been nine years old when he left for Great Britain after receiving his training in Tucson, Arizona and El Paso, Texas. In August of 1943, they flew from Topeka, Kansas via the North Atlantic route, and here I was, over 50 years later, flying in a jet from New York to London. After studying a map of England, I traveled by bus from Victoria Coach Station to the northwestern part of the country in the hope of meeting up with the past, equipped only with a copy of my cousin’s last letter and a government report containing the name of the air base in East Anglia where he had been sent. With many parts of the puzzle still lacking, I nevertheless felt certain that I would eventually succeed in finding that continuity which would span the years.

Using my hotel room in Norwich as home base, I began looking through brochures of the surrounding area. Listed as one of the tourist spots was a museum dedicated to the American Air Force. Complete with control tower and hangers, contacting memorabilia and records from World War II, Thorpe Abbott seemed like a good place to begin. Before making the hour’s trip south, however, I elected to telephone the director to confirm which days the buildings would be open to the public. My decision to place that call proved to be the first link the memorial chain.

The information I received brought me that much closer to my destination when I discovered that site of Wendling Base still existed in the small village of the same name about twenty kilometers west of Norwich near Dereham. Filled with anticipation at this unexpected good news, I could hardly believe my further good fortune when I was told that arrangements could be made for me to be driven to the airfield by a gentleman from a neighboring town who often acted as a guide for visitors. Now all I had to do was call and see if he was available. As I dialed the exchange, I had no time for doubts. The chain was getting stronger with each new turn of events.

My optimism was justified the next morning as a robust, friendly English voice greeted me in the lobby. Denis Duffield had been a young lad of 14 during the war, living on a farm close to the American installation. His eye-witness, first-hand accounts of the happenings around the base along with his comments on village life at that time, proved to be a wonderful lesson in history. On the 30 minute drive to the airfield, what I had seen in movies and read in books, came to life through his running narrative.

I was surprised and happy to hear that a monument had been built and dedicated to the 392nd Bombardment Group called “The Crusaders,” part of the 2nd Air Division of the Eight US Army Air Force, and this was the first stop on the tour. The experience of coming upon this commemorative in a simple, rustic atmosphere among farmlands on a quiet country lane is very touching. This, and other similar structures in the area, reflect the lasting gratitude of the English who still remember and mark with respect the ultimate sacrifice that was made by so many Americans. As we left the car in a large parking area along the Beeston Road, where the church had been a landmark for returning fliers, and walked towards the marble obelisk, the pride and care with which this memorial is maintained was immediately evident – a tribute to both countries. The 4-sided stone shaft, resting on a large marble base, bears plaques with inscription in honor of the 747 airmen who gave their lives, and those who served with them at the Wendling base, along with a listing of the squadron included in the group. On either side are two large poles, standing as sentinels, from which fly the flags of the United States and England. The velvet green lawn and the perfectly trimmed hedges surrounding the tract add to the natural beauty of this sanctuary, a fitting place of remembrance, a place to feel close to those children of God.

Driving towards the air base, my whole being became acutely attuned to each turn in the road, and when we approached the air strip, I knew why I had come. Proceeding onto the mile long runway, the present seemed to be drawn back into the past. Asking Denis to stop the car, I walked the distance, almost hearing the thundering motors of the heavy bombers as they accelerated to clear the trees on their way to the sea, almost seeing the heavenward spread of their giant wings, almost feeling the vibrating earth below my feet. And at that moment, I felt very close to Jack. And I thanked God for this revelation.

Among the fields by the base, as if to give testimony, stand some of the nissen huts, the grassy paths leading up to them still visible. Though rusted and crumbling with the weight of the years, they serve as reminders that here lived, at one time, vast numbers of sons, husbands and fathers, many of whom never returned from their missions, many of whom came back wounded in body and soul. In which quarters had my cousin been billeted? Which of the neighboring farmhouses had he perhaps visited? The countryside is so beautiful here the sky seems to stretch on forever with the most dramatic cloud formations. This “somewhere in England” is so peaceful now.

My trip to England had been fulfilling, but I knew that the circle was not complete. After I had been home for a few weeks, the missing link appeared in the form a letter from Denis. Confirming the microfiche casualty report I had received from Washington D.C., which contains the name of the only survivor the Dec.11, 1943 mission to Emden, his news went that essential extra step towards discovering the whole story. After researching the 392nd Bomb Group Memorial Association roster for that year, Denis had found the navigator’s address along with the good news that he was living here in the states. From Wisconsin information, I was able to obtain his phone number. After giving myself a day to calm down and get my feelings under control, I finally was able to pick up the telephone and dial the number.

My emotions at the moment when my call was answered, defy description. I spoke for over an hour with this man who was the only witness to my cousin’s last moments on this earth. From our conversation, I learned that George Schulz had gotten in touch with Jack’s father after being released from a prisoner of war camp in Germany where he had been imprisoned for a year and a half. Uncle Jack had not spoken of this, and so his story was new to me and to the rest of the family.

Besides being members of the same crew, he and Jack were best friends, George’s desire to talk to me about their time together at Wendling was so very spontaneous and genuine. His immediate recall of those days made it seem that the half century had been erased. He recounted their last mission in great detail, although I could tell it was very painful for him to relive the horror of that day when their B-24, called “Southern Comfort” was shot down over Holland. But then George went on to speak of the happier moments of that autumn in England: purchasing bicycles to ride around the countryside and into tow; dining with an English family in Kings Lynn where they were giving the treat of real eggs from their farm, ringing up the village girls to invite them to a dance.; visiting London on a weekend pass to see the sights. He told me that my cousin had touched people with his profound kindness, and was exceptionally well thought of by all he met. But then, we always knew he was special.

Although Jack and so many others were not physically present at the 2nd Air Division reunion in Norwich when VE Day was commemorated, they were honored in the memories of surviving comrades there and at home, forever connected by bonds of loyalty and respect. For us, the immediate family, I suppose the quest is ended now that our uncertainties have been resolved. We can now put a name to this place “somewhere in England” which we have held in our hearts for so long. And most of all, we look upon our circle of remembrance as a celebration – a tribute – to the enduring sprit of love and esteem with which we hold one another in the family of God.