Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Illuminating a dark period in US history

I see that a former resident of Budleigh Salterton's sister-town on Cape Cod has been involved in an interesting cinematic project which has brought back wartime memories for me.

Not that I am a WW2 veteran or anything like that. But, born in 1946, I do feel that the war had a tremendous impact on our generation in terms of the damage that it did to our parents' generation.

Yet it also brought positive benefits in terms of appreciating the evil that humans are capable of, as well as admiring their heroism.

So, back in 1995, I wrote a book, Oundle's War, which reflected those thoughts as well as tracing the history of a small Northamptonshire town in the east of England between 1939 and 1945.

The book was very popular in the area and was printed again in November 2009. All profits went to the Royal British Legion, which pleased people like Roger Bass (on the left in the picture), vice chairman of the RBL here in Budleigh.

The chapters of Oundle's War focused on different aspects of the conflict: beginnings, the town of Oundle in wartime, active service, prisoners of war and so on. There was also a chapter entitled 'Friends and Allies' which included the contribution to the war effort made by the Poles, but chiefly the Americans.

The Eighth USAAF, 'The Mighty Eighth' as it was known, was based mainly in the flat lands of Eastern England. Oundle was surrounded by airfields, and for its wartime residents the base at Polebrook was the subject of much interest, not just because of the impressive Flying Fortress B17 bombers which regularly filled the skies above the Oundle church spire, but because Clark Gable was serving there as an air-gunner.
The Hollywood star, pictured here with two pleased-looking Oundle girls, had recently finished filming 'Gone with the Wind', and I found many Oundle people who told me stories about him, not all of them printable.

The town's residents could not have been fully aware of the immense sacrifice that the Americans of Polebrook's 351st Bomb Group were making. More than 46,000 members of the USAAF lost their lives between July 1942 and April 1945. During the 311 missions which were flown from Polebrook, 175 aircraft were lost along with their crews.

"I don't think we realised how much we owed the Americans," I was told by Dame Miriam Rothschild, who lived in the nearby village of Ashton.

"They were incredibly brave, incredibly tough, incredibly dedicated, and I don't know what would have happened here if we hadn't had the American Air Force stationed at Polebrook and the various other places from where they operated. We must always be grateful."

As well as being a remarkably gifted naturalist she was Jewish of course.

One thing which did strike me as I researched documents and photos for the chapter about the tragic history of Polebrook Airfield was that the faces of its residents and aircrews seemed to be universally white.

Picture: One of the 351st Bomb Group aircrews based at Polebrook

Sixty years after those events, still preoccupied by stories of WW2, I helped stage a millennial event in the town of Oundle where 200 British and American veterans were welcomed. It was a memorable and emotional event which included an RAF Harrier flypast, an aerobatics display, a Vera Lynn lookalike singer, a keynote address by Sir Howard Stringer - former pupil of Oundle School and currently Chairman, President and CEO of the Sony Corporation - and a surprise lunch for members of the 351st Bomb Group and their families who had come over to the UK.

Lovely people, a fantastic atmosphere... I set up an archive site where you can see photos of the event.!/group.php?v=info&ref=search&gid=67961223366
But again, not a single black face among our guests.

Since then I've learnt about the racial segregation in their armed forces which was accepted by most Americans during World War Two.

So Jack Sherman, brought up in Brewster but now living in Los Angeles, has done us all a service through his work as film editor of 'For Love Of Liberty,' a two-part documentary on the history of America's black soldiers. The first part of the film was shown on TV last Monday 1 February to mark the US's Black History Month. Hosted by Halle Berry and introduced by Colin Powell, the work is a four-hour story of the black soldiers who fought in every conflict in American history, and took a decade to make.
There is more information about it at

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