Saturday, June 21, 2008

A Trip Back in Time: Horham, Suffolk and the 95th Bomb Group

The tiny village of Horham, in Sussex, as seen from the tower of the church. During the war, Horham had a population of around 50. In contrast, the adjoining American base had 3,000 men.
Aerial view of the town of Horham today.

Aerial view showing the town of Horham and the airfield. Main runway at center.

When they hired me to write the history of the 95th Bomb Group, the 95th BG Association felt it was important that I visit the places where most of the 95th history occurred--at and around the air base at Horham, a small English hamlet in the rolling green hills of Suffolk, East Anglia. The 95th also felt that a major chapter in the story of the 95th should focus on the relationships between the young American airmen and the local villagers among whom they lived for three brief but intense years--years during which the wide, crop-lined runway at Horham was the last place on earth that many young flyers ever stepped. As one of the first American bomb groups up and running in England during the war, the 95th flew many missions with inadequate fighter escort against a still-powerful Luftwaffe. Losses were staggering. The terror of the flak-filled skies over the continent was a dramatic juxtaposition to the bucolic, peaceful village of Horham for these young airmen. Fighting loneliness and knowing that each mission could bring sudden death, the Americans bonded with the kind people of Horham. The villagers welcomed them into their homes, and the young village children ran to the base each day to visit their favorite Americans. Alan Johnson came by this spot many days to visit his American friends on the base. The guard box was near the spot where the phone booth is located in this photo. A hundred yards or so down the lane in center, and a child was on the base.
"Got any gum, chum?" was a common refrain by English children when meeting American GIs. One meticulous English child saved all the wrappers after eating the gum, and these are now in the 390th Museum at Framlingham.
The Blue Dragon Pub in Horham, frequented by Americans and Brits alike during the war, fostered many enduring friendships. It is now a private residence.

In return, the Americans often brought hard-to-find gifts to the locals--who were suffering under strict war rationing and had very little. The relationship between the locals and the airmen became very close--and for many in Horham, it continues to this day.

During the war, young Alan Johnson loved to run over to the base and hang out with the ground crewmen. Alan Johnson today, in his vintage Jeep. Alan was the driving force behind preserving the history and buildings of the 95th Bomb Group in Horham.

Many years later, realizing that the former air base was falling into disrepair and could soon vanish completely, Alan and other members of the 95th Association in England purchased the land upon which sat the non-commissioned officers' club, named the Red Feather Club.

The Red Feather Club's exterior as it looked when Alan began his crusade to rebuild it.The Red Feather's interior before restoration began.

Alan and others set out to rebuild it, and spent fifteen years working to bring the old building back to life. Working alone at first, and then with a few dedicated partners, the Red Feather Club now lives again in the form of the 95th Bomb Group Museum. The Red Feather Club today. (Photo from Tom Philo's website: http://www.taphilo.com/)

The Red Feather's Bar is up and running again, restored to its original specs.

The 95th Bomb Group presence at Horham is completely run by Brits, though it does get some funding help from the American 95th Association. A registered museum in Britain, the museum continues to expand. While I was there, a grant was awarded to build a large dance hall back onto the front of the club, where today all that is left is a concrete pad. Over the past two years, the Red Feather Club has hosted big band dances and parties, and Alan says when he walks outside into the night and listens, he feels like he is back in 1943 all over again. It's an amazing story.
Alan in front of the 95th Museum.
Stay tuned----Much, much more to follow. Next entry--the old 95th base, then and now.

3 comments:

Les said...

Thanks for sharing, Rob. Visiting the bases must have given you chills.

Your trip kind of reminds me of the opening scene of Twelve O'Clock, High when Dean Jagger's character visits the base and reflects.

r morris said...

One of the most brilliant beginnings to a movie...ever.
Yes, it was a lot like that, Les. One thing that particularly struck me as I walked the runway was how it was the last place on earth many men ever touched.

dee said...

I just found a picture of my late father who passed in 2005 (Master Sgt Grimes) - on the back is written Horham England 1945. He was part of the ground crew. Unfortunately, I don't have any stories about that time in his life, so it is very special to see photos and read about the base and restoration. Perhaps, Mr. Johnson was someone my father had the pleasure to meet. The thought brings a smile to my face.