Mark recalls life as a civilian worker on a US airforce base during World War II, and later working on the land before entering the building trade.
I was born at Roudham, in one of the wartime brick bungalows near the First World War aerodrome. Mum and Dad took the bungalow when they got married in October 1927. I lived there until I got married. I left school in July 1942, three years into the Second World War. They were building up aerodromes and army camps in the area and East Wretham, right next door to us, was finished and aircraft had been taking off there from the early 1940s. It had a large food store to supply the American servicemen.
I was a member of the Methodist Church at East Harling which is still going. I belonged to the youth club which was on a Tuesday or Thursday, and I’d go on a Sunday ‘cause we were all Methodists and I still go there today. Mum and Dad brought me up that way and I decided to follow. There was church on Sundays and we had meetings which airmen and soldiers also attended. During the war we went to the Knettishall US airforce base, about five or six miles from Thetford, near Coney Weston. Our minister arranged for us to do an Easter play for the airmen. I was a centurion and can remember that afterwards we went up to the base for doughnuts and Cokes. The men came round to chat to us and thank us for coming.
Cycling is my favourite hobby, I’ve done no end of cycling. I used to do cycle speedway. After the Americans left we made the old track where they used to put their cinder muck and cinders. It used to keep sinking down and they raked it off so it was ideal to make a cinder track for speedway racing, so us lads used to do that. There was always something on during the summer months, and we had the youth club and we used to meet in the Nag’s Head at East Harling.
Witnessing the crashes and missing the bullets
When I was about fifteen I was at the Guiltcross Gardens near Alston’s farm at the Honeywoods. He was a carpenter in East Harling and we used to help people with their gardens. It was so exciting. I could see planes coming over and going round and breaking off and it occurred to me that they were coming in to the base at Snetterton. From where we lived we were very close to the planes taking off and landing. One morning I watched a plane flying very low, expecting it to go down any time, and it crashed at West Harling, a mile away, near Middle Harling Farm, known as Barters Farm, killing all the crew. I went to have a look and it was an awful mess, very sad.
One morning in the spring of 1941 we woke up to find that a twin-engined Blenheim Bomber from Watton had made a forced landing about two hundred yards from our bungalow. The radio had been shot out of action and they thought the old First World War hanger was an operational air field. One of the men was injured. They had an attack from the front of the plane but the others seemed to be alright. I remember seeing some of the airmen as they were picked up and taken back to Watton. I also recall a 4-engined Lancaster Bomber that crashed and blew up by the side of the road, right outside Roudham Hall, less than a mile away from our home. All the crew were killed. The trees were burnt and nothing grew for a long time!
In spring 1942, my sister and I were on our way to school when a German bomber came over very low and machine-gunned the red hangar. We could see the bullets as they exploded, hitting the building. During the winter of 1943 a German aircraft dropped flares over the camp and our house. There was a red alert but no bombs were dropped. The American soldiers took cover and the showing of films promptly ceased!
A Flying Fortress crashed at Larwoods Farm having only just taken off from the air base and it blew up and killed all the men. Another very sad sight. In November 1944 a plane flew over Bryant’s Bridge, near the race track, and landed at Snetterton. All the crew survived because they managed to land the plane very slowly on the edge of the bank. It broke up but they all survived, though some of them were badly injured.
The Vickers Wellington Bombers were mostly piloted by Czechs and Polish airmen. There were also P-47 Thunderbolts in ‘43 and later, in the beginning of ‘44, there were the P-51 Mustangs and the heavy, 4-engined Lancaster Bombers. There’s still some flying today, at the Lowestoft airshows and historic open days. There’s a plaque dedicated to the airmen outside the Thetford Guildhall and at the bottom of King Street there’s one dedicated to the airmen of the 359th Fighter Group who were stationed at East Wretham from 1943 till the end of 1945.
I was taken to the guard room for identification more than once as they didn’t quite make out who I was or what I was doing, saying ‘take me back to your home if you can, for identification’ which I did. Mother identified me and they were happy with that. As the war progressed in our favour they weren’t so fussy about checking civilians.
Friendships with the US personnel
One of the good things that came out of the war was the co-operation and friendship with US personnel through our Methodist Church. Our Methodist minister and the US airforce chaplains got together, bringing the Americans and local people together. They used to visit us and sometimes their singing group sang to us. We would visit them and give them a little sketch or sing song. It was a very good during the war years. There’s a photograph of Chaplain Morris Smith and some of the airmen in the 96 journal. I met him when our minister took me up to the base. When I started my job at the East Wretham aerodrome Chaplain Ziegler was also there. They conducted little services with their choirs and some airmen. We were able to black out the Methodist Church at East Harling on Sunday evenings and it gave the airmen a chance to attend. The RAF men first joined us on a Sunday in November 1942, paving the way for the Americans.
Working and eating on the American airforce base!
I was fortunate enough to get a job on the base as a civilian worker doing general duties, for nearly two years. My job was to keep the fires going. I had a boiler in the kitchen and a kitchen stooI and if you were organised it wasn’t hard work. The wood was delivered to our little saw mill where I’d cut a whole heap of wood. I’d pick out sticks, enough to light two fires, and put the coal and coke on ready for the next morning. I was quite busy during the winter ‘cause I had to look after the fires in the club. If there was a party they’d say ‘Can you stay?’ I said ‘How am I going to get home?’ and they said ‘There’s plenty of bicycles in the shed, take one of them’. The girls did the cleaning up and helped with the cooking.
I started work at 8 o’clock, had toast at 10 o’clock, a main meal at 1 o’clock and tea at 3 o’clock! There was no shortage of food on the base. My main meal would be beef and rice, beef mince, and sometimes sausages, but they did what they called rissoles and things like that. I always had a hot meal. I worked at the Aero Club where we had a civilian staff and they used to make cakes for the men when they came off duty. It was like a NAAFI. They would come in for a coffee or a Coke and lovely home-made cakes and sausage rolls. Wartime bases weren’t like they are now, at Mildenhall, it was just the basics. There was a BX where you could get a packet of sweets or gum. The buildings where I worked are still there today, after all this time! I had an identity card but hardly ever had to show it.
It was a very happy time for me. I got some perks, yeah, that was good! If we were late starting work some mornings they’d say ‘The toast is ready’ and by the time you got stuck into some work they’d say ‘Your lunch is ready’. That’s the best job I ever had, it really was! I was only getting about £1.50 which doesn’t seem much but it was in line with agricultural wages. I got £2 which was quite a rise for the first year and £2.50 for the second year, which was good money in those days, with the dinner thrown in and toast.
Mother was pleased ‘cause it saved the rations. There were seven of us, five and Mum and Dad. Mother used our ration books which meant she could make the food go further. As I was having a meal out I didn’t cost her so much for food or money. Mother was very fair and gave us all our shares. Funnily enough you get used to being rationed. Now people seem to grumble if they can’t get this and can’t get that! Yet we were a healthier nation. I can’t make out why everything has gone wrong but it has. We had a between white and brown bread. It was a standard bread. It was rationed but we had enough if you were careful. Butter, cheese, sugar and sweets were all rationed. Weren’t many sweets about, but you could get a packet of crisps sometimes and there weren’t any fruit. You never saw a banana, an orange in the shops, nothing like that, not for five years or more, five or six years! Course we got used to it. I worked at Wretham aerodrome until November 1945.
Encounters with black and white US servicemen
In the spring of 1943 the coloured Americans, the black Negro Americans, arrived to build up the food camp. They were 364 Engineers Group. They did all the heavy work, laying the concrete, foundations, putting up all the steel round bars, all the corrugations, all the paths and roads. Of course, we were surrounded by their diggers, scoops and all their building machinery. I remember going into the very big new ordinance repair shop, full of modern equipment. They were a bit fussy about people coming in. A couple of times somebody asked me what I was doing and I told them I lived next door and they said ‘You shouldn’t really be in here’. It might have been for safety reasons. I did see all the modern equipment which we certainly didn’t have. The big Marsden shop was right next to our bungalow, out of the gate, up the path and there it was.
When the coloured soldiers were working near our house there was a rule that the blacks walked on one side of the road and the whites on the other. We kept poultry, ducks, geese and chickens. One time when my Dad was away I was mixing up the chicken feed in one of the wartime sheds outside our bungalow and I heard a bang. Before I could get to my gate to see what was happening there was group of men gathered on the side of the road, round a man laid on the floor, a coloured soldier and I could see there was blood on his face and I asked what happened. One of the white soldiers just shot him, all because he wasn’t walking on the right side of the road, and I thought well, this is terrible. I knew that the blacks didn’t like the whites and they hated them in some cases! We had blacks right outside, working on the same camp as the white men and there was no problem, no incident, only this one. Sadly we heard the black soldier died the next day. I think he was a sergeant too! Of course there was a strict curfew about people mixing and they advised me to stay indoors for a few nights after that. I always liked to go outside and talk to the black men in the evenings when they came back from the base, and the white men during the day. To me that didn’t cause a problem, to them it did, and it still does in some parts of America, which is rather sad. I wanted to record that I did witness that, and I’m pleased to have done so. I found the black soldiers friendly and easy to get on with. I never had any bad experience, never made to feel scared. I didn’t know much about the black and whites in America at that time but, of course, I’ve learnt a lot since the black soldier was killed right outside my gate. I’m a kind of chap that takes anyone into my confidence, both the white airmen I worked with during the day and the black soldiers at night. They would invite me into their tents, ‘Come in, come in buddy and sit down and talk to us’, and make me a hot drink or give me sweets. I don’t regret any time I spent there with them.
The Americans had a film show in one of their buildings. I would join them and one night they had a special show. I went along and was told ‘no civilians allowed today’ but the two I was with dressed me up in their uniform and we walked in with no problem. They were white. They didn’t allow blacks into their cinema. They had their own show which was rather a shame. Them poor devils never got a look in. I think they used to get together and made their own entertainment, playing guitars and things and I remember one played me a tune.
The first US airmen arrived at Snetterton airfield in April 1943 and prepared the way for the flyers, the airmen, the B-17 Flying Fortress. Heavy bombers, the 4-engine Flying Fortress Bombers were stationed at Snetterton and Knettishall. Every few miles there was an American airfield. There was always a film camera aircraft that went with them to record the events and I used to make sure I got in to the Aero Club nearby to see some of the films, to see what up-to-date things had happened on the raids. The fighter planes escorted the bombers.
I will always remember the Christmas of 1943 when two of my American airmen friends took me to London, on Boxing Day and gave me a treat, viewing all the important places. We went to the Rainbow club for American servicemen, for a three-course meal and entertainment. So I had a great day and will always remember it. Mother often used to make them a coffee or give them something to eat and they really valued that. We all liked to see the Americans ‘cause that was a novelty for us, until we got used to them. We realised how lucky we were to be able to talk with them.
The black Americans left in the spring of 1944 when they’d finished. In June 1944 the invasion of France took place and the camp was on strict alert so I was unable to go in but later we went back to normal. We made friends with many of the US airmen and soldiers and we trusted them. In the summer I used to go cycling round the countryside with a couple of them from the Wretham base. The Americans occupied the camp at Roudham until 1946 when the German prisoners of war came, and then the Italian prisoners of war, then the Polish soldiers came. All this time the camp was being used to support US airmen.
From market gardening to the building trade
When I left the aerodrome I went on to market gardening, digging carrots, cutting cabbages and cauliflowers, which is quite different. I worked from 7.30 a.m. to 4 p.m. and in winter it was 8.00 a.m. to 4 p.m. which weren’t bad! The money was piece work, you got paid for what you did so if you didn’t work you didn’t get paid. We had a good employer and a good foreman who would bargain for us. He wouldn’t be satisfied until he got a good price, especially in the winter. I heard him say to the employer ‘Well, you wouldn’t like to be working out in this weather would you? I know you can pay it?’ You don’t always get a good foreman to do that for you! Sometimes I had to catch the lorry to go out from East Harling to Croxton and Kilverstone, and if you missed a truck of course you lost a day’s pay.
I was a young man and fit and healthy so I didn’t mind. I worked for H.E. Kemp & Son. Actually I worked for Mr Frank Kemp who lived in Thetford. I finished up doing some painting for him when I’d retired. When I started there were 60 employees, then it went down to 50, 40, 30 and I could see what was happening so in ‘47-’48 I decided to go to the building trade. Houses were being built near us and a friend of mine said ‘Why don’t you join us?’ so I became a labourer on contract work. A council contract can last up to two or three years and then the firm moves on to another contract so I had to leave that job.
The Royal Observer Corps
I then joined the Royal Observer Corps as I was always interested in aircraft and was in there until 1962. Part of my duties was to observe aircraft outside on a seven-mile radius. To repeat and log in and out, to record the exact place and to pass on information to the next post. We also went on flights in the RAF transport command.
In the mid 50s the army was just opening up the local camp at Roudham, East Harling, to build up stores when there were difficulties with the Russians and things were getting bad. These were to supply Stanford, West Tofts, Tollington and the edge of Watton Merton where soldiers were being trained. They were very uncertain times. Some of my mates went there and I joined them and was there for ten years doing labouring work, then I got skilled and went on to become the store keeper. That was a good little job. When my son was taken ill with meningitis he was offered a place at the special school in Attleborough, about eight miles away and I decided to accept that and move house.
I went back to the building trade as a brush hand, to take up painting. In those days if you had a good boss who wanted people badly they would take you on as an improver. You could be a brick layer improver or a painter improver and I took his offer as a painter improver. I remember him saying ‘I’ll give you a trial, give you a chance’. I was there for six years. I’ve always taken what opportunities came along. I’ve always benefited myself, apart from the airfield job. I’ll never get another one like that, as long as I live. It was quite different to what I expected but it was a good learning experience for me during those three years, or more. I think I’m very fortunate to have lived in those days. As I’d trained as a store keeper in the army I eventually moved back to store keeping at Attleborough in the Briton Brush Company and I was there for ten years. I think that just about sums up most of my life.
Mark (b.1940) talking to WISEArchive on 15th December 2011 at the Ancient House Museum of Thetford Life as part of the Norfolk 2nd World War project during 2011-12.
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