One woman's devotion keeps memory of WWII unit burning brightly
One of the many holiday parties the airmen threw for the local schoolchildren.
Special to Stars and Stripes
SEETHING, England — It is November 1943, and nine-year-old Patricia Everson is giddy. She and her classmates are going to a Thanksgiving party at Seething’s new U.S. air base.
Above her, scores of American B-24 Liberators are coming in for a landing at Seething for the first time, as United States rapidly builds airfields in this part of England to expand the air war in Europe. For the remainder of the war, Seething will be the 448th Bomb Group’s home. The runway isn’t finished; neither is the housing. But in a few weeks those aircraft will bomb Berlin and much of Germany’s northern industrial base.
Sunday marked the 70th anniversary of the unit’s arrival. Everson and the village hosted some of the few surviving 448th veterans for a special celebration, attended by some 5,000 people.
These days, Everson, now 79, is more often contacted by family members whose fathers or grandfathers rarely talked about the war. They find her and ask “what was it like?” And it is 1943 again.
The canvas-colored truck rumbles to a stop, and newly arrived U.S. airmen lift Patricia and her schoolmates onto the truck bed.
Patricia has never met an American. In her head she is bold with questions. Are they like Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, from her school books? But when she gets to the base, and walks inside the domed, metal building where young Americans are smiling and happy to feel a bit of holiday “normal,” she is too shy to ask. Instead, she sits at the end of a long table and quietly says “yes, please,” or “no thank you,” as her eyes grow wide at foods she’d never seen.
“They put Jell-O on meat!” recalls Everson, from her home in Seething. “Nobody in this country had ever heard of cranberry sauce before!”
The airmen give nine-year-old Patricia a bag of sweets; she goes home with her questions still tugging. For the next two years, the 448th’s bombers are her world. The schoolchildren loiter on the aircraft hardstand, where the planes are parked. Or they hang on the fence and talk to young flyers, some just 10 years their senior. They know the bombers’ engines and can tell a good mission from a terrible one purely by listening.
“I could lay in bed on a cold winter’s morning and hear the “putt-putt” that started those four Pratt and Whitney engines,” Everson said. “The noise when they took off was tremendous. They would taxi down the perimeter track — over three miles in length — and take off in 30-second intervals. The noise … you’d think it was never going to take off. The birds wouldn’t even sing for awhile.”
Seething’s young schoolboys would ride their bicycles out to a small road at the edge of the runway. They would look for each bomber’s nose art … Little Shepherd, Hello, Natural, Little Joe … as the aircraft rumbled past.
Jim Turner was one of those boys, just 12 years old when Seething’s bombers arrived. The B-24s would be “flying around in the early morning sky, struggling to get into formation, the sound of many engines and the sight of bright, colored flares that were being fired for identification,” Turner said. “Then suddenly they were gone, and I remember the strange silence that always followed and the forming of contrails in the distant sky as they headed East.”
“We would watch for them to come back,” Everson said. “If it was a bad mission they would come back in ones and twos, firing off brightly colored flares to indicate they had wounded on board, or engine trouble, so they would have priority to land.”
On their days off, the aircrews would go to the local pub, and Seething’s schoolboys would tag after.
The crews “would ask us to let them know when the MP’s were coming in their Jeep. When we saw the Jeep coming in the distance we would open the door and shout “Snowdrops!” The (pub owner) would lift the counter flap and let those without a pass into his back room taking their drinks with them,” Turner said.
Sometimes, when German fighters followed the big bombers home, the air battle would come to Seething. Ten hours into their mission, low on fuel, often with flak damage and engine failure, the B-24s were vulnerable.
At night, “it was black out there. The only light we had were search lights,” Everson said. Still, “you could always tell the German aircraft. You could hear them before the sirens went.”
On April 22, 1944, Seething’s bombers departed late, and it was getting dark when Patricia heard the first planes returning.
“I can remember standing outside … Ack-Ack (anti-aircraft) guns were going off. Searchlights were sweeping the skies … and you could see tracer bullets going as aircraft flew overhead. Then we saw the fire on the airfield.
“One of our planes went down in the sea, all [aboard] were killed. One just managed to get over the coastline and crashed [on land]. One was on fire coming into Seething … and the runway lights were out because they were being strafed.”
Second Lt. Winfield Spence, who attended the celebration, was a pilot on the 448th’s Crew 53. He’d flown an earlier mission and witnessed the nighttime attack from the ground.
“I watched as some of our planes called in” as they approached the darkened airstrip to land, Spence said. “As soon as they called in, the tower turned on the runway lights and then turned them off again – but the Germans were able to hit some of them on the approach.”
When the war ended — even though it meant that her own father was coming home safely from his post in the Royal Air Force — Patricia sat in her window and cried.
At the time, “none of us really realized the extent of the losses,” she said. She just didn’t want the Americans to leave.
“The excitement they brought. They became so much a part of our life …. Life just seemed really drab and empty after that.”
Several years later, and a bit older, “I went back to airfield as teenager to gather wildflowers,” Everson said. “The runway was still stretching into the distance. But lots of buildings had been taken away. Never has anywhere been so empty and desolate. And I thought, ‘well, I am never going to forget you, and if I can, I am going to try and keep your memories alive.’ ”
But life had its own plans. Patricia married and built a home in Seething. It seemed like she was always busy when small groups of veterans — ones and twos — would come to the town to remember.
Then in 1983, some members of the 448th, joined by a larger group of veterans from the 2nd Air Division, chartered a bus to tour some of the old English airfields. When the veterans realized there was no 448th memorial at Seething, they asked whether one could be built on the airbase, or in a nearby churchyard.
Everson and Turner weren’t impressed at the town’s initial response; the Parish suggested a small reception.
“A cup of tea and a bun,” Everson scoffed. “I said, ‘Oh no we won’t! We’ve waited a long time for this.’”
But the town had no money, so Everson and her brother, Reggie, Jim Turner and a few others raised 500 pounds — about $660 in 1984 dollars — and planned for a huge reunion, inviting all the villagers who had moved away.
But two and a half weeks before the reunion, there was a midnight knock on her door.
Patricia’s mother and Reggie had been killed in a car crash.
Reggie was supposed to sit next to her to welcome the 448th with a church service. Instead, she faced two coffins. Two weeks later, in June 1984, the 448th’s veterans returned.
A lost Patricia got through the dedication. But she was unable to voice the questions in her head.
“Once again I was not emotionally able to ask all these questions” she said. “To make the contacts I’d waited so long for.”
Everson thought about all her brother had wanted to do for the 448th, and now never would. She decided she had to ask the questions.
“I couldn’t type, I hated writing letters and I had no money. But I decided I would start writing to these men and ask them about their memories.”
Lt. Leroy Engdahl, one of the 448th’s early pilots, and the first to safely complete all his required missions when so many others had perished, helped Everson track her first addresses to contact.
Each letter was handwritten, on blue Air Mail sheets. Never more than two pages — the postage would be too much. She would ask: “How old were you when you arrived? Were you air crew or ground crew? What did you think of living in Seething? Did you make any friends?”
“It was great therapy to me after losing my mum and brother. Lots of times I wouldn’t be able to sleep, so I would sit and write.”
She remembers the first time an envelope arrived with photographs. She was nine again — except this time she was skipping around her home in joy. She saved money to make negatives of the prints, and post the originals back.
Word of her efforts got out, and Everson helped host Seething reunions in 1987, 1990, 1992, 1995 and 1998. The letters grew to volumes of correspondence — more than 50 albums of stories and photographs.
“Everyone said that I needed to talk to this lady at Seething,” said Jeff Brett, author of “The 448th Bomb Group (H): Liberators over Germany in World War II.” Brett first heard 448th stories from his wife’s grandfather, pilot Lt. A.D. Skaggs, and Brett’s interest in the group “evolved from a hobby to what I thought was a need. ... Pat was by far the most tremendous single resource.”
Every first Sunday from May to October, Everson opens the tower to meet visitors and share the group’s history. But at 79, it’s hard. The albums are too heavy to carry. They stay with her always; she does not leave them in the tower at night. They are too precious.
These days she rarely gets a new veteran’s address to write. But the next generation reaches out.
Sometimes, when families find her and ask, Patricia thinks: “I know that name.
“Somehow,” she said, “they stick in my memory.”
The little girl who was too shy to speak now tells their stories.