Briton digs up remnants of a fierce time
July 18, 2010
NORFOLK COUNTY, England — At first glance it doesn’t look like much, just another farm field full of indifferent cows in eastern England’s Norfolk county, about a 90-minute drive from the U.S. airmen stationed at RAFs Mildenhall and Lakenheath.
But upon closer inspection, this green stretch of earth dips and swells, as if to suggest there is more underneath than just dirt.
Sixty-five years ago, this field, known as Maybread to the locals, was a supply depot for the 8th Air Force during World War II. It was here in East Anglia that B-17 Flying Fortress and B-24 Liberator crews said a prayer and commenced their daily bombing raids into Germany to battle the Nazis.
But in their haste to leave Europe after the war’s end in 1945, the Americans didn’t ship home all their assorted war materiel. They buried it. All over the place.
Simon Dunham wants to find it all.
Dunham has led the charge to find and unearth these caches of spare parts, weapons and other items left behind when the Americans went home.
Last October he led the first formal excavation of the Maybread site. Using radar imagery, Dunham and his cohorts unearthed eight tons of spare parts, only a fraction of what lay at the site. There were lots of exhaust system pieces — some pierced by enemy rounds — oxygen bottles and other quiet pieces of history, including a “true air speed computer,” essentially a metal dial that told pilots their speed in a less-technological time.
For Dunham, it’s just the start. As far as he knows, there’s no definitive inventory of such burial sites, so he relies on the memories of older locals while swapping intel with other enthusiasts. Rumors abound that a B-17 fuselage may be somewhere under the field at Maybread. Other sites that were once airfields could have buried jeeps or even Harley-Davidsons waiting to be unearthed, he said.
“We just don’t know what else is out there,” he said.
It’s not just scrap that’s out there. When damaged bombers crashed in the British countryside, the air crews perished with them, Dunham said.
“In these fields, there’s still service personnel lying in their aircraft,” he said.
Thirty pounds of “flesh, bone and tendon” were required for a burial back then, Dunham said, but often even that was not found. When a 30-ton aircraft crashed into the ground at 300 mph, the fragile human body didn’t stand much of a chance.
Older folks in the area said the wreckage would burn so furiously that crews would just bury the smoldering ruins as soon as they could.
Holding a piece of an exhaust system at his nearby home, Dunham sees the innocuous bit of metal as the bridge to another time, an era whose survivors are fading away as the years progress.
“Who was the last person to use this? Why was it thrown away?” Dunham asks. “There’s a story behind every single part here.”
‘Hadn’t seen Americans’
The U.S. 8th Air Force arrived in England in April 1942 and stayed for roughly three years. Along the way, they transformed this sleepy countryside, eventually using 123 stations during its peak presence from late 1943 to early 1944, according to Lane Callaway, an 8th Air Force historian at Barksdale Air Force Base, La.
In 1942, construction on a new airfield was started every three days, he said in an e-mail, becoming the largest civil engineering project in British history. Most bases had three intersecting runways, with the amount of concrete poured equivalent to 4,000 miles worth of three-lane highways.
This rapid buildup was essential to taking the strategic air war into the German heartland, according to Callaway.
“The history, heritage and achievements earned by The Mighty Eighth during its aerial combat in Europe during the years 1942 through May 1945 has a foundation firmly planted (in) airfields created throughout the countryside of East Anglia,” Callaway said.
The Mighty Eighth flew its first mission on July 4, 1942, a bombing raid into occupied Holland that was largely a symbolic show of force, Callaway said. By the time it left in 1945, the 8th had flown nearly 1,000 missions, he said.
Dunham had listened to the World War II stories of his father and grandfather since he was a boy.
His grandfather worked at a Red Cross club in the area. For the locals back then, Dunham said, life transformed overnight. All of a sudden there were more than 3,000 personnel at each base, he said. Every four or five miles, “you had this American town spring up.”
“People back then hadn’t seen Americans, only at the movies,” he said. “All of a sudden they’re at your pubs, they’re taking your daughter out.”
Although he had never personally heard of the equipment burial sites, Callaway said such dumping grounds don’t surprise him.
“If done, any dumping was probably due to the enthusiasm of getting the unit ready to redeploy homeward,” he said.
Dunham said many airfields remained through the Korean War in case they were needed but were eventually transferred back to the landowners in the 1960s. They remained open for years after the war, he said, and locals often picked through them for whatever they could salvage. One boy apparently rode off with a gun across his bike’s handlebars before authorities took it back, he said.
Dunham’s digging is not cheap. Last year it cost roughly 3,000 pounds, or about $4,500. But for Dunham such a price is merely an inconvenience, not a barrier.
“It’s our own shared aviation heritage we’re keeping alive,” he said.
Before his death a few years ago, Dunham’s father would tell him a story about when he was a child and the Yanks were still there.
One soldier had soldered an aircraft’s steering wheel onto a bicycle, Dunham recalled. His father wanted that bike so badly, but the Yanks refused and buried it somewhere in the fields of Norfolk.
“I’ve never been able to find it as yet, but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to,” he said.