The History Society was incredibly fortunate and delighted to welcome another band of truly committed USAAF enthusiasts to the Parish Room, lead by John Cashmore and Dennis Duffy, who were ably supported by John Broughton, Malcolm Osborn (who gave a memorable pictorial presentation of the 486th last year), and Roger Lane (who displayed his fantastic art for our members in January).
The presentation covered all aspects of the 487th's transfer to Lavenham, including building the airfield, flying the planes to England during wartime, base life and of course the famous mission 760 of Christmas Eve 1944. We were also treated to a fantastic display of USAAF uniforms, which included boots, helmets, caps, gloves, flying equipment, various small tools and (we were assured) a dummy 500 lb bomb; we also learnt many fascinating facts during the presentation:
Lavenham airfield was built during 1943, with technical and administrative buildings on the southern side of the airfield, along with most of the dispersed temporary buildings that provided accommodation for 2,900 personnel. It seems the concrete for the three runways and 3.5 miles of perimeter track totalled some 190,000 cubic yards, whilst the roads and buildings accounted for a further 52,000 cubic yards - quite astonishing quantities. Some 4,500,000 bricks were used in construction, with total site excavations amounting to 679,000 cubic yards; it was not however stated where all this mountain of stuff was dumped!
The 487th was activated by the US Second Air Force on 22 September 1943 at Bruning in Nebraska, moving to Alamogordo New Mexico in December that year. Ground units departed in March 1944 for Camp Kilmer, New Jersey and arrived in Gourock on 3 April 1944. The aircraft flew overseas on 23 March 1944, taking the (very long) southern ferry route via Fortaleza Brazil to Dakar, and on to Valley Wales, Scotland before flying to Lavenham in early April 1944. The unit's first commander was Lieutenant Colonel Beirne Lay, Jr, a prominent Hollywood screen-writer, until he was shot down over enemy territory on 11 May 1944 in one of the group's earliest actions. He evaded capture and returned to duty; after the war, he wrote the screenplay for Twelve O'Clock High, a famous 1949 film about aircrews in the US Army's Eight Air Force.
The group flew B-24 Liberators and later B-17 Flying Fortresses to bomb airfields in France ahead of the Normandy invasion, part of the Eighth Air Force's strategic bombing campaign. Coastal defences, road junctions, bridges and locomotives were also targeted in aid of Normandy ground forces on D-Day 6 June 1944. The 487th flew 185 combat missions, the last being on 21st April 1945. It also led the largest Eighth Air Force mission of the war on 24 December 1944, when some 1,400 bombers escorted by 726 fighters bombed eleven German airfields east of the Rhine, with another 634 heavy bombers attacking communication centres west of the Rhine. The mission was a “maximum effort” raid; Brigadier General Frederick Castle in the lead “Pathfinder” aircraft was shot down, as were a further 55 aircraft lost that day. The general was posthumously awarded the (Congressional) Medal of Honor for his actions during the mission; his portrait today hangs in the Lavenham Swan Hotel, one of his wartime haunts.
Amazingly, more than 90 minutes of absorbing presentation flashed by in an instant, with all present enthralled from start to finish. We are most grateful to John and Dennis for their generosity in freely giving their time, expertise, humour and passion to a subject of such great interest to so many people; this was visibly demonstrated by the record turnout of 60 that came very very close to exceeding our capacity. A great time was indeed had by all.
Andy Sheppard 15th March