LWHS was delighted to welcome Ian McLachlan, aviation archaeologist, ‘Force Historian' and author to the Parish Room to tell us tell us the extraordinary story of the US Army Air Force (USAAF) in East Anglia during the Second World War, and particularly their social and cultural impact.
Ian began by giving us some background information on this ‘friendly invasion', which comprised the strategic long range bomber groups of the ‘Mighty Eighth' and the tactical forces of the Ninth Air Force - more than 70 airfields in East Anglia alone - see map below:
- 450,000 to 500,000 US Airmen served in UK from 1942 to 1945, mostly based in East Anglia.
- More than 50,000 were killed or missing in action by 1945.
- Arrivals began in 1942, with about 30,000 in place by Christmas.
- The first operation was on July 4th, Independence day appropriately, with 6 crews.
- D-Day peaked at some 436,000 personnel.
- The 8th air force was the largest air striking force ever committed to battle, and could send 3,000 aircraft on a single mission with 20,000 airmen aloft - simply astonishing figures.
Sudbury (Chilton) airfield is ref 62, whilst Lavenham airfield is 36
Ian then introduced the 1942 ‘Short Guide to Great Britain'. Issued by the US War Department; this is a little dated now, after 72 years, but still provides a frank, funny and useful introduction to foreigners on how to enjoy the UK; he gave us the following great extracts:
- You are Britain's guest, don't refer to the First World War by saying America came over & won it, and don't play into Hitler's hands by mentioning the war debts.
- Never criticize the King or Queen.
- Don't be a show off, and don't rub it in that you are better paid.
- Look, listen and learn before you start telling them how much better we do things.
- Two actions on your part will slow up friendship with the British Tommy - swiping his girl and not appreciating what his army has been up against.
- Don't say `bloody' in mixed company and don't say `bum' - we seem to have slipped somewhat.
- The British can't make good coffee; you can't make good tea. We can now whilst they still can't!
- If invited for a meal, go easy; it could be the family's rations for a whole week.
- Most people get used to the English climate, eventually.
In truth, US men bragged because they were scared and the British thought they were undisciplined and noisy. This was true of some but not all; they were simply homesick young men in a strange environment, aliens in sedate East Anglian villages, which was a massive culture shock both ways.
We were then told that German propaganda leaflets sought to increase the division within the sometimes uneasy British-US relationship. For example, some communities resented British girls associating with Americans, with their so called utility knickers ‘one yank and they're down' etc.
Genuine German Wartime Propaganda leaflets
Here are some other interesting comparisons from the short guide:
- US pay rates were three to four times their British equivalent.
- Toilet paper was rationed, 30 sheets per day for US airman, just 4 sheets per day for the British.
- ‘US Intelligence' would identify beer delivery days to ‘raid' pubs, drinking them dry - not good.
- Fish and chip shops could be ‘eaten out' by hungry Yanks, also not good.
- The prices of bikes rose from £2 10s in 1943 to between £10 and £12 in 1944, because they were very popular with airman for getting around / going to the pub, often riding like wild men.
- Cigarettes and nylons became currency for airmen to barter with.
Having already endured three years of war, rationing and hardship, UK residents were used to going without many luxuries, particularly foodstuffs. The Americans brought some comfort, as they soon realised that simple gifts of food, tobacco and fruit were greatly appreciated by locals, particularly children, many of whom had never seen sweets, bananas, oranges or pineapples. Children quickly learnt that ‘got any gum chum?' created goodwill, and Yanks responded by unselfishly providing them with treats, and Christmas parties at the airbases which they would never forget. Funds for War Orphans were set up by the Stars & Stripes committees, helping many British youngsters. Coca Cola was popular with the British whilst women liked the imported nylons; Yanks liked our fish and chips but not our warm beer, our meat pies (not enough meat) or Brussels Sprouts (which they detested). Schools were invited to visit USAAF bases, and were ferried to and from by the airmen. In return, the Windmill Girls came from London to East Anglia, to ‘entertain the Americans'.
Ian also told us of some of the things brought here by the Americans, to great popular acclaim:
- Music and dance - the Lindy hop and Jitterbug - dances which remain popular today.
- Many US bases boasted great jazz and swing bands which were very popular.
- Glenn Miller became a legend after going missing in an air crash in December 1944.
- Many Hollywood stars served with the forces, incl Clark Gable, on whose head Hitler placed a large bounty for capture alive, & Jimmy Stewart, who took a $12K per month pay drop to join up.
- Airmen regularly visited UK schools to ‘fly the flag'.
- Anglo-US hospitality committees formed, along with sponsored clubs promoting goodwill.
- US Red Cross Clubs were set up and administered by the American Red Cross. These were in major towns and cities, with 15 clubs in central London alone. Rainbow Corner on Shaftesbury Av / Piccadilly Circus staffed 400, catered for 2,000, open 24/7, with 30,000 customers a day.
- At their peak, there were about 400 clubs around the UK, some13,000 volunteer staff with 10,000 paid personnel - a huge effort.
- Aero Clubs on bases were staffed by American Red Cross (ARC) and British girls, the latter vetted and with good references.
- The ARC established Friendship Clubs, where the two nations could freely mix.
- Dances were regularly held in village halls and on GI camps & bases.
The American Red Cross at Rainbow Corner near Piccadilly
US nurses arriving at the ARC Milestone Club
Red Cross mobile van ‘Rhode Island'
In addition to the work of the ARC, the British Young Woman's Christian Association created the Blue Triangle Service Corps, a pre-service group, to help prepare food for Anglo-American events.
Blue Triangle Service Corps prepare food for an Anglo-American evening
party in the kitchen of the -American club in Norwich, Norfolk.
Ian next told us of the less savoury side of Anglo-US relations in many large cities, but particularly London, by women of a professional nature who came to be called ‘Piccadilly Commandos'. This was in view of the brazen nature of their ‘assault on men in uniform'. Allegedly they could assess which army and what rank, in order to ‘set their rate', even on the darkest of London night smogs, simply by placing their hands in certain places!
The problem began in August 1942, 9 months after Pearl Harbour, and during the early stages of the huge US military build-up culminating in D-Day. They were so numerous and persistent that the Foreign Office judged them a serious threat to Anglo-American relations. Many young airmen later admitted to being scared to death when approached by the commandos. Those from small town America often had only the faintest notion of city life, seedy or otherwise; so many of the girls in Piccadilly were comically shameless that young airmen often ran for their lives to protect their virginity - some aircraft were even named after the girls of Piccadilly Circus.
B24 Piccadilly Commando
B17 Piccadilly Lilly II
In terms of race relations, the UK was miles better than the US, who Ian advised segregated their airmen, both in terms of crews and also where they could go for rest and recreation; some towns hosted alternate Black and White nights, whilst some pubs and dance halls became Black or White.
Tuskegee Airmen is the popular name of a group of African-American fighter pilots who fought in the war, having been trained in Tuskegee Alabama. Officially the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group, they faced racial discrimination both in and out of service. This name also applied to navigators, mechanics, bombardiers, instructors, crew chiefs, nurses, cooks and other personnel supporting the pilots. Known as the ‘Red Tails, 332 FG primarily flew P-51 Mustang fighters in Italy, claiming112 enemy aircraft, one destroyer, plus countless trucks and trains. Sadly150 Tuskegee airmen were killed in action.
Criminal activity inevitably occurred given the number of personnel involved. We were told that the UK Government passed the 1942 USA Visiting Forces Act, which provided that all criminal offences by members of the US Armed Forces ‘shall be removed from the jurisdiction of the British courts'. US personnel were henceforth arrested by US MPs, investigated, tried and sentenced in the UK by US authorities (as we did in France). By the end of 1944, 768 US soldiers were imprisoned and there had been18 executions: 16 hangings, 2 by firing squad; 9 for murder, 6 for rape & 3 for both crimes.
Ian told us there were between 60,000 and 70,000 GI brides, despite the US authorities actively discouraging such marriages; men were interviewed by their commanding officer and representative of their denomination, and had to obtain consent before undergoing a medical examination. Women needed written parental consent if under 21; they were also interviewed and medically examined.
After the war in Europe, suddenly the GI's and airmen were gone, back to America, leaving many women in an awful predicament, particularly if babies or young children were involved. Wives formed clubs to promote acquaintance with one another and to exchange information on American ways of living, including news about transportation to the US; this cost £40.00 first class and £29.00 second class - sums way beyond most means. There were demonstrations in October 1945 over the delays in joining husbands. In December 1945 the US Congress passed the War Bride's Act, granting special status regardless of immigration quotas. In January 1946 the first war bride ship, containing 452 brides with children and code named operation ‘Diaper Run' set sail, with just one weeks notice given. Ships departed from both Southampton and Liverpool, with the War Dept ultimately paying for some 60,000 one-way crossings.
We were then introduced to ‘A war brides guide to the USA', published by 'Good Housekeeping' magazine in 1945. The book set out to make their journey a little less fraught and nerve wracking, by providing information on the American way of life, and on how to get on with American people, their sense of humour, manners and more. Here are some of the interesting snippets from Ian:
- Dress your smartest and remember that lipstick is expected.
- Houses for people with small income are not Hollywood mansions.
- Your knife & fork system will seem strange to most Americans.
- Americans more nomadic; they travel a lot and move house often.
- There were suggestions on books to read and small town guide-lines versus city living.
- Wives were advised to not just sit down and die of home-sickness - ways of getting to know people were suggested - the YWCA, hobby groups etc.
- Wives were also advised that their social position would be what they and their husband made it. ‘There are different social levels - you will be placed in one, partly by your husband's job and where you live - no American can place you by your accent'.
- ‘An unwritten rule is that sports spectators may go quite wild and use violent language, but don't be shocked, it's all in fun'.
- Wives were also advised that ‘Americans are no angels - there is prejudice in some areas against black Americans, against Jews, against Catholics, against Japanese, some against the British'.
The 50 plus audience was completely enthralled throughout by Ian's tour de force performance, and we very much look forward to him returning next year with another spellbinding tale of US goings on during the second world war.
Our next event will be on 9th November at 7.30 in The Parish Room, when Geoffrey Kay will regale us with his talk on the Great Exhibition of 1851. This was the first international exhibition of manufactured products in the world, organised by Henry Cole and Prince Albert, and held in the purpose built Crystal Palace in Hyde Park.
We look forward to welcoming guests new and old to the Parish Room for what is going to be a fascinating evenings entertainment.
Andy Sheppard 14th October 2016