Recently, public attention has been given to “The Greatest Generation” of Americans. They are the American World War II generation, so dubbed by former NBC television news anchorman, journalist, and author Tom Brokaw. While much justifiable attention has been given to veteran reunions and family visits to the French beaches of Normandy, that is but one gathering place for America’s aged warriors.
A Chance Meeting
A friend of mine told me an extraordinary tale of three generations of an American family who had come to England to honor their family patriarch, a P-51 Mustang pilot of the U.S. Army Air Corps (USAAC), the predecessor of today’s U.S. Air Force. My friend likes to study American combat history. He was in London for a business trip. In his off time, he planned to see some of the Eighth Air Force airfields that were active during World War II. Using an online USAAC airfield map, he intended to stay fairly close to London. After giving his presentation to a large audience, his host thanked him. Then he asked my friend if he planned to see some of the local sights. My friend said that he did, and he specifically mentioned that he would visit the American war cemetery at Cambridgeshire. Someone in the audience stood up and said that he was going there too, and he asked to speak with my friend.
Site of Steeple Morden Airfield
Sometimes we meet someone for the first time and find ourselves experiencing an unexpected kinship, as if we have discovered a long-lost relative of our ancestral tribe. These two men had that experience. My friend was invited to join the other man’s family for a trip to Steeple Morden Airfield to see where his grandfather had been stationed with the 355th Fighter Group. This family was large, about 35 people, and they all graciously welcomed my friend aboard their tour bus. A British war historian guided the trip to the Steeple Morden site, some areas near it, and finally, a visit to the American cemetery. Family members spanned three generations. However, sadly, no “Greatest Generation” member was among them. Well, not physically. My friend was overwhelmed by stories, photographs, newspaper clippings, and some actual memorabilia that each member of this close-knit family desperately wanted to share with him. He felt that they all wanted him to know that Grand-dad and Grand-mom mattered, and that all of them mattered because of them. When the bus pulled up to the site, they were all stunned to see that very little remained of the airfield. The land upon which it was built was “requisitioned” from three area farmers. At the end of the war, the land was returned to the farmers, who did not need an airfield. The Pig and Abbot Pub The historian suggested that they should go to a pub in the village of Litlington that the pilots and crews would have visited frequently. With difficulty, he got the entourage into The Pig and Abbot, where they consoled themselves with stout, kidney pie, fish, and chips. The grandchildren produced a box of letters, letters that their great-grandfather had sent home while he was stationed at Steeple Morden. Each grandchild took turns reading the letters aloud. This drew a crowd of mostly local British citizens. Some of these citizens spoke up, shared their memories or stories from the elders about the young Americans who were billeted at Litlington while they served at the Steeple Morden air base. My friend saw how something had happened, something like must have happened in that place in 1943, a camaraderie developing between people from different lands.
The Crown Public House
An elderly man was wheeled into the Pig and Abbot by his nephew. A local customer, this was his once-a-week treat of a Guinness Irish Dry Stout and special time to spend with his nephew. After awhile, he picked up on the family name and why all of the Americans were there. “I know that name,” he recalled. I have seen that name written on a photograph that hangs on a wall.” Quickly, the historian ran over to find out where. Now, the 35 Americans, my friend, and about half of the patrons of the Pig and Abbott hurried over to the Crown Public House, another Litlington pub. Grand-dad once crossed an ocean to fight alongside the British in a great war. At a pub in Litlington, he crossed an ocean of time to be with his family again!
The Ties that Bind
My friend did not want to deny any of the family a good position, so he drifted to the back of the pack. There, he was able to see the reactions of each family member as he/she found the framed black-and-white photograph of four young American airmen hoisting an ale. All of them had signed their names. This family had found Grand-dad! He and his friends were so young, their eyes had that twinkle of the unconquered spirit of youth. All at once, individual family members squealed with delight, chattered incessantly, or they wept! This moment could not have been any less extraordinary if they had all just landed in heaven to see family that had passed on. Cell phones came out. The youngest raced to see who could hook up with Grand-mom quickest. She was still alive! She was too old to make the trip, but she was the one who had urged her husband to make this trip for years. When Grand-dad passed away, it became a family quest to make the trip for him. When she was reached, the caller put her cell phone on speaker so that everyone could say something to Grand-mom about what they saw. Just as at the Pig and Abbot, local British citizens tuned in and became part of the celebration of the life of the young American who once stood at the tip of the American spear in World War II. After awhile, the historian circulated among the adults to inquire if it should be time to board the bus to visit the American cemetery. He got some nods, but everyone had trouble with letting this moment pass. The man who had invited my friend turned to him and said tearfully that this was one of the finest moments of his life. “I can’t believe it is over,” he said. Suddenly, that man’s eight-year-old daughter snatched up Grand-dad’s letters out of her backpack, the ones that she had been allowed to carry and read. She jumped up on a chair with those letters clutched in her hand to tell everyone, “It’s not over! I’m going to bring my children here one day!” Her entire family let out a whoop of joy! “Bravo, young lady!” the British shouted. “Bravo!”