Keeping warm

Robert Harper served as a navigator with the 486th Bomb Group 832 Squadron. The speech he gave in 2009 when he came to open the 486  Memorial Display in our Sudbury Heritage Centre is available elsewhere on this website. These extracts are from his autobiography, “Blind Lucky in Love, in War – and Ever Since!”

At Sudbury we were again in quonsets (nissen huts), as in Iceland and Valley. As always, officers were separated from enlisted men. After weeks of constant cold we found our new hut very cozy. Like our Icelandic quarters, it only had a tiny stove in the centre of the long hut. But, previous residents had long ago knocked away the stove’s firebrick lining. It was essentially a galvanised can filled with burning coal. When the metal turned red it could really give out heat. The only problem was getting enough coal. Coal in England was rationed, and there was not enough on the base. Necessity was our invention: we found that the chaplain’s office had a good supply and we regularly raided it.

We had to go to the messhall block to shower. The large shower space was unheated but was located there because it supposedly had access to the hot water system of the kitchen, the only source of hot water on the base. In fact, the shower water was no warmer than the water in our squadron ablutions hut. With the icy water in the chilly room where the temperature was about 50 degrees, showering required great care and finesse. The technique involved the combination of several carefully conceived steps (1) being bare a minimum of time and (2) opening the overhead shower spigot as little as possible to produce a tiny trickle of the icy water (3) standing as far back from the flow as possible while gingerly dabbing a moistened washcloth here and there over the body. We did not bathe very often – mostly on leave in a London hotel!

Our clothes were washed in town. A little old man on a bicycle came to the barracks each week and filled huge bags with dirty clothes, then walked the bike, piled high over his head with clothes bags, to town where the clothes were washed – we knew not how. They came back clean and neat with tiny loops of colored thread that identified each individual customer. About one a month we ‘dry cleaned’ our uniforms in a bucket of aviation fuel down near the flight line.

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