World War II – The Americans in Sudbury 1944/45

Robert Harper is a past President of the 486th B.G. Veteran’s Association. On November 8 2009 he made a special journey across the Atlantic to come to our Sudbury Heritage Centre and unveil our new 486th displays. Images of that ceremony and the displays can be seen in ‘ Photo Gallery – 65 years on’. These are extracts from his very moving speech:

The young Robert Harper

The young Robert Harper

“Those of us who flew from the base were scarcely more than boys (I had my 21st birthday between my eight and ninth missions). We were overseas for the first time – far from loved ones at home. My wife Sally and I had been married less than four months when I arrived.

In those days before cell phones or internet, even trans-Atlantic phones, we were almost completely isolated from our personal worlds so far away. What news we got came by mail on ships that took ten days or more to make the crossing. Mail came in batches with weeks between letters. On base we were afraid to make friends outside our own crew, such a friend might not make it back from the next mission.

We were soldiers doing our jobs – nasty jobs, dangerous jobs, physically demanding jobs. But at heart we were civilians. Each of us was more centred on his own particular situation than on the war. The question foremost in our lives was: would we make it home tonight? On days when we didn’t fly, we would sit on our bunks and think about our situation. In all this we were lonely.

When we left the base on a pass, we wanted to forget the war, flying and our troubles. We wanted to have fun. It was a way to relieve the tension. It was while off base letting off steam that we first met the people of Sudbury. Self-indulgent as we were, we thought very little about you – our hosts – about the suffering in your lives, your own privations. Remember we were very young, full of ourselves, oozing with testosterone. We were rude and crude to you. To us you were the foreigners. England had been something in a history book or a geography class.

Despite our faults you indulged us, were kind to us and we began to realise that you were suffering just like us. You befriended us when we needed friendship. Our common meeting place was the pubs, There you talked and laughed with us. We learned to drink warm beer but, more importantly, we learned that a pub was a warm, friendly place, full of nice people not very different from our families back home. You greeted us on the street, in church, at the railway station. Base trucks brought girls to dances in our NCO club. Sudburians invited us into their homes.

L to R: Front Hank Fulton, engineer; Ed Krawcyk, radio; Jack Crabtree, pilot; Rear Les Pleshke, mickeyman (radar); Harry Barnes, co-pilot; Bob Harper, navigator.

L to R: Front Hank Fulton, engineer; Ed Krawcyk, radio; Jack Crabtree, pilot; Rear Les Pleshke, mickeyman; Harry Barnes, co-pilot; Bob Harper, navigator.

Air crews stayed only a couple of months completing their tours of first 25, and then 30 missions, before returning to the US but the rest of the base complement, administrators, mechanics, cooks, medical personnel and military police remained throughout the war. For some of those men you became more than friends; you were surrogate parents and family. Some men married local girls and when the war finally ended we all celebrated that glorious V E day together.”

(He paid a particular tribute to Roley Andrews who as a teenager befriended the Americans and afterwards amassed ‘the world’s largest collection of 486th history and memorabilia’ spearheading the move to form the 486th Group Association in the late 1970s.)

”When groups from our Association came back to visit you treated us like royalty but each time we came there were fewer of us. The men of the 486th present and past are proud to say we were based in Sudbury. We are honoured too that you remember us. We are thrilled that the memory of the 486th is included this museum.

Most of us have lived long productive lives. But it’s been 64 years since were left Sudbury and there are not many of us left. Only 22 of us attended our recent reunion. Where our association once had over 1,000 members there are now about 200 of us.

We are here to honour not those of us who lived but those who didn’t make it through the war. Who lived or died was basically a matter of chance. When we flew into a solid carpet of flak over the target, flying straight and level until the bombs were dropped, it was inevitable that most planes and some men would be hit.

Our planes were tough old birds, so that with a hole in the wing or in the tail structure or with just one engine hit we could make it home. Those hit in the fuel tanks or with their flying controls severed faced disaster. It was just a matter of chance who lived, who died.

Bob Harper (left) just after the unveiling.

Bob Harper (left)just after the unveiling.

We who survived grieve for our lost comrades. They may not have been heroes but they were martyrs. No one should have to die as they died. No one should have to die in their teens or early twenties losing the flower of their lives, career, marriage children. We who served with them and lived are pleased that they are honoured in perpetuity in the town that was their second home.”