On Monday, August 17th 1942, twelve American bombers took off for Rouen, France. They were the main force of eighteen bombers sent under Royal Air Force fighter escort. Their target was a marshaling yard. They returned to base at exactly seven in the evening. Not a plane was lost, and the only significant damage to them was inflicted by a pigeon colliding with the nose of one ship.
That Monday was a great celebration for the Americans. It was the first US heavy bomber raid for a unit called the Eighth Bomber Command. It proved, at least in the minds of the Americans, that heavy bomber raids could be successfully carried out in daytime with minimal casualties. August 17th was the first sputtering of a machine that would later become the US Eighth Air Force. By the war’s end, the Eighth would be the largest air force of its type in the world, able to send 2,000 bombers and 1,000 fighters on a single mission. Of the 1.5 million Americans to pass through Britain during World War Two, 350,000 of them belonged to the Eighth Air Force. Their mission was to take out the German military, not in the field, but at home, depriving it of the ability and desire to make war. Their battleground would be the skies of Europe, and their front line, the green fields of East Anglia.
It was England and the English that had the largest effect on the daily lives of the Eighth Air Force. It was a country most of them had not known outside of books or geography class but a place that would become their home for their duration of the war. It was the fields of England that would say goodbye to them and greet their return from a mission, it was England that wounded planes and desperate men prayed to reach. At night, or on days off, the Americans would leave their bomber fields and bicycle down old roads into towns, drinking warm beer and meeting admiring ladies and school children. When these men were lucky, they could get a pass into London. There they could see a show, watch a movie or meet a girl and perhaps forget about flying for a bit. When night fell, and the city went black and the air raids sounded, the men would go to a shelter packed with women and children and remember why they were fighting.
England would leave an indelible mark on the lives of the Americans who served there. They in turn would leave their mark on England. Their legacy would be left on the men and women who met them, the children who grew up with them, and in the towns and fields of East Anglia, where the young Americans lived, played and died.