16. Sep, 2020

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WEDNESDAY 16-09-20

We had a lovely peaceful night , and if we hadn't had somewhere else to go would have stayed another day just to relax.

When researching Hethel airfield before this trip there was an interesting spin off, and so today we were to visit two former WW11 airfields. The first was at  Old Buckenham, near Attleborough, Norfolk (N52.496602° E1.052798°). This airfield was the home of the USAAF 453rd Bomb Group, flying B24 Liberator bombers. There is a museum on the airfield which would have been interesting had it been open. In fact when we approached the entrance to the airfield there were large signs up stating that due to Covid-19 the airfield was strictly out of bounds to the public. Having by then turned in to the roadway leading to it, I was not going to back out on to the road, so up the roadway I went. There was nobody about at all, so I was able to take a couple of quick pictures before leaving, just in case they had a sniper on the roof.

So next it was Tibenham airfield, and frustratingly to reach it we had to back track all the way back to our campsite from last night, then off in the opposite direction. It wouldn't normally be a problem, but the roads around here can be fairly narrow and twisting.

Today Tibenham airfield  (N52.458786° E1.162233°) is the home of the Norfolk Gliding Club www.norfolkglidingclub.com , who had very kindly given us permission to take a look round and park on the airfield overnight. So why the interest in Tibenham airfield? Well one of the pilot officers who served here was the famous Hollywood actor James Stewart.

So here's the story:

Jimmy had always been a flying enthusiast and whilst in Hollywood, sharing a house with Henry Fonda, he paid for flying lessons. By 1941 (the late start of the American’s in WWII) Stewart had both a private and commercial pilot’s license, owned a sporty Stinson 105 two-seater aircraft, and had logged more than 300 hours of personal flying time in his logbook.

He joined the military and because of his flying experience was assigned to the Army Air Corp. Too old for regular flying-cadet status, Stewart applied for training directly as an Army Air Corps pilot. He was accepted and immediately began an extensive schedule of flight training and ground school class work leading to a commission and pilot’s wings.

Stewart sought a position to train for combat duty. It was not in his nature to pull strings. He had received his commission and air corps pilot’s wings by merit, hard work, and devotion to duty; he would seek combat duty the same way. He became involved in training air crew at various airfields around the USA, before himself training on a B-17 qualifying him to fly four-engine bombers. But he found it difficult to escape the role of trainers because someone in the chain of command had placed a hold order in his personal file. In short, apparently nobody wanted to take the responsibility of sending a famous movie star into combat when, if shot down, he could become a valuable hostage for the enemy.

Setting his disappointment and heartbreak aside, he threw himself full force into the all-consuming task at hand. He flew around-the-clock as a B-17 instructor pilot and was soon promoted to captain and given more responsibility as squadron commander.

Hearing rumours that he would be taken off flying duties and assigned to making training films or selling war bonds, he took decisive action. Casting aside all reservations he went to see his CO Colonel Arnold and pleaded his case to be assigned to a combat role. His plea was sympathetically heard and James Stewart found himself joining the 445th Group of B-24 Liberator bombers in third-phase training at Sioux City, Iowa.

When Captain Stewart reported to Col. Bob Terrill at Sioux City, he felt like a new man. Soon he would be out of the country, in combat, and beyond the reach of those who might try to cast him in a movie. Here with the 445th there was a terrible immediate purpose to everything a man learned...

In exactly nineteen days, Colonel Terrill appointed the newcomer a squadron commander leading the 703rd squadron. Perhaps this assignment was more significant than any Stewart has received, when it is considered that no group commander, faced with departure for combat, would have promoted an officer to such a key position without cold-blooded appraisal.

Right from the beginning Stewart developed an easy, friendly, approachable rapport with both officers and men of his squadron. He had direct responsibility for over four-hundred men and twenty-four bombers. They all knew of his other life in Hollywood, and they also knew he was a crack pilot and leader, and the word had been passed down about his undaunted and sure-handed skill in the cockpit.

While his primary interest involved the flying crews, Stewart had a special affection for the often unheralded ground crewmen who maintained the complicated Liberators. He began his personal custom of always remaining at the control tower until his last crew had returned. This hands-on interest became Stewart’s signature during his WWII career.