Living History

On a recent trip to coastal Norway and the Arctic Circle, my husband and I spent some time in Southampton before embarking on our cruise. The port city on England’s southern coast is delightful and welcoming, well worth a visit. As we discovered, it is full of history that we knew little about. It was the departure port for the ill-fated inaugural sailing of the Titanic, and it was also the port from which the Mayflower sailed in 1620 with its 102 passengers and 30 crew members.

It is a charming city, and there was a distinctive air of festivity when we were there, buildings festooned with the Union Jack and banners in the streets. Smiling likenesses of Queen Elizabeth II greeted us everywhere we went, and the mood was distinctively celebratory. The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee was officially proclaimed for the long weekend of June 2 through 5, with special events planned to continue for at least a month. We arrived in Southampton on Sunday, June 12.

When we returned to Southampton 17 days later, we found that little had changed. England was still celebrating the queen’s 70 years on the throne. We found that to be true as we journeyed north to Suffolk and spent a few days in London before boarding our return flight to the United States on July 5.

Little did we expect that only about two months later, we would hear the news of the queen’s death. And we could not imagine, at the time, the outpouring of grief from around the world that would greet that news. As I watched news coverage from around the world in the days before the state funeral on September 19, I was pleased that we had been fortunate enough to visit Elizabeth’s England while she was still queen. Sadly, we did not take a tour of Windsor while we were there. But, watching the funeral procession make its way through London, I recognized many of the streets we had so recently traversed.

I felt, oddly enough, that I had been witness to history simply by being there. Forty years or so have passed since a previous trip to London. But, like Rome, Paris, Tokyo, Buenos Aires, and other world capitals, London is an eternal treasure. Much of it remains the same, but it is more diverse and infinitely more crowded than when I was last there. Modern steel and glass buildings, whimsical modern art, the London Eye and the London Shard, and both the cable cars that whisk passengers above the Thames and the RIB boats that carry passengers at high speed on the river somehow complement rather than compete with slow-moving river taxis. They have become nearly as iconic as double-decker buses and traditional black cabs.

London may be unique in the world. For one, it is the home of a monarchy that, by all accounts, seems alive and well, especially today after its record-setting ruling queen has passed the crown, along with the orb and sceptre of the title, to her son, King Charles III.

I watched the ceremonial events of the past week in awe, with an awareness that an event of this magnitude will not happen again in my lifetime, perhaps never again. I was up early to watch the funeral on my large-screen TV, along with an estimated four billion viewers worldwide, deemed to be the largest global television audience in history.

Some of us around the world watched the queen’s coronation on early black and white television; many more have tuned in to watch royal weddings and funerals of world leaders in real time and full color. But this was different, somehow.

More than one million Britons lined the procession routes to pay tribute as the cortege bearing the queen’s flag-draped coffin made its way from Balmoral, Scotland, to Edinburgh, and later from Buckingham Palace through London to Westminster and back, and, finally, to Windsor

There were poignant moments amidst the traditions and prescribed ceremony. The outpouring of public love and respect was acknowledged by the royal family as they greeted well-wishers who laid flowers outside various palaces. They endured public scrutiny and performed their prescribed roles tirelessly and flawlessly for 11 days. The military, church leaders, government officials, and representatives of other nations, rose to the demands of duty and tradition.

And now we will all move into a future that is still to be written, by a monarch who has waited a lifetime to become king surrounded by family members who have demonstrated that they are, in a very real sense, as human as the rest of us.

That’s something to be remembered, within and beyond the United Kingdom.  

77 Years Ago — Another Time and Place

A new fighter group was activated on June 1, 1943 and was assigned to the Los Angeles Air Defense Wing, IV Fighter Command, of the United States Fourth Air Force at March Field, California. One week later, three squadrons were assigned to the group, each with a cadre of 40 enlisted men; The squadrons were led by captains, while a lieutenant colonel commanded the group.

The group moved to Van Nuys, California, in August, and by mid-September, each squadron had a roster of between 40 and 44 officers and from 189 to 217 enlisted men. Training intensified in October to include mock dogfights in the air over the Pacific, with the three squadrons flying out of separate fields in Southern California.

Sadly, during training, a number of aircraft crashed and several pilots were injured or lost their lives.

Just after Christmas, the 364th Fighter Group passed muster and was deemed ready to engage an enemy. At that time, men assigned to the group did not know where they would be going. The question was answered when, on January 13, orders were received and the next day, the entire group departed California on a troop train bound for New York, arriving five days later. The men received final physicals and 12-hour passes on a staggered basis until, at about 8 p.m. on February 1, all were boarded onto another train, then transferred to ferries in New York Harbor, arriving at a cargo dock under cover of night.

A first-hand account of that night is in the history book of the 364th, produced in 1991 by those who had survived the ensuing months and years of war, and finally were ready to share their memories of it.

“We had time to guzzle hot coffee (viewed now in retrospect as a fabulous luxury) and doughnuts proffered by the Red Cross. The more enterprising, though perhaps not too security-minded, of the squadron were able to learn from the M.P.s that our ship was the Queen Elizabeth, that we would go unescorted, and land in Glasgow in seven days. All of which predictions proved correct.”

The ship, planned as a luxury transatlantic liner, had been outfitted earlier as a troop carrier, and she did, indeed, sail to Europe with precious cargo, but with no military escort. The men of the 364th Fighter Group, now part of the 8th Air Force in Europe, boarded a train immediately upon disembarkation for transfer to Honington Field in Suffolk, England, “where both officers and enlisted men were quartered in more luxurious quarters than we had ever had in the United States of America.”

Mission No. 1 was flown by two of the squadrons of the 364th Fighter Group on March 2, 1944, less than one month after arriving in England. They “supplied withdrawal for bombers returning from Germany.” The account of that first mission notes: “Lt. Kenneth Nicholson had to abort. Returning on one engine, he belly landed the P-38. The plane was the only casualty.”

During the rampup to D-Day, operations for the 364th Fighter Group were “costly,” with the loss of 18 pilots in May and 137 planes aborted. It was just the third month of combat for the group

On June 5, 50 P-38s were a part of Mission 62, termed an “area support mission” in the official records. The invasion fleet had departed from the English coast, and “Neptune” had begun. Missions 63 through 117 were flown in the 10-day period from June 6 through June 15. The following day, the three squadrons of the 364th Fighter Group returned to flying “normal” combat missions.

Once again, from the history of the 364th Fighter Group:

“Major Brad McManus led off the first section of the 383rd at 0330 hours with 16 planes flying. The take-off was in a blinding rain and trying to make formation over the base was a challenge to say the least. . . .

“On the day’s last mission of the 8th of June, Lt. Loren Wilson (383rd) was heard to say over the R/T, ‘Hell, B.B. (his flight leader, Lt. B.B. Wilson) I’ve lost you. I’m going back.’ Lt. Wilson never returned to the base and a crashed P-38 was later found south of London. This was the only loss the Group suffered while flying 321 sorties.”

Today, on the 77th anniversary of D-Day, I cannot help but return to the entries that detail this one American fighter group’s part in that war. Just last week, on Memorial Day, we paid tribute to those who lost their lives, not only on D-Day, but in all the battles waged by this country against foes around the world.

However, for me, World War II remains unique. My father was there — first in California to train with the newly-formed fighter group. He was on that five-day troop train journey from the West Coast to the East, and he was on board as the liner decked out in battleship grey, the ship he called “the Lizzie,” made her way unescorted from New York to Scotland. He was there at Honington on June 6. He was 25 years old. Even though he did not fly, I know he waited with concern for planes and pilots to return from each mission. I know he grieved when they did not return as scheduled.

He did not talk about those days, nor did he talk much about the war, or about other battles in other wars. I suspect he carried vivid memories of the war years, but he chose not to share them with me. But the pride he felt about being a member of the 364th Fighter Group during World War II was something he never hid.

The last Mission of the 364th was flown from Honington on May 6, 1945, not quite two years after the fighter group’s activation. During its short life span it achieved a remarkable record, flying P-38s and, later, P-51s. My father returned home from England in July 1945, with the expectation of being transferred to the the Pacific Theater of Operations. Thankfully, the war ended before he received his orders. The fighter group was deactivated on November 10, 1945.

So, now I try to piece together the stories I wish I had heard from him, and I share his pride in the unit, and the service members — all of them — who played a part in the effort that culminated in D-Day 1945.