A special visit to Norfolk for Second World War veterans
07:00 30 May 2014
A group of American WWII veterans have been back in Norfolk this week with their families - visiting parts of the county they have never had the chance to see and sharing their stories for a special project.
Seven veterans from the 2nd Air Division of WWII were joined by more than 40 other members of The Heritage League - set up in 1987 to preserve the memory and legacy of that division - and laid wreaths at Madingley American Cemetery, visited the USAAF Memorial Library at The Forum, the Archive Centre at County Hall and been on a trip to Blickling Hall.
They have also visited their old bases - with Burton Madison, 91, and Oliver ‘Mo’ Morris, 92, going back to Old Buckenham Airfield where they served with two Hollywood stars - operations officer James Stewart and parachute rigger Walter Matthau.
“Even though I was based at Old Buckenham, I have never been to Norwich before,” said Mr Madison, of Kansas City.
“We got on our bikes and went to the pubs in Attleborough and Old Buck, but we never got as far as Norwich. We used to get up at 3am and go to the mess hall and they fed us the best food available, because it might be our last trip. Then Jimmy Stewart would tell us what our mission was, we’d go and get our parachutes from Walter Mattau and get in our planes.”
Bob Birmingham, 88, of Greendale, Wisconsin, was just 18 when he went to war.
His story features in a Swedish book called Red Dog - a translation of which can be found at the Millenium Library.
Mr Birmingham and his brother Frank were both sent to Horsham St Faith Air Base, now Norwich Airport, and lived three blocks apart.
“We were the only brothers to serve together,” he said.
“When he flew, I was waiting for him to come home and when I flew, he was waiting for me to come back. But after my fifth mission, I didn’t come back. Our plane was shot to pieces and we couldn’t get back to England, so we decided to go to the nearest neutral country - Sweden. I was there for seven months, but my brother only found out where I was when he got a letter from my mother in America.”
Mr Birmingham, who paid an emotional visit to Norwich Airport on Wednesday, said his mother received a letter from the Pentagon saying her son was in a neutral country, but gave no further details.
After months of helping prepare planes to fly, he went back to England and then back to America.
Four generations of his family have made the trip to Norfolk with Mr Birmingham, who lost his wife last year.
His son Jim, who is a veteran of the Vietnam war, said: “My dad and his brother are really close - but the family always joke that no-one wants to hear about all the missions my uncle went on, they only want to hear about my dad going to Sweden.
This is my first trip to England and it’s really great for these guys to come over here and get the recognition they deserve.”
The trip, which ended with a gala dinner at the Maids Head Hotel in Norwich where the group stayed, also saw the veterans filmed for a special USSAF Memorial Library project.