For the last 70 years, East Anglia has hosted personnel from the United States Air Force (USAAF) since the “friendly invasion” during the Second World War and this week the role of the first American airmen to arrive in the region was celebrated at a special festival.

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The USAAF Festival was the brainchild of local American Air Force historian Clive Stevens, who lives on the edge of the former American heavy bomber airfield at Eye and featured a number of events at Coney Weston, Brome and Hardwick to celebrate the 388th Bomber Group which served at Knettishall airfield.

The festival began on Thursday with two events at the Cornwallis Country Hotel in Brome including a talk by aviation historian Ian McLachlan on USAAF aviation archaeology and a presentation by Mr Stevens give on the “friendly invasion” and the story of the American Eighth Air Force in the region during the war.

On Saturday, a new airfield memorial was unveiled dedicated to the servicemen from the 388th Heavy Bombardment Group of the United States Eighth Army Air Force who lost their lives in the second world war.

A memorial dedication ceremony, organised by the 388th Bomber Group Memorial Committee, to mark the 70th anniversary of the arrival of the first American airmen to be based in the country and the wartime personnel at Knettishall airfield took place at Coney Weston followed by a flying display by the Sally B B17 Flying Fortress.

Poignantly, USAAF personnel currently based at RAF Lakenheath dressed up in similar uniforms to those worn by the bomber crews and appeared just as the stories of the airmen were told to the memorial service.

There was also a 1940s Big Band Hangar Dance in dress from the time on Saturday evening at the former USAAF airfield at Hardwick and a museum open day on the Sunday with a world war aircraft exhibition at Airfield Farm, Topcroft.

In all, the 388 Group’s air crews flew 306 combat missions over Europe during their time in East Anglia, losing 91 aircraft, 524 men killed in action, 801 taken prisoner and two missing.

A number of relatives of 388 air crews had travelled from America for the festival, including Dick Henggeler, from Baltimore, whose father Francis was a squadron commander and B-17 pilot who flew 27 missions, including supporting the D-Day landings in northern France.

He also flew in the Poltava mission to eastern Germany when the bombers landed in Russia to refuel, but were bombed by the Luftwaffe, losing 75pc of the aircraft.

Mr Henggeler described how seeing the military vehicles on display, the airmen in the original uniforms and hearing the Sally B overhead enabled him to imagine what life was like in the 1940s for his father, who died on December 15, aged 95.

He said: “I think my father would have been blown away by the festival. He has come back several times since his service and always attended the reunions in the states and that was the highlight of the year for him, going to the reunions and seeing his comrades. He would have been very proud and honoured by the tribute and what the committee has done to remember the 388th Bomb Group.”

Olivia Leydenfrost’s father Robert Leidenfrost also served as a bombardier with the 388th Bomb Group, flying on 21 missions over Europe, including one to provide food to the Dutch people.

Mrs Leydenfrost, who holds dual US/UK citizenship and lives in London, said: “I thought the memorial service was very powerful and moving, especially having the airmen dressed in the uniform, it made it very real to us.”

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