Can you help trace family of wartime US airman killed in Norfolk B-24 Liberator drama?

PUBLISHED: 19:33 10 February 2016

Derick Grey as a boy. 


Derick Grey as a boy. Picture: SUBMITTED

Archant Norfolk 2016

It was the afternoon of October 7, 1944 that the war came closest to the village of Southrepps, near Cromer.

The B-24 Liberator The B-24 Liberator "Buzz Bomb" after its forced landing in a field at Southrepps. Picture: SUBMITTED

Derick Grey, a ten-year-old schoolboy, was walking along Green Lane with friends when a stricken US B-24 Liberator swooped low over their heads and disappeared from view.

The children raced after it and saw it had landed in a field, south of Thorpe Market Road and to the east of the Norwich-to-Cromer railway line.

Two crew members were standing on top of the aircraft, a third was safe inside. Police soon arrived, the area was cordoned off and the children shooed away.

The other seven members of the crew had bailed out. Of them, six had survived, but the parachute of one - Sgt Edward J Mire, a gunner - had failed to open. His body was found later, six miles away, at Suffield.

Derick Grey with some of his research documents. Picture: MARK BULLIMOREDerick Grey with some of his research documents. Picture: MARK BULLIMORE

Two of the aircraft’s four engines had failed as it headed for a raid on Germany, forcing the crew to make an emergency landing. But, remarkably, those who remained on board managed to execute such a text book landing that the aircraft - “Buzz Bomb” - while in need of repair, remained salvageable.

All that was needed - apart from the repairs - was a runway to get it back in the air. So the Americans descended on the village and set about building one.

Over the next six weeks, a temporary runway was assembled out of steel sheets. Initially, it sank into the mud, but, once straw was layered underneath, was strong enough to get the bomber airborne once more and back to its 458th Bomb Group’s Horsham St Faith base.

Mr Grey, now 81, and of Cradle Wood Road, North Walsham, still has vivid memories of the crash and its dramatic aftermath. Over the years he has researched it extensively, but has one loose end he is now trying to tie up - to track down the family of the tragic gunner, Sgt Mire.

The Memorial Avenue in Southrepps which includes a tree in memory of Sgt Eward J Mire. Picture: MARK BULLIMOREThe Memorial Avenue in Southrepps which includes a tree in memory of Sgt Eward J Mire. Picture: MARK BULLIMORE

“That was an exciting time for us boys,” he said. I can still remember it all. But now, I would really like to know that Sgt Mire’s family knows we haven’t forgotten him.”

About 20 years ago, Mr Grey told the story to Peter Sladden, owner of Southrepps Hall. Mr Sladden had established a Memorial Avenue of trees along the village’s Long Lane, commemorating local people lost in the two world wars. And he was happy to add another tree, in memory of Sgt Mire. A service of Remembrance is held at the site every year.

But Mr Grey is troubled that any family of Sgt Mire, probably living in the USA, will be unaware that their relative is honoured and remembered in north Norfolk.

He is hoping that publicity will lead to the story getting mentioned on websites and through social media, and that it will eventually reach anyone who knew, or is related, to him.

Hairy return home for B-24

If the arrival of the B-24 Liberator “Buzz Bomb” was dramatic, its departure was even more so.

Normally, the aircraft would need about 4,00ft of runway for take off. In the Southrepps field, there was only 1,500ft.

In order to give the aircraft the best possible chance, all its radio gear and other non-essential equipment were removed and only 20 minutes of fuel left aboard.

The right atmospheric conditions, with maximum lift, came on November 17 1944 - but visibility was poor and all aircraft in the area were grounded.

Capt Tommy Land, from Memphis, Tennessee, was at the controls.

With great skill he managed the take-off in late afternoon, but visibility dropped to almost nil and there were no navigation aids aboard.

Lost, at just 200ft, and with 10 minutes fuel left, the three-man crew saw the flickering of torches below, carried by pedestrians on the streets of Norwich.

“At that moment of realisation I became petrified,” Capt Land later recalled. “Norwich Cathedral’s spire is jutting up somewhere, 315 feet high. Pull up, get some more altitude fast!! Too late. It just flashed by while we watched.”

Miraculously, the bomber had earlier passed over RAF Attlebridge where its markings had been recognised. RAF Horsham St Faith was alerted and the base, in strict violation of regulations in such conditions, had lit up its night approach lane. The B-24 crew saw the amber lights below and was able to make a text-book landing.

An account of the aircraft’s return to RAF Horsham St Faith was recorded by George A Reynolds in the 1970s.

He recalled the excitement he and his friends felt as the US descended on the crash site. Mr Grey remembers cycling past now and then and asking “Have you got any gum, chum?” He added: “They were ready for us and always gave us what they called ‘candy’.”

On one occasion, one of his friends invited a GI home for tea, and Mr Grey went too. “We all sat down and, just before we were about to start, he said: ‘Just a moment. We will say grace before we eat.’ I’ve never forgotten that,” he said.

The B-24s engines were often tested during that period but the young Derick knew, as he sat and ate tea one Sunday, that the noise he could hear meant the aircraft was taking off.

He raced to watch and caught a sight of it, lifting into the air and heading towards the railway line and Gunton Station.

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