The USAAF at Hethel

The Friendly 'Invasion'

The USAAF

Hethel airfield was built for the 389th Heavy Bombardment Group 2nd Air Division of the American Airforce. Today, all that remains of Station 114 (Hethel's designation) is the building that served as the gym and the chapel, the control tower, plus a few chimneys of accommodation units and some air raid shelters and blast walls. Today the gym and chapel, along with some Nissen huts, house an exhibition that is open one Sunday a month in the summer. There is a map of the airfield nd information on some of the personnel and aircraft at the American Air Museum website.

Wall painting in the old base Chapel - now part of the museum
Wall painting in the old base Chapel - now part of the museum

Bill Alborough's MEMORIES:

In World War Two, 122 airfields were constructed for the USAAF - mostly in East Anglia. Our nearest was Hethel. It was started in 1941 and completed in late 1942. I was involved with its construction! I was eleven at the time and used to travel with Mr Bert Bailey,a neighbour of ours, in his Bedford lorry to collect sand and gravel to take to Hethel airfield to make the runways.

John Larter, Peter Haverson & Barry Dent beneath a B24 bomber at Hethel near the end of the war
John Larter, Peter Haverson & Barry Dent beneath a B24 bomber at Hethel near the end of the war

There were some comings and goings by American aircrew as early as November 1942 [a 12th Air Force Group en route to North Africa] but the first permanent residents came in June 1943 when the 389th Bomber Group arrived with B24 Liberators. Their first wartime mission took place on September 7th 1943. I well remember watching them from Mulbarton School taking off for raids and forming their tight formations before setting off for their target, mainly in Germany. This would be about 10 am as the Americans were responsible for daylight raids and the RAF for the night raids. After school we would sometimes go to Hethel and watch the aircraft landing from a nearby road. We now know, from history, how hazardous these daylight raids were, but even then we knew how dangerous it was by the sight of some of the damaged aircraft staggering back. If an aircraft had injured crew on board it would fire a cartridge before landing.

Memorial in Hethel churchyard giving details of ops.
Memorial in Hethel churchyard giving details of ops.

Off duty airmen, known as GIs, soon found their way to Mulbarton. Some bought bikes from Mr Frost's garage. The World's End was soon overwhelmed and was frequently out of beer. I remember, after a hard day in the harvest fields and dying for a drink, my father complaining, "The Yanks have drunk the pub dry!"

A Saturday Night Dance was organised by Mrs Nicholls in the Wingfield Hall and Mulbarton was introduced to Jitter-Bugging! There was a continuous flow of US military vehicles through Mulbarton at the time and standing on the corner near Mrs Funnell's corner shop was not too safe.

The Americans were looked on with a certain amount of envy, of course. Their uniforms were good quality; they wore ties and shoes and had lots of money. They were generous to us locals and the expression "Got any gum, chum?" was common. Most of my friends collected American gum wrappers, so to be different I collected Candy wrappers. Needless to say, this was a very romantic period in the life of Mulbarton. Most girls of eligible age had an American boyfriend.

The children from Mulbarton and other schools around were invited to Hethel for a Christmas party. I assume it will have been 1944. We were well fed and got presents, but the best bit for me was skidding about in a jeep in the mud! It was said that an aircraft was sent up to a great height so as to freeze the icecream. [Several other Mulbarton residents remember that party, where they tasted ice-cream for the first time ever - wonderful chocolate ice-cream says Evelyn Smith!]

In May 1945 the European War ended and the Americans left. It all seemed very sudden. I went to Hethel just before. We were allowed on the base and I was given a pair of boots which I treasured. I tried to make off with some sheets but a Military Policeman with a gun told me to put them back and I didn't argue! My father bought a bike from Mr Frost which had been sold back by a G.I.

Life was never to be quite the same in Mulbarton.

US Airmen in uniform outside back of World’s End, with Mr. W. H. (Billy) Swift (Landlord) on right. Oct. 1943
US Airmen in uniform outside back of World’s End, with Mr. W. H. (Billy) Swift (Landlord) on right. Oct. 1943

Other Memories

The Americans based at Hethel were a familiar sight in the village. Dances were held every Saturday in the Wingfield Hall, though I was too young to go. They gave us schoolchildren Christmas parties. We were collected in an Army truck; we were all given a present, and that's where I had my first taste of ice cream.           Evelyn Smith (nee Stackyard)

Charlie Frost did well out of the Americans - he provided a taxi service, and he sold a lot of bikes! At the end of the war, he bought back some of those bikes, repaired them and sold them second-hand.

John Larter, Peter Haverson & Barry Dent on a visit to Hethel - note the bikes!
John Larter, Peter Haverson & Barry Dent on a visit to Hethel - note the bikes!

The Americans used to cycle over to the World's End. Some lads I knew would take the valves out of the tyres, then when they came out and found their tyres flat would appear and offer help - only to replace the valves and pump the tyres up again. There was usually a good tip for such mischief!                                        (Chris Mickleburgh)

Several local ladies got work in the NAAFI at Hethel. And there were not a few romances....

Photo above: US Airmen with locals outside World's End: L>R The GI who married 2nd from left, Betty Nicholls (daughter of the lady who organised the dances); another GI from Hethel; Mr. W.H. (Billy) Swift (Landlord) Charlie Elvin (ploughman and watch-mender, who lived in cottage on Norwich Road); Bertie Breeze (who lived by pond); Mrs. Swift; and another GI. (photos of GIs at World's End contributed by Mrs. Swift)

People also remember an accident near the Tradesmen's Arms when an ambulance from Hethel Base came over Mulbarton Bridge too quickly, missed the corner and crashed.

WHEN THE WAR WAS OVER....

When the Americans left the base came under the control of RAF Fighter Command and 65 and 126 Squadrons were stationed there for a short time. They were followed by a couple of Polish squadrons (303 & 316) which were kept in being because of the post-war political situation in Russian-occupied Eastern Europe. When they were disbanded at the end of 1946, many of the men opted to stay in Britain - a number settling in or near Mulbarton.

Hethel was closed for flying at the beginning of 1947. The land gradually returned to agriculture and for many years the hangars and other buildings were used for storage and as a sale-ground for agricultural machinery. However, the accomodation blocks were too good to lose at a time of desperate housing shortage and were taken over by the Henstead Rural District Council and became a 'new' village.

New home on old Hethel air base. The family first moved into the nearer end of the hut, then Derek & Barbara Gent were offered the other end of the “semi” for her parents,
New home on old Hethel air base. The family first moved into the nearer end of the hut, then Derek & Barbara Gent were offered the other end of the “semi” for her parents,

Barbara Gent's MEMORIES OF HETHEL CAMP:

'My parents' name was Wilson - my father was called 'Tug'. We were the very first to be allocated a hut on Hethel Camp [after her father lost his job as a gardener at Saxlingham and thus lost his tied cottage. They moved, with all their belongings, on a couple of flat-bed lorries lent by her husband's firm....]. It was called Eastwood Site. There was a cold water tap in the kitchen, a flush toilet, one fireplace but no other heating. The old "Guard Hut" had a stove with a chimney running through the middle, and it was in here that we did the washing, heating pails of water on top of the stove, washing the clothes in a bath and on the old scrub Dolly Board. We also had our weekly bath in there, in the old tin bath - very cold and draughty, so it was in and out very quickly. But we didn't grumble - we were happy and it was home.

Mrs. Gent's father and husband turned the area around the hut into a beautiful cottage garden
Mrs. Gent's father and husband turned the area around the hut into a beautiful cottage garden

Tradesmen got word that we were there, and other families moved in as the huts were made ready. Mr. Rushbrrok came round with milk; a fish and chip van came twice a week; Mr. Eastell of Swardeston came with fruit and veg. in his van, Leslie Swingler was our 'Postie', so we did not want for much. Eventually there was a little shop selling groceries and stamps. We had a school, a chapel, a surgery.... We lived there 5 years - my two daughters were born there.

On the morning of my second daughter being born we had a letter from the Council to say we had been allocated a house in Cuckoofield Lane - the first to be built. There were lots of families from Hethel Camp moving in as the others were completed. We often spoke of the happy days there - that was 54 years ago, and some of us are still here in Cuckoofield!'

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Eventually everyone was rehoused, and the base accommodation left to ruin. In 1964, part of the airfield - including the control tower and some hangars - was taken over by Lotus Cars, which can still be heard racing round a track partly based on the old runways!

The base is even old enough to warrant an archaeological survey as part of the 3-year Heritage Lottery funded  8th in the East project which unearthed and mapped some of the old buildings.