Monday, 4 July 2016

4th July 1944: An Unusual Way to Celebrate American Independence Day

Today, it's the 4th July, American Independence Day. As an English person, growing up in Britain, the main reason I celebrate this day is firstly because it's my birthday, secondly because of the significance of this day for America and thirdly, I always remember the sacrifice of all American servicemen and women.

I give thanks to the tens of thousands of Americans who answered the call to war, and came over here to help their British allies fight WW2. For a number of those American men, England would be the last place they lived and visited, never to return home again.

More than two million American servicemen passed through Britain during WW2, with around half a million men based with the United States Army Air Force, many of them stationed around East Anglia. Their arrival was known as the 'friendly invasion' and their final departure at the war's end was to leave such an impact on Britain and her people that shocked and surprised them, such was the effect these servicemen had. People at the time reported feeling bereft at the thought of never seeing their new friends again.

Children felt the loss of their departure too. Many children looked up at them in awe, and never forgot them, growing up over the years, telling their stories, recalling names and events, acts of kindness and the things they learnt from their new American friends. This wasn't simply war. This friendly invasion impacted upon our way of life here, and as a result, times changed - often very rapidly. They brought candy, gum and widened our traditional British culture. Children were introduced to baseball while women were shown new dances, such as the jitterbug.

The airbases were American, and once USAAF moved in, places were transformed American style, where American traditional culture thrived, slowly seeping out into the surrounding villages and towns. As one journalist wrote in The Times newspaper, 'At one moment, one is driving along a typical English country road, and the next, as if by magic, one is transported 3,000 miles across the Atlantic.'
Control Tower at Kimbolton
For one lucky crew, the 4th July 1944 was to prove to be one memorable American Independence Day. Lieutenant Oswald Masoni was a second generation Italian, all the way from New York. He was a navigator, assigned to the 379th Bomb Group at Kimbolton, Cambridgeshire.
B-17 Twentieth Century/Mojo Jr
On the 4th July, 1944, he took off in the B-17 bomber, 'Twentieth Century' which had only recently been renamed Mojo Jr, on a mission to bomb Nazi-controlled airfields in Normandy, France. Antiaircraft fire scored two direct hits on their engines, and by the time they reached the Sussex coast, the third engine was failing. The captain took the decision to undertake a wheels up landing, and they belly landed and only just managed to stop in time, as their wing tip came to rest a mere six feet away from Ethel Cheney's back door, at no.18 Downview Road, Felpham, Sussex. Naturally Miss Cheney invited the crew in for tea, as you do. Of the ten crew, two were injured.
Lt. Oswald Masoni with local girl, Barbara Deane

As it was also American Independence Day, and it happened to be the co-pilot's last mission, his tour now completed, the crew set off their flares in a ditch by the house, marking the day in their own way and delivering a little American culture to this quiet corner of England. Twenty five years later, the co-pilot, Mayo Adams returned and took tea once again with Ethel. The crew on this mission were:

Pilot: Cliff Blue
Co-pilot ; Mayo Adams
Navigator: Oswald Masoni
Bombardier: ?
Flight Engineer/Top Turret: Cecil Schaffer
Radio Operator: Harry Olson
Ball Turret Gunner: Tom Sutton
Waist Gunner: John McDonough
Tail Gunner: Milton Craven

It must have been such a relief and the perfect end to the 4th July that day, yielding an even greater reason to celebrate than ever before.

Oswald Masoni, nicknamed Big Oz, also kept in touch with the man of the house at no.18, and the two men exchanged letters annually. Oswald survived the war, became a lawyer, married and had children. He passed away in 1988.
379th Bomb Group: Ground crew enjoying coffee and donuts.

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A captured Focke Wulf buzzes vehicles and aircraft at 379th Bomb Group, Kimbolton