During his childhood, Clive Stevens would gaze up in awe at a small B-17 Flying Fortress model that sat on top of a bookcase in his home.
“It obviously gave me a deep-rooted interest in the airplane,” said Stevens.
Over the years, his fascination grew to include not only the U.S. aircraft but the entire 8th Air Force. The interest was so strong that the Wiltshire native moved halfway across England to airfield-heavy Suffolk in order to be closer to his passion.
“When you’re younger, you’re more interested in the hardware,” said Stevens. “Then you get a bit older; you still think the hardware is great, but what about the (Airmen) and their stories?”
Now a U.S. Army Air Forces historian and 388th Bombardment Group Memorial Committee member, Stevens wants to ensure the Airmen’s stories are not forgotten.
He was one of the driving forces behind the festival celebrating the 388th BG and the re-dedication of the memorial in Coney Weston on July 14, 2012. The day also marked the 70th anniversary of the first arrival of the Army Air Forces Airmen based in Eastern England.
Surrounded by a convoy of World War II vehicles, more than 200 people watched as the memorial was re-dedicated to the Airmen who lost their lives while serving at Knettishall Airfield.
Situated on top of the last remaining section of road that used to lead to the now demolished airfield’s headquarters, the memorial was originally dedicated in the 1980s. Recently, it had two new extensions added, each stone listing the names of 388th BG Airmen lost during the war.
During its time in East Anglia, the 388th BG flew more than 300 combat missions over Europe and lost 91 aircraft. More than 800 men were taken as prisoners of war, 524 men were killed in action and two Airmen are still listed as missing in action.
As the names of the dead were read during the ceremony, Airmen from Royal Air Force Lakenheath, England, dressed in authentic World War II uniforms, drifted out of the woods to silently form up in front of the U.S., U.K. and Air Force flags in remembrance of those who sacrificed their lives.
The son of Col. Francis Henggeler, a B-17 pilot and 563rd Bombardment Squadron commander under the 388th BG, attended the ceremony.
“We are very thankful for so many of the people in Great Britain who are keeping the memory alive, whether it’s through the B-17, the military vehicles or the museum,” said Dick Henggeler.
Olivia Leydenfrost, the daughter of Robert Leidenfrost, also attended the ceremony. Her father was only 20 when he was stationed in England as a bombardier. He was sent on flying missions over Europe, including a humanitarian aid mission to the Dutch people.
“It’s an incredibly moving experience to see the incredibly warm relationship that still exists between the local British people and the Americans,” said Leydenfrost. “Keeping that legacy alive is absolutely magical. It’s something we need to preserve for the future.”
After the ceremony, attendees visited the former airfield, now returned to an agricultural state, to watch as the last active B-17 Flying Fortress in Europe performed a flyover before moving to the 388th BG museum.
To Dave Sarson, a 388th BG Memorial Committee member and museum curator, the day exemplified the U.S. – U.K. relationship.
“We appreciate all the help and all the volunteers,” he said. “We made some good friends.”
For Master Sgt. Joseph Schepers, the 48th Medical Group medical technician functional manager and one of the day’s head volunteers, his main motivation to be involved was the relationship between Americans who have, and still are, serving in the U.K. and the local people.
“You have the British people honoring the Americans (who) fought and died,” said Schepers. “To have the Air Force presence out here was great. The day was simply amazing.”