Neill Howarth, an English Historian who is working with a group of dedicated volunteers whose mission it is to remember the 384th Bombardment Group of the Mighty 8th Air Force by restoring a portion of the US Army Airfield at Grafton Underwood 70 miles north of London, England, spoke to about 30 members of Glennville Rotary and invited guests on Wednesday, October 26, 2022, at the Rotary Club in Glennville.
Neill and his wife, Bridget, are visiting in the United States and accepted an invitation to speak at the Rotary Club from Hugh McCullough of Glennville whose father, Jerry L. McCullough of Ludowici, served as a flight crew member in the 384th Bomb Group. Twenty-one year old Jerry McCullough flew 31 combat missions in a B-17 Bomber over German occupied Europe in 1944, and as a tail gunner, he was credited with shooting down two ME-109 German Fighter Aircraft.
English citizens living in the countryside around the airfield during WW II and their descendants are well versed in the heavy price many of the “Yanks” flying out of that base paid to defend England specifically and the free world in general. They clearly understand that thousands of lives of these young men were lost in their struggle to stop the onslaught by Adolf Hitler’s Nazi war machine, and the old timers realize England may not have survived as a free nation without the sacrifices of these daring airmen. Those memories are leading to a massive volunteer effort to restore the 384th operations building as a museum project along with a barracks, a Norden Bomb Sight calibration and storage building as well as a shack used by base sentries. The effort is dedicated to the belief that the dedicated service and devastating personnel losses to the American aviators in WWII should not be forgotten.
The surrounding countryside has changed very little from the days when massive B-17s were common in the skies over England. In fact, Neill stated that if airman who’d flown in the area during WW II saw his photos during the presentation, they’d know exactly where they were. A comparison of aerial photos, then and now, confirms that fact. However, the base at Grafton Underwood is a glaring exception. After the war it was returned to the estate from which it was requisitioned, and nature rapidly reclaimed the land. It took extensive map and document study of the period to locate and identify some areas where important structures were located, and then it was necessary to remove 70 years of trees and undergrowth that covered the site in order to locate old buildings, foundations and concrete slabs important to operations during the period. While some of it was completed with heavy machinery (provided by volunteers), much work required many hours of manual labor.
One of the most important structures was the Operations Briefing Room where aircrews were briefed on upcoming missions. Neill says it sends chills up the spine of volunteers and visitors alike to stand in the area where many brave American airmen were briefed on the final mission of their young lives before taking off from English soil and flying into eternity. Many were lost without their close friends, and eventually their relatives, knowing what actually happened to them.
Bicycles were the chief mode of transportation on and around the base. The high mortality rate of 8th Air Force flight crews is demonstrated by the advice of grizzled veterans concerning procurement of bicycles when young crewmen arrived. The rookies were advised not to buy a new bicycle as bicycles owned by crewmembers that did not return would be readily available every day.
In winter, life on the base was miserable. Due to inclement weather, airman often referred to the base as Grafton under mud. Neil has photos of buildings made of wood and canvas on the flight lines where maintenance personnel would run inside and warm up while working on aircraft. Flight crews and maintenance personnel lived in Quonset huts and slept in their clothes because the small wood heaters produced only limited heat. When crewmembers who slept closer to the stove did not return, others could move into the vacated bunks closer to the only source of heat.
The longest runway at Grafton Underwood was 6000 feet which was a little short for heavily laden B-17 Bombers. Sometimes the lumbering giants loaded with bombs, a ten man crew and defensive armament just didn’t get airborne.
The Mighty 8th Air Force has close ties to Georgia and direct connections to Tattnall County. It was formed in 1941 In Savannah Georgia, and Major General Carl Spaatz was named as its first commander. Eventually the 8th would have a total of 100 bomber and fighter airfields in northern England, and from May 1942 until the end of the war it carried out the strategic bombing campaign in Nazi occupied Europe. Locally, Jerry McCullough, (tail gunner) , Ludowici, Georgia, Byron Lynn (tail gunner), Collins, Georgia, Lamar McCall (waist gunner), Reidsville, Georgia, and William J. Kicklighter (waist gunner), Glennville, Georgia, are known airmen that served as flight crew members on B-17 bombers of various bombardment groups of the 8th Air Force. C.M. Smith, Reidsville, Georgia, served as a waist gunner on B-24 bombers that flew out of North Africa and Roscoe Drake of Cobbtown, Georgia also served as a flight engineer on B-24s.
On Wednesday, Bill Kicklighter of Glennville, son of SSgt. William J. Kicklighter who served as a B-17 waist gunner with the 97th Bombardment group, showed his father’s records to Mr. Howarth who stated that he could produce additional records that Bill’s father flew out of Grafton Underwood. It was that kind of connection that made the meeting so interesting to many local people.
After speaking at the Glennville Rotary Club, Hugh and Neill had a special invitation to visit the Mighty 8th in Pooler, Georgia and take a personal tour which included the opportunity to get up close and inside the B-17 which has been recently restored. Hugh said the description his father provided of seating conditions inside the aircraft in the tail gunner position was very accurate. “It’s like sitting on a bicycle seat with your knees on the floor and not very comfortable,” Hugh said.
“Neil and I had a great time at the 8th,” Hugh continued. “We had the opportunity to crawl all over the inside of that B-17 from one end to the other, and it was amazing. I know he thoroughly enjoyed it, and it was a very moving experience for me.”
Perhaps one of the most interesting facts is that the work to restore the barracks and operations building of the 384th Bombing Group is an all-volunteer project including both labor and materials. “We have volunteers show up to help with every project, Neill Howarth said. “Even where we have needs for heavy equipment, we get a contractor to donate a machine, diesel fuel and an operator for so many days. The project has a tremendous amount of local popular support.”
That is how it should be. When young men devote so much time, energy, and sometimes their very lives, to defend the free people of the world, it is entirely fitting that they should not be forgotten.
Note: Although the work on the Grafton Underwood site is a volunteer project, the museum that will be located in the 384th operations building will need funds. To donate, contact Hugh McCullough at 912-654-2116.