Lifelong buddies trained for air war at Atcham
For a short while, a patch of real estate east of Shrewsbury was Shropshire's own "Little America."
During the war Atcham airfield was home to thousands of American servicemen, many of whom were just passing through for final training before being embroiled in the maelstrom of aerial combat.
Today the unusually straight road running by Atcham business park is one of the few clues left that it was once the hub of a busy, bustling, and sometimes tragic airfield – the road runs in part along the line of the old main runway.
And now a series of extraordinary photos from the son of one of those young Americans bring back to life some of the flavour of those times and give an insight into this aspect of Shropshire's heritage which has now largely faded from memory.
Some show the mighty P-47 Thunderbolt fighters, or "ships" as the Americans were apt to call them, at Atcham. In the American way they were given names, like "Jeannie" and "Any Old Bag."
Another shows a B-17 Flying Fortress bomber dubbed "Michigan" at the Shropshire base.
It was in the early summer of 1944 that Bruce Byers and John Hormuth, who had been pals at high school in Grand Rapids, Michigan, arrived at Atcham.
By chance they had both been assigned to the base's resident unit, the 495th Fighter Training Group.
Far from home, they took photos of each other with the aircraft, creating a fascinating record.
They remained lifelong pals and now Bruce's son Kurt, from Fairbanks, Alaska, is writing a book about his wartime career, aimed at family and friends.
"He did not hold court and talk about his wartime experiences, although he was a great storyteller and often entertained we adult kids and visitors with other kinds of stories and commentaries, peppered with salty language – never the f-word – that seemed as natural for him as breathing, all usually delivered with a beer in one hand, cigarette in the other (more or less), standing in his special spot in the kitchen," said Kurt.
"I never sensed that he was reluctant to talk about the war, but he didn’t volunteer much information."
In 1986 Bruce wrote recollections of his training, and the extract which encompassed his time at Atcham read: "Now, on to Europe. After arriving in the European Theatre of Operations on D-Day, June 6, 1944, we were assigned temporarily to Atcham Air Base near Shrewsbury, England, where we engaged in a short familiarisation course and flew some coastal sorties around the periphery of the British Isles.
"It was there that we had our first elective choice of the war. We could choose to join up with any operational fighter group in the Ninth Tactical Air Force as replacement pilots. John and I opted for the 373rd Fighter Group. The decision was made solely because we had heard that another member of our high school class of 1939 was in the intelligence section of the 373rd.
"We did indeed meet Bob Luikens at our new strip just off Omaha Beach on D-Day plus 21 – in a dugout!”
Bruce, a Second Lieutenant – he was later promoted First Lieutenant – had arrived at Atcham three days after D-Day, on June 9, 1944, and was in Shropshire until July 12, leaving then for the south of England and within a few days flying on to an airstrip in Normandy to support the Allied forces in the invasion beachhead.
He flew a total of 87 missions during the rest of the war.
Kurt said: "My whole intent in creating my book, albeit with a small and intimate audience in mind, and sharing any part of my research with others who wish to highlight and perpetuate the history of what those young warriors did to beat back Nazism, is to pursue that educational goal. It’s rather chilling to see various forms and pockets of such evil seemingly on the rise again."
For John Hormuth, his war nearly came to an end on only his fourth combat mission after leaving Atcham, when his engine failed near St Avit on August 14 and he suffered a leg injury when he hit the tail of his aircraft while bailing out at low level. He spent a month in hospital in Hereford but later returned to the squadron.
The very next day, August 15, pal Bruce was in a dogfight with 20 or more Luftwaffe fighters near Rambouillet. Three of his eight squadron mates were shot down, with two being killed and a third being injured and captured.
"My dad managed to shoot down an Fw 190 in that battle and his squadron mates shot down another three German fighters.
"After the war, he applied to United Airlines, but was told they didn’t need crazy fighter pilots. Dad fashioned a career with a telephone company, while John Hormuth spent his professional life as a journalist at the Grand Rapids (Michigan) Press, retiring as the newspaper’s Sunday edition editor."
Bruce Byers never returned to Europe and, having survived the perils of combat, was destined to die at the age of 69 of a heart attack in January 1990, while bowling with his wife in a seniors' league.
Incidentally Kurt is trying to find out more about the specific aircraft featured in the photos, like the B-17 "Michigan" and the fighter "Jeannie" which he knows crashed at Atcham in the late summer or early autumn of 1944.
By coincidence one of Bruce's two girlfriends back in the US was named Jeannie, and Kurt suspects he enjoyed sending the photo of that aircraft home to her to earn some brownie points.
"They did not marry, but the flame must have burned brightly throughout her life, because she attended his funeral service."
Bruce had at least two P-47s personally assigned to him in combat, and he named them "Michigan Maid," and "Michigan Maid II."