On a typical day from 1942 to 1945, the flightline on Royal Air Force Alconbury, England, would be full of activity as aircrews, maintainers and weapons troops prepared as many B-17 Flying Fortresses as they could for missions in Germany.
One of those troops was Ted Penn, a quartermaster in the 685th Air Materiel Squadron, who returned to RAF Alconbury Nov. 13; the first time in 67 years; to discover the installation in a far different state than when he left it in October 1945.
On his tour of the base, Penn shared some of his experiences about World War II RAF Alconbury.
“We’d play baseball in the summer and football in the winter,” the 92-year-old Penn, of Berkeley Heights, N.J., said. “We’d organized a baseball team and played against Jimmy Stewart and his team when they were here at Alconbury for a little bit.”
The soldiers had many activities to choose from during their downtime to keep them occupied and not go stir crazy, Penn said. The command provided trucks to take us to local pubs and towns where we would buy a meal and some drinks and socialize with our British neighbors.
Not all of his time at Alconbury was peaceful, as he was present when an explosion rocked the runway. On May 27, 1943, after delivering some supplies to the flightline, Penn stood around talking with “the munitions folks” loading 500-pound bombs on the B-17s before a mission. As the loaders were finishing their task, they told Penn he should head out for lunch and they’ll join him.
“One of the guys, I didn’t know his name, told me to get on my bike and beat them down to the mess tent so I could be first in line,” he said. “Halfway down the hill, I heard a terrific explosion and the force rocked me on my bike. I hopped off and saw a tremendous fire.”
The ground personnel were arming a B-17F (tail number 42-29685) in the dispersal area when the 500-pound bomb detonated. The explosion, in turn, set off several other bombs. In an instant, 18 men were killed, 21 injured and four B-17s were destroyed on the ground. Eleven other B-17s were damaged. Penn survived by mere seconds.
“The fellows I was talking to were all gone, and I could just as well have been killed if they hadn’t told me to go ahead,” he said. “Nothing was left of their plane but a big crater.”
Penn was also responsible for delivering supplies throughout the island, including in the run-up to the D-Day landings.
“My boss, Lt. Sheets, and I would be on per diem where we wouldn’t see the base for weeks at a time,” he said. “We were hauling equipment back and forth all over, preparing for the invasion. There were times where it seemed like if we brought more men and equipment, this island would sink!”
During their time in Britain, the soldiers could also get passes to travel, giving Penn the opportunity to visit Ireland, Leicester and London. Penn happened to be touring London when victory in Europe was announced.
“There were so many people out you couldn’t even move,” he said. “Everyone was just happy, laughing and crying on the streets and hanging out of windows.”
The post-war days at RAF Alconbury were not all full of joy, however. While Penn and other soldiers stood in formation waiting to depart RAF Alconbury one last time for home, in October 1945, the officer present asked for a volunteer to run and fetch the paperwork necessary to get them all home. A soldier volunteered and hopped in the waiting jeep for what should have been a 10 to 12 minute trip.
“About 30 minutes after he left, someone drove up and said the guy had rolled the jeep and died,” Penn said. “It was very sad to see someone make it safely through the war, only to die right before we went home.”
After departing RAF Alconbury, Penn boarded the USS Lake Champlain, an aircraft carrier converted to carry soldiers home from Europe. All of the aircraft were removed from the carrier and there were soldiers all over.
“Near the States, we hit the tail-end of a hurricane,” Penn said. “The waves were so high, they came up and washed over the flight deck of the carrier. They’d also pick the ship up, and it would start vibrating because the propellers were hanging out of the water.”
Once he got home, he surprised his parents, since they weren’t aware he’d be coming home so soon.
“I was walking down the street and saw my dad walking toward me,” he said. “My dad did a double take and then ran to greet me. He led me back into the house and in the kitchen to show my mom, and said he wasn’t going to work that day.”
Penn was accompanied to RAF Alconbury his son, John, who grew up hearing stories of his father’s time in the Army.
“My father kept in touch with his Army buddies after he left the service in 1945, but of the dozen or so friends he wrote to each year, there is only his friend, John Swisher, and himself left from the group,” said John. “I’ve always marveled at how much he remembers from those days and hearing him tell of his experiences back then allowed me to have a greater appreciation for what he experienced as a 22-year-old soldier away from home for the first time.”
John was the driving force behind the visit, as he was determined to see where his father served. It took several months to convince his father to come, but he was finally able to convince his father to return to England.
“This was my father’s second time in England and my first,” he said. “I would have felt something was missing if we had not visited the air base that was the source of so many memories for him, both good and bad. Alconbury played an important role in his life as a young man, the three and half years he was there, and now I have a better feel for the context of his stories, having seen the base personally. It was important for me to give him the chance to pass on his knowledge and experiences to today’s airmen.”