By Don Allen
Twenty-four years ago today, the 1st of August 1994, thirty-one years after its opening and forty- nine years after its conception, the 2nd Air Division USAAF Memorial Room in Norwich’s Central Library building caught fire, apparently caused by an electrical fault with the wiring in the Memorial Room. Within only a couple of minutes the Central Library was engulfed in flames. Within hours, despite the heroic effort by the fire department, the entire building was gone.
(Photo of the Central Library on fire courtesy of Eastern Daily Press).
While the loss of the records for not only the Library but for the entire city of Norwich was great, the truly important thing to note about this disaster is that no one was hurt, as it occurred before the Library was open to the public and the staff members that were inside at the time were able to get out safely.
The damage to the Memorial’s holdings however was extensive. The complete stock of books, well over three thousand, was destroyed. The original Roll of Honor presented in 1963 was also lost, as was the Freedom Shrine and all the artefacts that were on display in the Memorial Room. Thankfully, the archives, books and collection of memorabilia that were stored in the fireproof basement had been saved, although did suffer from water damage. Below is a montage of three photos of the Room as it looked before the fire. The 1963 Roll of Honor can be seen clearly in the left photo.
The Governors of the Memorial Trust wasted no time in getting the Memorial up and running again. They announced that the Memorial would be re-established, and set about rebuilding the book stock. In an article published in the 2nd Air Division Association Journal, Vol. 33 No. 3 only a month later (link to PDF of this issue: http://www.heritageleague.org/files/1994-09-small.pdf) David Hasting, Vice-Chairman of the Board of Governor’s for the Trust, wrote about the fire and its effects. While he expresses great sadness, the article is overall one of determination that the Memorial will be rebuilt. Some quotes:
By lunchtime the fire is almost out, and Hillary Hammond goes in while we just wait and pray. When Hillary appears his ashen face tells the tale, and we know the very worst, that the unique and beautiful 2nd Air Division USAAF Memorial has been completely destroyed. All of us standing outside the fire station quietly shed a tear, for how can so many years of hard work, love and devotion have gone. But already there is another feeling of grim determination that WE WILL REBUILD the Memorial. Tom Eaton broadcasts on TV and local radio and confirms that the work of the Memorial Trust will go on, books will still be bought with the bookplates; keeping the Memorial alive in the other branch and county libraries until THE NEW MEMORIAL is built.
On Wednesday, complete with hard hats, gloves and masks, we are now allowed into the building to start searching for what is left, and Phyllis and Lesley are so brave when surrounded by this scene of total destruction. Perhaps it is easier for those of us who have lived through the Blitz, for we have known the shock of blackened walls and the stench of burnt fabric and paper, but even so the sight of the Memorial Room stuns us all; it has just vanished.
Once the plans for the new library are known, the Memorial Trust will then launch an appeal here in the United Kingdom for donations to the trust capital fund to enable the Memorial to be rebuilt with its future safeguarded in perpetuity. We will also need to appeal for archives, photographs, group histories, formation lists, mission records, medals, paintings, oral tapes, videotapes, etc., to replace all that tremendous wealth of information that was lost…. Already the offers of funds and archives are pouring in, and we know that the NEW 2ND AIR DIVISION USAAF MEMORIAL when it is opened will be even better than the first.
Below are a couple pictures from after the fire. The first is Phyllis Dubois, the Trust Librarian, looking at what remained of the Memorial Room. The second are the remains of a charred book.
Phyllis Dubois, Trust Librarian, examining the destroyed Memorial Room
Charred remnants of a 2nd Air Division Book. Photo courtesy of Eastern Daily Press
Serendipitously for the rebuilding effort, the library of a U.S.A.F station at Upper Heyford was closing, allowing for a substantial re-stock. With help from many veterans, plus the 2nd Air Division Association and the Heritage League, a temporary library was opened on Ber Street in Norwich in late February 1995, just six months after the fire. This “temporary” location would be the home of the Memorial Library for the next six years until the new Forum building was completed, which would house the new central library for the city, known as the Norfolk and Norwich Millennium Library. Within this new central library the 2nd Air Division USAAF Memorial would be reborn.
The memory of the fire can still be felt in a tactile way in the Library. Some of the waterlogged books that were saved are still on our shelves, professionally restored and re-covered. The two books shown below are examples of these: the top book is “An Operational Record of the 95th Bomb Group (Vol II Supplement)” by Paul M. Andrews, while the bottom is a small unit history of the 44th Bomb Group at Shipdham titled “The United States Air Force In Shipdham”. Both are immediately distinguishable by the old bookplates that the Library used before the fire, note the tell-tale red “L” that can also be seen in the photo above of the charred book. They both also have noticeable water damage.
We also have some physical objects, such as this helmet, which belonged to Robert Boyle of the 489th BG, and a portable oxygen bottle. Stored in “Large Objects Box 1”, you can see under the general notes section that they were “Salvaged from 1994 fire”.
The fire was a terrible event, but there were some silver linings. The construction of the modern Forum building allows for much safer storage of our rebuilt archives and holdings. The new space for the Memorial is 185 square meters, or nearly double the space in the old building. This allows us to expand on our holdings and have a greater impact on the community. And finally, in a way, it re-energized the ideas of General Kepner in the appeal leaflet of 1945, allowing us to an even greater degree to uphold our primary missions of remembering the brave soldiers of the Second Air Division, being a link between the USA and the UK, and to be a place of lifelong learning for the people of Norwich.