A little while ago we hosted our first guest blogger post from 2nd Air Division veteran Fred Becchetti, who kindly got in touch with us and offered to share some of his stories. In honor of May, here’s Fred’s latest….read on!
THE FLOWERS OF MAY 1944
by Fred Becchetti
April 1944. Our four months of training as a bomber crew in the frigid skies of Wyoming were over. Everything would be for real now.
They gave us a brand-new $215,000 bomber in Topeka, Kansas, and pointed the way east 3,000 miles to England. We were to join what would become Jimmy Doolittle’s Eighth Air Force and bomb Nazi Germany by day while the British Royal Air Force bombed the Hun by night. The Nazi fighter pilots and anti-aircraft gunners would try to shoot us down. We would do this 35 times during the summer of 1944.
But first we had to fly across the Atlantic. We did this by way of Brazil and the west coast of Africa, landing in a corner of England whose name we never learned, except that the people seemed to be Welsh (but they were simply English to us), at 6:30 on the dark morning of April 30 1944, only to fall asleep, exhausted by our flight through the night from Africa with eyes peeled for German fighter attacks from the Continent.
We woke on May First, expecting to see the country in smoking ruins that we had been seeing in American newsreels—the country that Edward R. Murrow had painted for Americans with his words of description of the “battle of Britain,” with Goring’s Stuka dive bombers raining bombs on a British populace scurrying for shelter.
We tumbled out of our sleeping quarters on the First of May and were greeted by a world of slightly misty sunshine and blue skies, without a bombed ruin in sight. With the morning’s light, we made our way into the nearby town where we received the surprise of our young lives.
All up and down the streets of the town we saw bright splashes of color. It was May Day, and the British people were ignoring the violence which had fallen upon them and welcoming spring the way they had for 2,000 years. They had hung the fences on both sides of the street with their brightest flowers. The porches of all the homes were draped with blossoms, and every door held a floral wreath, while every girl, every woman carried a bouquet and greeted people with a happy “good morning,” saving their brightest smiles for us: “Good morning, Yank!”
We were flabbergasted and somewhat unsure of ourselves, not being familiar with the British celebration of May Day. Some of us could remember vaguely a day in which a grammar school teacher had called for a show of flowers at school, but this act had never taken on any real meaning for us.
This British “day of flowers” was something extraordinary for all of us, especially against the background of the war that had engulfed the nation and that awaited us in a few more days.
Most of our crew were just out of their teens, none beyond their twenties. We did not go in for deep philosophical analysis of things around us, but the May Day flowers of the village left all of us with great admiration for the British people. We caught the spirit that had made it possible for the people of that island nation to stand strong against the evil force which had swept away all opposition across Europe for five violent years.
With their tiny nation under the threat of destruction by the most powerful military machine the world had ever seen, the men, women and children in a small British village gave the highest priority to their traditional celebration of the beauty of spring and the proclamation of a fresh new season in the world’s existence.
With the image of floral neighborhoods still in our mind, we left the area by train early on May Day, seeing floral evidence of celebrations along the way. Four days later we arrived in Tibenham, Norfolk, where we learned that we would be flying at least thirty bombing missions against the Nazis during the summer before returning to the States.
I actually flew thirty-five missions, including one in which we had to bail out by parachute over an English city because of an engine malfunction, but I never forgot the beauty on my first day in Britain—May Day, 1944. And I never forgot the significance.
Thank you, Fred, for continuing to share your wonderful stories with us. Readers who’d like to learn more about Fred’s time in Norfolk can visit his crew’s website here. And, of course, stay tuned for more in the future from Fred himself!