1. ITV Report

75 years on: Remembering the Friendly Invasion

US airmen were eventually stationed at more than 70 sites across the Anglia region. Photo: 95th Bomb Group Heritage Association

75 years ago villages and towns across the region became home to thousands of US Servicemen and women who came here to help in the fight against Nazi Germany.

For those living in the surrounding villages they got to experience a whole new world of big bands, jitterbug dances Coca-Cola and candy.

Ray Hobbs from Utah was just 21 when, as a member of the 95th Bomb Group, he flew B17s from Horham airfield near Eye in Suffolk.

Ray Hobbs from Utah was just 21 when he flew B17s from Horham airfield. Credit: ITV News Anglia

I didn’t know where East Anglia was at all.

It was really strange and one of the fellas said this lady does laundry so the time I was here she did my laundry. She did it very well.

I can’t remember how much it was but it wasn’t very much but she was very very appreciative to have it and I did the naughtiest thing I bought a dozen eggs from her and she says don’t say a word because I’m not supposed to sell an egg.

– Ray Hobbs, Veteran

It was from Grafton Underwood airfield in Northamptonshire that the Eighth US Army Air force mounted its first heavy bombing raid over Nazi occupied territory in August 1942.

Over the next year thousands of US airmen arrived, eventually being stationed at more than 70 sites across the region bringing with them a new way of life for the locals living in the surrounding villages.

We had jam on turkey. We thought it was. It was cranberry sauce but we’d never heard of that.

Our village was about 100 people and then all of a sudden 3,000.

– Alan Johnson, Grew up near Horham airfield

The airfields across the region became small American towns, with their own hospitals, bakeries and cinemas to cater for the 3,000 or so people living on them.

What was once a hive of activity is now eerily quiet, with runways and nissen huts being lost to nature.

After Pearl Harbour, the United States came into the war and they committed to a strategic bombing campaign we realised we would have to have a great many new large airfields constructed.

We had some that had already been constructed in East Anglia ready for RAF, Royal Air Force Bomber command so they decided they’d use some of those initially but then they realised they’d have to build a great number more and there were some 60,000 civilian employees that were involved.

Ten of the bases were built entirely by the Americans. It was the biggest civil engineering project in the whole history of Great Britain.

– Malcolm Osborn. Historian and author
Nissen huts on what was Thorpe Abbotts airfield on the Norfolk-Suffolk border. Credit: ITV News Anglia

The small American towns have faded over the years but near Shipdham near Dereham in Norfolk they’ve managed to save some of the artwork of the 44th Bomb Group.

It was left on the walls of derelict huts and what was the officers mess.

Before they used to go on operations it’s said they used to kiss her on the lips and that’s probably why her lips are a bit worn out.

When we saw it, it just seemed criminal that it should sit there and be washed away. We were very pleased to have the opportunity to save them.

– Barrie Adams, Owner
A mural created by USAAF airmen stationed at Shipdham near Dereham in Norfolk. Credit: ITV News Anglia

When the GIs returned to America, they’d stolen the hearts of hundreds of local women. Many of them got married and left this region to start a new life in the United States.

93 year old Iris Oakley from Essex met Sergeant James Benekee in Norwich.

He was based at Horham airfield in Suffolk and within three months they were married.

He asked me to marry him and he said I don’t want your answer now because he said it’s a big decision and I said yes, Yes I will.

We had to meet the chaplain and we had to meet the commanding officer and they do their best to talk you out of it. His mother wasn’t very happy. This is just a war time thing you know this shouldn’t be and he said if I don’t marry her now I’ll come back after the war and marry her.

– Iris Oakley
Sergeant James Benekee and Iris Oakley married within three months.

Not everyone got their happily ever after.

With interracial marriage illegal in around 30 American states, relationships between Black GIs and their white British girlfriends often didn’t last.

Some children have never known their fathers.