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Celebrating American Connections in Suffolk

When Suffolk was 'Little America'

The United States 8th Air Force, The Mighty Eighth, arrived in Suffolk in 1942. Between then and 1945 more than 350,000 US personnel transitioned through the whole region, mostly the crews and support staff of heavy bombers who endured daring daytime raids on Nazi-occupied Europe - the longest air battle of the war.

Lasting legacy of The Friendly Invasion

At the height of the Second World War, Suffolk was the setting for a ‘Friendly Invasion’ which transformed the rural landscape and left a lasting legacy. The invaders were thousands of young Americans, part of the United States Army Air Force’s vast contribution to the Allies’ strategic bombing offensive.

By 1944, Suffolk echoed to the roar of B24 Liberators and B17 Flying Fortresses as huge aerial armadas took to the skies from a countryside so freckled with bomber bases that it became known as ‘Little America’.

The arrival of Coca Cola and bubble gum

It is no exaggeration to say that the arrival of 50,000 US servicemen in Suffolk in 1942 had the biggest cultural and landscape impact of any event since the Norman Conquest.

Hundreds of miles of concrete runway were laid in a matter of months (it took 250,000 tonnes of concrete to build one runway), and there was the introduction to our rationed region of peanut butter, donuts, chewing gum, popcorn and Coca Cola – all great news for dentists! Oh, and there were nylons, swing and the jitterbug too – although baseball didn’t catch on with the locals.

Segregation in Suffolk

Of course, this was very much a Friendly Invasion! Not only did we give the Americans a warm welcome, there was also the matter of around 40,000 women who went to the United States at the end of war! In fact, two cruise liners had to be requisitioned to sail them.

The Americans also brought with them segregation! It is shocking to us today, but rural market towns were designated for black servicemen only, or alternate days for black and white.

Did the fact that black servicemen were served by white people here, and were given equality by East Anglians, help ferment the American civil rights movement?

Fighting for independence

February 20, 1942 was the day that the first US general, Brigadier General Ira C Eaker, arrived in the UK to form and organise the bomber command of the prospective Eighth Air Force – the guys who would be based here in what was before a very sleepy Suffolk. If the county was monochrome when they arrived, it was soon turned technicolour – just like The Wizard of Oz!

The American Air Force’s first mission was on July 4, 1942. They were determined to go on that date for symbolic and propaganda reasons. What a message it would send - wanting to help Europe regain its independence from Nazism on their own Independence Day. Trouble is, their planes hadn’t turned up – so they had to use RAF bombers instead!

The Mighty Eighth’s bases

The 2nd and 3rd Divisions of the ‘Mighty Eighth’ Air Force occupied many bases throughout the county. Their contribution to the war effort was immense, and so was their sacrifice. In total, more than 350,000 US servicemen were in East Anglia during the war’s longest air battle – 26,000 of them losing their lives.

But no less telling than their combat endeavours was the impact that they made on their hosts. The vitality and generosity displayed by legions of young Yanks helped forge a special relationship with the people of Suffolk that endured as one of the shining legacies of that most terrible of conflicts.

The man who should have been President

One of the most poignant stories of the time was that of the man who should have become President of the United States, Joe Kennedy jnr. Flying out of Fersfield in Norfolk on a secret bombing mission, he was tragically killed in action over Blythburgh Church near Southwold when the plane he was flying exploded mid-air.

Another plane on the mission was flown by Colonel Roosevelt, the son of the US President at the time.

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