Time passes quickly when you are having fun and it hardly seems as if the “Last Hurrah” for the 353rd Fighter Group can be over already. The weekend events were a stunning success and here is a full report of all the activities and celebrations.
The events began with a drinks reception and briefing for the twenty-three family members attending at the Rose and Crown Hotel in the town of Colchester on the evening of August 21. We were very lucky to have 350th Fighter Squadron pilot John Madson in attendance with his family and the families of Glenn Duncan, Gordon Compton, Frank King, Tony Rosatone, Galen Bevington, John Davenport and Bayard Auchincloss.
We chose Colchester as the base camp for the weekend as it was a popular destination for group members when they were on leave from their duties. The 353rd made a special friendship with the people of Colchester during World War II so we spent Friday August 22 touring the town. First call was the town hall where we met our guide Mr Ian McMeekin. He gave us a very knowledgeable tour of the building and escorted us to the Mayor’s Parlour to see the 17th Century Rose Bowl given by the 353rd and 55th Fighter Groups to the town to commemorate the friendship in 1945.
After our visit to the town hall, Ian McMeekin continued the tour around central Colchester and included a very welcome visit to Timperleys Tea Room. The party then were able to have some free time to explore Colchester’s sights and shops. In the evening Graham Cross, 353rd Fighter Group Historian, gave a presentation to the party on the history of the unit.
Saturday August 23 dawned bright and sunny and the party left the hotel for a 10 am appointment at the Raydon Memorial. Here we were joined by the Peacock family (owners of the former airfield site), an Honour Guard from RAF Mildenhall, the Revd Rosalind Paul, Councillor Jim Lowe and other local representatives for a special service of remembrance. The Raydon Airfield Memorial Group (Mark Manning, Steven Silburn, Mervyn and Maynard Pizzey, Chris Elsey, Janice Rumsey, Bob Gooding and many others) had been working hard to brighten up the memorial and to create a new information board for visitors to the site. The Group installed the board in memory of the late Mr. Jack Peacock who was a good friend of the 353rd Fighter Group and the memorial project.
The moving ceremony included an Honour Guard of current serving USAF personnel from RAF Mildenhall and words from Glenn Duncan Jr (the son of the 353rd’s Commanding Officer), Revd Paul and Councillor Lowe. The Peacock family, the Raydon Memorial Group and Raydon Parish Council then laid wreaths at the memorial. Members of the 353rd families helped place the wreaths (Glenn Duncan Jr with Mr Tom Peacock, Gary Bargerhuff with Cllr Jim Lowe, and Lou Rosatone with Bob Gooding). A highlight of the ceremony was the joint unveiling of the new information board by John Madson (350th Fighter Squadron) and Mr John Peacock. There was then an opportunity for some photographs before a flypast by Maurice Hammond and Rob Davies in P-51 Mustangs “Janie” and “Marinell.” It really was quite a surprise for the 353rd families as they grouped for a photo around the memorial while the Mustangs approached from behind them coming along the course of the old runway. As an end to the memorial service, 16-year-old Maia Elsey sang ‘We’ll Meet Again’ beautifully to the assembled families with few dry eyes among her audience.
After the service, the 353rd families headed to Raydon Old Hall for a tea reception as guests of the Peacock family. The Peacocks have welcomed returning veterans, and their families, back to the former airfield many times over the years and it was such a pleasure for the group to reaffirm this friendship. The weather and surroundings were beautiful and the Peacock family had many photos of past reunions to share making the visit especially enjoyable.
Then it was back on the bus to visit the afternoon air show as guests of Mr John Anderson and family. With perfect flying weather, the afternoon promised to be a memorable event. As the 353rd families arrived, John Anderson welcomed them personally and the Wattisham Military Wives Choir treated them to songs. Following a superb lunch, Graham Cross presented the families each with a print of a pencil sketch depicting 352nd Fighter Squadron aircraft gifted by renowned local artist Geoff Pleasance. The families then presented copies of Jonah’s Feet Are Dry‘ that they had all signed to Maurice Hammond, Rob Davies and John Anderson in thanks for the huge contributions they have made to making this event and those in the past possible and so successful.
The group were then able to tour the show site to view a superb historical display put together by members of the memorial group, military vehicles, classic cars and even a steam engine! The highlight of the afternoon was, of course, the static and flying aircraft displays kindly arranged by Maurice Hammond of Hardwick Warbirds. Maurice Hammond and Rob Davies then performed a superb flying display in “Janie” and “Marinell” and it really was a treat to see two Mustangs flown and displayed so skilfully to honour the 353rd Fighter Group. When the Mustangs landed, we were all able to get an even closer look at the aircraft with the opening of the safety fences. As a special treat, John Madson was able to sit in the cockpit of “Janie” and had the biggest grin seen on the airfield that day! Sadly, the day had to end and a tired and contented group headed back to the hotel.
Sunday August 23 saw the group join local people at a special service in St Mary’s Church, Raydon. Revd Rosalind Paul led proceedings and we heard from Revd Josefa Mareira (Chaplain at RAF Wattisham). Revd Paul then rededicated the Memorial Vestry Doors donated by the 353rd in 1984. After the service, there was a very enjoyable social occasion where the families could talk to local people. The party then boarded the bus and headed to lunch as guests of the Raydon Airfield Memorial Group at the ‘Case is Altered’ Pub in Bentley. By this stage, the weather had closed in and after a brief stop at the old airfield, the group headed to Dedham to visit craft shops and the very fine church there. Sadly, due to the worsening weather, a trip to Metfield by some of the party had to be cancelled.
Monday August 24 saw the heavens truly open and the rain descend in a way it only can in England. Undeterred the party headed to the Cambridge American Military Cemetery for a very moving visit. The group were able to tour the brand new visitors centre at the cemetery and visit some of the graves of 353rd Fighter Group. There are six 353rd men buried at Cambridge and a further ten commemorated on the walls of the missing. The Superintendent had also kindly arranged to have the 353rd graves marked United States and British flags. The party then split with some choosing to visit the Imperial War Museum at Duxford and some heading into Cambridge for lunch at the ‘Eagle’ Pub (famous for the aircrew signatures on its ceiling and walls) followed by a tour of King’s College Chapel and Queens’ College.
In the evening, there was a farewell dinner at the Rose and Crown for the families and local people. We were also lucky to have Jean Freeman (wife of the late Roger Freeman) attend. Gary Bargerhuff read a very moving poem by Galen Bevington entitled ‘The Cause’ and particularly poignant as Galen was killed in action November 25, 1944. Proceedings closed with a toast to the men of the 353rd Fighter Group.
With the events now at an end, we can reflect that it really was a very successful visit. It involved a good deal of hard work by many people, but every bit was worth it. The new experiences and friendships formed in remembering the 353rd together are something to truly treasure. To our new American friends we say safe journey and ‘Haste ye back!’