AMERICAN AIR MUSEUM
As a result of a long chain of circumstances, I was invited to attend the Rededication of the American Air Museum in Britain by some of the friends I have met through my research. It was in May 1997, in the Irvine Hyatt Regency Hotel, California, while attending a reunion of the 2nd ADA. In the hospitality room of the 392nd BG, one of the men I met was Keith Roberts, a navigator. We introduced ourselves, spoke about a lot of things, including Belgian beers, while sharing some U.S. ones. In September 1997, I received a letter from Keith. He and Bob Vickers (the pilot) intended to return to France to visit the location where their plane, The Niagara Special, crashed and where they had landed after parachuting. Bob and Keith were looking for an interpreter. I immediately said YES. Rendezvous: main street of Mouaville at 1:00 PM on January 15, 1998.
It was the beginning of three moving and busy days for me. Moving, to help my friends go back to 1945, and busy, as I talked for three days in a row. But I, nor any of the others were ever allowed to run dry. Our glasses were always full of Champagne, or red wine, or Mirabelle (plum-based white alcohol), wherever we went. A strong friendship developed, the kind that makes any separation hard to take. It was with a great deal of sadness that we said goodbye to Bob, Keith and Bill.
I had to wait until March 2001 before Bob Vickers also told me about his
plan to visit Duxford (England) for the dedication of the B-24 undergoing restoration
there. From that time on, Bob's e-mails or letters to me all contained a mention of
Duxford. They reached a crescendo when Bob told me proudly that his ship Dugan (The
Niagara Special's successor) had been chosen to come to life in Duxford, England. The
restored B-24 would wear his "blazon" (A four-leaf clover nose art and the 392nd
BG colors) at the Duxford American Air Museum. Former President George H. W. Bush and
some, at that time, undisclosed members of the British Royal Family would highlight the
event by their presence. Did all those things come together simply by chance? Or was it
destiny? Because it didn't stop with the event itself, the date of this rededication,
September 27th, is particularly meaningful for me. Not because it was the 60th
anniversary of the arrival of the US in East Anglia, it is also the date of the mission in
1944 to Kassel, Germany by the 445th BG. On this mission the 445th lost 22 aircraft in a
couple of minutes. One of the books
I have written, "Cruel Sky," is about the experiences of the personnel and the planes of the 445th BG during this mission. I find the rededication appropriate to celebrate the anniversary of that fateful mission, to remember the men who flew Dugan, and to remember the men who, in the cause of freedom, flew the other thousands of planes from England.
PS: I am behind the tall guy
I was eager to present a copy of Cruel Sky to Prince Charles and Duke of
Kent, and George Bush Sr.. I didn't fulfil it that time (for security reason) but I will
do my best to complete this mission. On September 27th, 2002, it was Bob Vickers, Keith
Roberts, Nick Costanzo, and Bill Nock's day. It was mine too. It was something to enter
the museum while people had to leave it and discover the shining Dugan, which had been
restored by Duxford's conservation staff (including a Belgian volunteer) over the past two
years. It was moving to be there while the crew met "their" B-24 again. It was a
seemingly long pause, standing under Dugan's wing, to wait for former President Bush. It
was something to be there while the families were looking at us through the spectacular
glass frontage of the museum (they were not admitted inside). It was funny to see the
crowd of journalists running, one lady sticking a big camera tripod close to Bob. I was a
little bit nervous while glancing towards tall Bush Sr. going from Bob to Keith (officers
first again), Bill and Nick. The he stopped in front of me and all the pressure was gone.
He laughed when I told him I was the crew's interpreter in France and today I was the
interpreter between my American friends and the British people. Then he left to be
presented to some of the founding members of the museum, followed by the Duke of Kent, and
a picturing-filming-recording crowd. After a pause, here they are again, the media-crowd,
this time preceding Prince Charles and Admiral Sir Jock Slater. Once again, the lady put
the camera tripod near Bob. Once again, the top brass started with the 5 of us, still
lined under Dugan's wing. The Admiral introduced me to the Prince. He was very curious to
hear about our adventures in France to find Dugan's predecessor and asked me a lot of
questions. We had a seemingly long talk, long enough to "feel" my friends
glancing at me. The Prince left me, laughing, after I told him the only way to get The
Niagara Special's parts still in France back was to prepare and launch a night commando
strike. It's funny how many things an over-excited mind can perceive. While talking
to the Prince, I noticed the big BBC microphone over my right shoulder. This time, the
picturing-filming-recording crowd stuck to us and we were interviewed by the BBC, and a
local radio. After they left, we congratulated each other's and we all agreed the Prince
was a very charming man. Then, we went to meet the families and the other selected people
into the big hospitality marquee all set for the lunch.
After the meal, we, and over 2,000 people, moved to our seats in front of the podium and joined George Bush Sr. and the Prince of Wales for the American Air Museum Rededication Ceremony. Three RAF C-130s flew past under the overcast, followed by 4 F-15s. The guests of honor made their respective speeches. To put a fitting end to the official part of that memorable day, a Corsair and an Avenger, then B-17 Sally B escorted by a P-47 and a P-51, flew over us in the grey sky. After the guests of honor left, we went back to the Museum, this time I had my 445th BG cap on. It was the opportunity to take pictures (pictures were not allowed during the presentation): Bob, Keith, Nick, and Bill in front of THEIR plane! I touched the aluminum skin, closed my eyes and thought of my friends of the 445th. September 27th, 1944, at the same time, all was over. Mighty B-24s, 25 of them, had ended up in Germany, as a twisted smear of metal, the last resting place of mangled and burned young American bodies. Most of my friends were alive, inside the Third Reich. One of the bomb bay door was open, I ducked and I was inside the belly of the beast, at least. Dugan still needs a lot of work to be airborne again! I was very impressed to be there and September 27th anniversary made it even more moving. I was there, looking at the fuel and hydraulic lines, and I thought about my friends caught in the middle of a roaring inferno. I stepped on the catwalk and made my way to the flight deck, where nearly everything, except the pedestal, is still to come. I went back on the catwalk and headed for the waist. The two .50 were fitted, as well the tail turret, not much: no ammo boxes, no oxygen bottles, etc. The volunteers will be busy. And we had to leave Duxford to Cambridge: that was it. Hard to let it end that way but it's life. Most of your friend Luc is back, even if one part of me is still there, in Dugan, surrounded by the ghosts of the men who didn't make it.
The original Vickers crew then (in ZOI, before leaving to the ETO).
|The Vickers crew now, in front of Dugan
Nock (Waist Gunner) - Costanzo (Radio Operator) -
Vickers (Pilot) - Roberts (Navigator)
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written permision from Luc Dewez.
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