It wasn’t the chill of the evening but dissipating adrenaline that animated the fighter pilot’s hand in subtle rhythms – a gesture the pilot lessened by gripping a foam-topped pint glass.
The 55th Fighter Group pilots were venturing further into enemy territory on their almost-daily flying missions over Nazi Germany. In just over a month’s time, the pilots have gone from training for war to full dog fights with the famed German Luftwaffe.
Returning from their escort missions, the pilots of the 38th, 343rd and 338th Fighter Squadrons would land their P-38 Lightnings on the freshly-paved tarmac of Nuthampstead, England. The newly formed fighter group would call Nuthampstead, United States Army Air Forces station 131, home during the Allied war effort in World War II.
Today, Nuthampstead remains a quiet village and civil parish where the past and present coexist in equal, tangible proportions. From a nearly 400-year-old pub to the abandoned WWII airfield, Nuthampstead allows visitors to travel through time.
A narrow road traces the rolling English countryside to Nuthampstead. Along the road and around its undulating bends, travelers are greeted by livestock and horses grazing on the vibrant green grasses and barley that blanket the damp ground. The winding road leads its passengers to the Woodman Inn.
The Woodman Inn is a bed and breakfast with weathered, black-wood paneling and a woodsman axe stuck in the apex of the thatched roof of a quintessential English pub which dates back to the early 1700s. It is the same pub the 55th Wing’s first Airmen gathered in fellowship seeking a welcome reprieve from the stresses of war.
“It was the only civilian public house that was entirely within the confines of an active United States Army Air Force base during World War II,” said Russ Abbey, a native of the area and site manager of www.55th.org.
An open-log fire crackles in an iron furnace at the end of the ancient pub. The warmth of the fire doesn’t need to rise very far until it meets the plaster ceiling divided by wooden planks that rest less than seven feet from the floor.
Visitors, residents and friends from neighboring villages gather at the Woodman much like the maintainers and pilots did 64 years ago. Diners flank long rectangular tables and smaller pub tables that accommodate smaller gatherings. Residents stand in loose groupings, pint in hand, while their well-behaved dogs lie close to the hearth, ever-alert for a scrap of food to find its way to the floor.
The décor of the dining room and pub is a tribute to the 55th Wing’s ancestral Airmen. The smiling faces of the first “Fightin’ Fifty-Fifth” Airmen fill photo frames throughout the pub. Pilots, illuminated by wall sconces, pose next to their P-38 Lightnings. These photos captured life at Nuthampstead.
An iconic photo illustrates the relationship between the WWII Airmen and their host village – In it, “Pop” Potter the Publican raises a glass to the smiling faces of the 55th Airmen, a salute or comment lifting the spirits of the servicemen.
“‘Pop’ Potter was the Publican for many years and was there for the whole of the second World War,” said Abbey. “His sons moved away (one emigrated to Australia) and they came back to visit the pub three years ago for the first time since the 50's. They were born in an upstairs room at the Woodman Inn and remembered the U.S. GIs with great fondness.”
Outside of the pub, two memorials adorn the crest of a grass hill. One is dedicated to the 398th Bombardment Group and the other to their escorts, the 55th Fighter Group. The names and ranks of the fighter pilots who fought and died during their escort missions and fighter sweeps are chiseled into the black stone surface.
The pride the village of Nuthampstead has of its role during the war effort is evident in its tribute to the Airmen who lived with them during those winter months. A small, unassuming annex behind the Woodman Inn houses a collection of artifacts, photos and memorabilia from USAAF Post 131.
Behind the Woodman, the rolling rural landscape is unnaturally level. The leveling is the first hint the decades-old flight line and its intricate network of taxiways are just over the horizon.
Water slowly erodes the Nuthampstead runway, erasing the surface that launched dozens of P-38 Lightnings into the grey skies above. It could be difficult to believe that this is the same tarmac that greeted triumphant pilots home as they proudly held their hands out of opened cockpits, letting their fellow Airmen know how many German Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter jets they claimed in combat.
Oak trees, originally cleared to build the runway, have returned to reclaim their land. Muntjac deer dart across the abandoned tarmac from one tree line to the next.
Gone is the 55th’s fighter fleet, but structural reminders of the airfield remain in spite of time and nature’s persistent attempt to erase them. Nissen huts, half-cylindrical structures used to house people, equipment and munitions, peek through the thickets of oaks.
In the early 1980s, the 398th Bombardment Group started a tradition that still lives today. A U.S. Flag still graces the lone flagpole located on the runway. The flags are then used as casket flags as veterans of the bomber group pass away.
“With veteran numbers decreasing alarmingly over the last two years, it hasn't been possible to fly a veteran's flag at all occasions,” said Abbey. “The local people still ensure a U.S. flag flies at all times over the airfield as a mark of respect and remembrance.”
It was in September 1943 when Col. Frank James, commander of the 55th Fighter Group, along with seven other officers arrived at Nuthampstead. While waiting for the arrival of aircraft and airmen, they spent those first days going over procedures, lectures and escape and evasion tactics on their government-issued bicycles.
It was upon connecting a radio to a power source that they would hear the voice of Germany’s English war propagandist, William Joyce, better known by the moniker “Lord Haw-Haw”, welcome them to their new station.
Little could Lord Haw-Haw have known that this airfield located in a tiny village of no more than 140 residents would have been host to such a legendary fighting force. That in only six months, the people of Berlin would see P-38 Lightnings flying uncontested over German airspace.
"In many ways, the inn at Nuthampstead is emblematic of the close and endearing relationships forged between the U.S. Airmen of WWII and the British citizens who lived and worked on and around the base in those heady days of active aerial combat over the skies of Western Europe,” said John McQueney, 55th Wing historian. “No less a symbol is that for 75 years, Airmen from the 55th Wing have worked daily with their RAF compatriots here on Offutt as well as in Great Britain and deployed locations."
The 55th’s past is forever linked to the town of Nuthampstead. Our story is their story. It’s a place where one can walk in the footprints of historic wingman - a place of reverence and celebration.