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  • Writer's pictureHattie Hearn

The midnight train to Georgia

Updated: Jan 28, 2020

As the 7.40 to London trundled out of Diss station, I caught a glimpse of a hoarding directing visitors to the 100th Bomb Group Museum, located in the nearby village of Thorpe Abbotts. The base was once home to the Bloody Hundredth. A ‘bad luck outfit’ of the 8th Air Force, the group flew bombing missions from the airfield between June 1943 and May 1945.

As the train gathered speed and the image of the old control tower rolled out of view, my mind turned to the thousands of Americans who had arrived at Diss station during the war, the last stop on a journey that, for many, had started at New York and ended with the lurching halt and screech of the steam engine as it pulled into this little corner of Norfolk. For most, the flat fields of Diss and the quaint thatched cottages of its surrounding villages would have been their first, and for some, their only experience of wartime England.

It seemed apt that I should pass through Diss at the start of my own journey. My destination was Savannah, Georgia - the birthplace of the 8th Air Force and the location of the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth, where I would be spending four weeks learning about the men and women who, for three brief years, called East Anglia home. My mission was simple: to find out as much as I could about the bases of the 8th Air Force - how they were run, how they changed, and why they continue to play such an important role in the remembrance of the Eighth Air Force’s time in England. This archival research would in turn feed into my PhD, hopefully providing me with some answers to the research questions I'd formulated over the last year.

The Everyman's Red Cross Club at Thorpe Abbotts. Photo: 100th BG Memorial Museum.

The juddering of that London-bound train felt like a lifetime away as I finally collapsed in my Savannah hotel room just after midnight, almost 24 hours after saying goodbye to Norwich. The following day, still weary from the jet lag and cloying 37- degree temperatures, I set out to familiarise myself with the place I’d be calling home for the next four weeks. I’d elected to stay as close to the museum as possible, which meant that most of my time would be spent in Pooler, a western suburb of Savannah. Pooler is one of the US’s fastest growing cities, with new restaurants, hotels and highways continuously springing up from the Georgia plains. As with many modern US cities, it was not designed with the pedestrian in mind and with no car at my disposal, that meant a great deal of strategic Uber-ing on my part.

My first venture took me into Savannah itself. With its Spanish Moss-draped oaks boughs, shaded squares and genteel historic homes, Savannah is one of the US’s most beautiful cities. On my trolley tour of the downtown area, I was bombarded with anecdotes about its long and colourful history, from the settlers’ devastating brushes with Yellow Fever to the colony's early days as a British outpost. One of the most interesting tales relates to James Oglethorpe, the city’s founder. Oglethorpe enforced four prohibitions on Savannah’s population – no alcohol, no catholics, no slavery and no lawyers. Of course, it didn’t take long for all four of of his utopian bans to fall by the wayside.

What grew up instead was a city melded from a range of people and cultures, from Jewish refugees to wealthy plantation owners; a diverse history reflected in the architecture, food and folklore of this town. Savannah boasts the dubious claim of being the most haunted city in the US, with many of the ghosts purported to reside within the walls of the historic homes that line the secluded squares. I was excited to take a tour inside one of these notable residences. Built in 1816, the Owens-Thomas House is a fine example of English Regency architecture, though it's the property's preserved slave quarters that are arguably of most historic value.

Owens-Thomas House

Owing to its quirky Southern charm, it’s no surprise to find that Savannah has been featured in numerous films, including two of my absolute favourites: Forrest Gump (of course) and perhaps the most underrated war film ever made, Glory.

My orientation complete, it was time to head back to Pooler and prepare for my first day of research....

Please check back soon for Part II of my US trip report!

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