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Thanksgiving for the 384th

Rabbi Marc Gellman writes a weekly newspaper column entitled “The God Squad.” It appears in my local newspaper every Saturday. I had finished writing this post, but after reading Rabbi Gellman’s latest column, I decided to include some of his thoughts. He wrote:

One of my annual traditions over the years here at God Squad Central is to offer up for inclusion with your turkey, stuffing and pie, a list of overlooked blessings. The point of this annual list is that none of us really needs prodding to give thanks for family and food, for friends and food, or for liberty and … food. I encourage you, dear readers, to add to my list your own list of things and people we too often take for granted. I hope you can squeeze into your Thanksgiving prayer people and things that will not be on any big and obvious list but ought to be in our hearts every day.

This is, of course, a hard Thanksgiving for my list of overlooked blessings. This year I am feeling more anger and sorrow than thanks in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Paris. I even thought of ditching the column and just writing about Paris, but the more I thought and prayed about this horror the more I realized that it was the little things that give me hope in the face of the big things that give me such despair. So here it goes:

I am thankful this Thanksgiving Day for the people who run toward the sounds of gunshots and not away from them. These police and soldiers and EMTs are the first barrier to terror and the first responders to brutality. The fact that this is their job does not lessen my awe at their deep instinctive courage. They keep the dike of civilization from bursting by sticking their lives into the breaches of our broken world.

Tomorrow all over America, we will celebrate Thanksgiving Day. Most of us will sit down to share a Thanksgiving meal with family or friends. Before that first bite, we will bow our heads and give thanks for many things, and at the top of my list of things I am thankful for are the men of the 384th Bomb Group of the Eighth Air Force in WWII for the sacrifices they made to secure our freedom.

Seventy-plus years ago, this is what Thanksgiving Day looked like at the Grafton Underwood Air Base for the enlisted men of the 384th Bomb Group.

From cooking…

384th Bomb Group, Grafton Underwood, Enlisted Men's Mess Hall, Thanksgiving Day 1945

384th Bomb Group, Grafton Underwood, Enlisted Men’s Mess Hall, Thanksgiving Day

…to serving…

384th Bomb Group, Grafton Underwood, Enlisted Men's Mess Hall, Thanksgiving Day 1945

384th Bomb Group, Grafton Underwood, Enlisted Men’s Mess Hall, Thanksgiving Day

…to the feast itself…

384th Bomb Group, Grafton Underwood, Enlisted Men's Mess Hall, Thanksgiving Day 1945

384th Bomb Group, Grafton Underwood, Enlisted Men’s Mess Hall, Thanksgiving Day

…and then, of course, there’s always the cleanup…

384th Bomb Group, Grafton Underwood, Mess Kitchen Wash Tubs

384th Bomb Group, Grafton Underwood, Mess Kitchen Wash Tubs

These photos are part of the Robert Bletscher Acquisitions collection on the 384th Bomb Group’s photo gallery. Thank you to Rob Bletscher for sharing his grandfather’s (William Marvin Page) photos with the group.

William Marvin Page was assigned as a flexible gunner to the 384th Bomb Group, 546th Bomb Squad, Austin Dean Rinne crew on AAF Station 106 Special Orders #146 dated November 17, 1943.

These photos are most likely from Thanksgiving 1943 or 1944, although they were marked Thanksgiving 1945. Thanksgiving was observed on November 25 in 1943 and November 23 in 1944. It was November of 1943 that William Marvin Page was assigned to the 384th Bomb Group. By Thanksgiving 1944, Page was a guest of the Germans in Stalag Luft IV (more on that later). I asked my fellow 384th volunteers for help determining what year the photos were from and received some good information, but am still uncertain which year these may have been taken.

  • I don’t believe it could be Thanksgiving 1945 as the last 384th mission out of Grafton Underwood was April 25, 1945. Shortly thereafter, 384th operations moved to Istres, France. Anthony Plowright reminded us that the base then transferred back to the RAF.
  • Fred Preller believes it must be 1943 or 1944 judging from the presumed blackout curtains behind the seated diners.
  • John Edwards leans to 1944 as there was a world wide effort to have a Thanksgiving dinner for each service member.  The dinner was supposed to be the traditional American meal featuring real whole turkeys.
  • Phil Hettel believes that from the date Mr. Page was assigned to the 384th (11/17/43) and the date of his last mission (2/28/44) and his internment as a POW, he would say that the picture is Thanksgiving 1943.
  • The 384th Bomb Group did not fly a mission on Thanksgiving 1943 (11/25/43), but they did fly a mission to a synthetic oil plant in Gelsenkirchen, Germany on Thanksgiving 1944 (11/23/44).
  • Considering all this, I think the pictures were more likely taken Thanksgiving of 1943, but they could have been taken Thanksgiving of 1944. I do not believe they could have been taken Thanksgiving of 1945.

On William Marvin Page’s tenth mission to a NOBALL (V-1 Launch Site) for CROSSBOW (V-Weapons) in Preuseville, France on February 28, 1944, his plane went down presumably due to a technical or mechanical failure. All ten men aboard bailed out. The tail gunner, Charles Thomas Regan, was killed due to a malfunctioning parachute, which didn’t open. One flexible gunner, Robert Henry Cooper, was able to successfully evade capture.

The other flexible gunner, William Marvin Page, was able to evade capture for a time. Page was in the French Underground for 17 days before he was picked up by the German Gestapo. He was held in jail for almost two months before being placed in a prison camp. He was placed permanently in Stalag Luft IV and endured the eighty-six day Black March, where he was taken ill with pneumonia. After being nursed back to health, he was returned to the states. The remaining crew were also taken POW. The officers were held in Stalag Luft I while the enlisted men were all held with Page in Stalag Luft IV.

On May 1, 1945, Soviet troops liberated the prisoners of Stalag Luft I. As for the men of Stalag Luft IV on the Black March, some were liberated in late April, but all were liberated by May 2 by the British. Americans were sent to Camp Lucky Strike in France as the first stop on their return to the United States.

Families at Thanksgiving dinner tables seventy-plus years ago undoubtedly asked God to bless their sons and husbands who were so far from home fighting a war on foreign soil. They prayed for their safe return. Some of those prayers were answered and some were not. Tomorrow, on this Thanksgiving Day as you give thanks, include the men of the 384th – those who are still with us and those who are gone. They are the men who risked their lives to mend our broken world seventy years ago. And also give thanks for those who fight to mend our broken world today.

© Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2015

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