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The Train South from Scotland
Twenty-one-year-old 2nd Lt. Thomas A. Parks, Jr and the nine men under his command arrived in Greenock, Scotland on Saturday, the 3rd of September, 1943. They and the more than thirty crews of the Martin Provisional Group had spent the previous twelve days crossing the North Atlantic on a troopship and were undoubtedly glad to be back on solid ground.
There are no records of the timing of their next move but the crews were soon on a train headed south for Combat Crew Replacement Center #11 at Bovingdon just outside of London.
Today, that train trip takes between nine and ten hours. It was probably longer in 1943 but then, as now, it would have required a change of trains in London.
The only things I know for certain are, they rode on a train and they were in Bovingdon by the 8th of September.
First Letter From England
The last letter 2nd Lt. Parks sent his mother was a month earlier when he arrived at Camp Patrick Henry in Virginia. Five days after arriving in Scotland, her son wrote the above letter from Bovingdon :
Somewhere in England
My mail has caught up with me and your letters were very welcome. I think your letters and regular mail come through just as fast as the others. Joe was very lucky to get home again. I met another boy who graduated with us just before we left. We had a rather pleasant trip and uneventful. England is just about what we expected and very interesting. No sightseeing yet. Girls seem to be the same everywhere. Hope Dad is all fixed up by now.
Love to Everybody,
Your V-mail wasn’t photographed but (??) as you mailed it.
During WWII, to save shipping space and speed up delivery of mail to and from America’s fighting forces, the government instituted V-Mail. (short for Victory Mail).
Letters were written (preferably typed) on a special form (pictured above) which was then photocopied on a roll of microfilm, 1600 letters to a roll. When the rolls got to their destination, they were printed and distributed.
The restrictions of V-Mail suited my father’s spare writing style very well. You had to get everything on the one sheet so there was not a lot of room for detail.
There was just room enough to let his mother know that the North Atlantic crossing was, “pleasant and uneventful”, and that, even though he hadn’t had time to do any sightseeing, he had found out that girls in England were pretty much the same as girls everywhere. I am at a loss as to what to make of that assessment. Is it positive? Negative? Is he happy? Sad? Worldly wise and weary?
As for opportunities to meet ‘girls’ while they were at Bovingdon, there would have been a local dance or two and at least one trip into London.
Among my father’s papers from WWII there was the following picture. On the back is the name, ‘Gladys Copeland‘ and the address of a large public housing complex in London that still exists. Dad was in England for three months before getting shot down. During that time, he would have had several opportunities to go to London on leave. I do not know anything about Gladys, how or when my father acquired her picture, or why he kept it. I include it because, somehow, it is part of the story. But, for now, the nature of Ms. Copeland’s relationship with 2nd Lt. Parks remains a mystery.
Towards the end of the letter, 2nd Lt. Parks also expresses hope that his father is ‘fixed up‘… In 1943, my grandfather had all his teeth pulled. That is one of my clearest memories of him, that full set of false teeth that he was overly fond of removing and showing to his goggle-eyed and giggling grandchildren.
The ‘Joe‘ mentioned in the letter was 2nd Lt. Joe Gay. Joe had been with my father during his early training through when they graduated and were commissioned 2nd Lieutenants together in Columbus, Mississippi seven month earlier. They were close friends and because their mothers both lived in the Washington, D.C. area, they had introduced Edna Gay to Virginia Parks so each would have a travel companion for the trip to Mississippi for the graduation ceremony.
The two mothers became fast friends and for the duration of the war visited each other regularly. Both women were deeply attached to their sons and having someone to talk to who understood their fear and apprehension was a Godsend.
After my grandmother’s visits with Joe’s mother, her letters always reflected what she and Edna discussed…
“Edna says Joe writes her long letters all the time…”, “Edna says Joe got a leave to come home and see her right before going overseas…”, “Edna says Joe got a medal, did you get a medal?“.
My father and Joe were very close friends but I believe he probably learned to regret he and Joe had gotten their mothers together.
The two pilots’ paths separated after graduation from flight school but by the fall of 1943, they were both flying combat missions over Europe. 2nd Lt. Parks would fly with the 96th Bomb Group based near the village of Snetterton Heath and 2nd Lt. Gay would fly with the 306th Bomb Group, based seventy miles due west of his friend near the village of Thurleigh.
You can read more of Joe Gay story in, Learning the Art of War: Episode 4: Advanced Flight. A word of warning, the story doesn’t end well.
Everything You Were Taught is Wrong
Combat Replacement Crew Center #11 was created early in 1943 when the 8th Air Force began to realize that the requirements of actual combat were different from what was being taught in the States. Among other things, formation flying had to be adjusted as did air-to-air gunnery and bombardier training. A two-week series of lectures was instituted for newly arrived crews where they were introduced to the realities of the war as it was being fought in Europe.
When 2nd Lt. Parks arrived in England, the number of missions airmen needed to complete before being sent home was twenty-five. My father’s single memory of Bovingdon was a lecture given by a rather dour officer who bluntly informed the fresh faced and eager pilots that, at the current loss rate, their chances of going home were pretty much zero. Welcome to England.
In their day, Officers’ Clubs featured a bar and offered an informal setting where men in command could relax in a way they never could when enlisted ranks were present. The clubs, victims of changing social values, mores, policies, and politics, no longer exist.
The above receipt lists the four officers of the Parks’ crew, Lt. T. Parks, Lt. J. Sweeney, Lt. E Bason, and Lt. J. LeBlanc.
Dated September 20, 1943, it shows that each man was charged 2 Pounds 2 Shillings for use of the Officers’ Club & Mess for the month of September, 1943. I assume this was a prorated charge covering the approximately two week period from arrival at the base until their departure for the 96th Bomb Group and was issued to settled their account before leaving the Combat Crew Replacement Center. If my calculations are correct, they each paid about $5 US for the use of the club for the time they were there.
If I am right about the receipt being a settlement of their bill just before departing Bovingdon, 2nd Lt. Parks and his crew probably boarded a train and headed for Snetterton Heath and the 96th Bomb Group on Tuesday the 21st of September, 1943.
On Monday, September 27, 1943, 2nd Lt. Parks would take-off in a B-17 from Station 138 at Snetterton Health, home of the 96th Bomb Group. He spent a half-hour observing someone else flying the plane, then took the controls, flew an additional three hours, and landed back at the 96th. It was his first time flying since leaving Walla Walla, Washington almost two month before and five days before he would fly his first combat mission.