Fighting With Fear
A Daughter Learns A New War Story
By Anne Cassidy
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, May 31, 2004; Page C10
In the spring of 1944, my father was a tail-gunner on a B-17 bomber. Sixty years later, he was present as the National World War II Memorial was dedicated on the Mall. As he watched I was thinking of a day in 1978 when the war came alive for me, the day my father and I drove to his old air base near the village of Horham, England.
Ever since I was old enough to listen, Dad had regaled me with war stories: meeting girls under the clock at Victoria Station in London or pedaling through the countryside on a bicycle to buy strawberries from local farmers. He would mix the berries with milk and take the concoction up in the unheated B-17 on missions, freezing it into a passable strawberry ice cream he would share later with friends. These were the happy war stories. Dad never talked about what it felt like to shoot and be shot at -- until the day we visited Horham.
Like many of the old air bases scattered throughout East Anglia, Horham was no longer in use. And were it not for the aid of a friendly couple who ran the local post office, we would have missed it entirely. "It's a mushroom farm now," they told us. "But the owner won't mind if you look around."
I was disappointed, expecting something more than mushrooms -- a museum, maybe, or a small plaque. Dad, on the other hand, was cheerful. He wanted to explore. At first we found nothing but an overgrown runway and some crumbled hardstands, where planes had awaited takeoff. But a few minutes later we spied a real treasure -- a couple of Nissen huts. We couldn't get inside but we walked around them.
"These are the primitive dwellings of a lost tribe of American GIs," Dad joked, posing in front of one of the chipped, dirty doors. He jokingly held a bouquet of wan daisies. He seemed to honor a fallen comrade with those limp flowers. He had made it to a funeral everyone else had forgotten.
He told me then of friends who had left from this field and never come back. He talked about how terrified he was to be crammed into the tail-gunner's seat at the rear of the aircraft. He was sure that one particular mission, the one he flew on his 21st birthday, May 12, 1944, would be his last. I guess he figured that fate would end his life evenly and ironically on the day it began. But he returned from that mission; returned to find empty seats and vacant cots left by those less fortunate; returned again to find battered huts and barren runways and mushrooms growing where so many lived their last days.
It's been half a lifetime since we took that trip together. Since then Horham Airfield has been bought and preserved. Volunteers are restoring the Nissen huts and the hospital has become a small museum. But I'd rather imagine the place the way Dad and I saw it: sodden, abandoned, peopled with the ghosts of frightened young men. One of them was my father. He was not just the happy-go-lucky, ice-cream-making GI we'd always heard about. He had fought fear and won.
So when the World War II Memorial was dedicated, I first thanked God my father was alive to see it. Then I thought of Horham. I smelled the air there, with its hint of the sea. I imagined the roar of engines. And I remembered the day that I, a child of peacetime, received a taste, just a taste, of war.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Above, a young Frank Cassidy poses near a B-17 bomber. Cassidy was a tail-gunner stationed at a U.S. air base in Horham, England, in 1944. Left, Cassidy stands next to a B-17 at a 2003 air show in Kentucky.