UK volunteers still honor US airmen, 75 years after D-Day

  • British D-Day veteran David Woodrow, 95, poses for photographs next to the memorial for the American 93 Bombardment Group (Heavy) on his family's farm, which during World War II served as part of Hardwick Airfield near the village of Topcroft, in Suffolk, eastern England. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

TOPCROFT, England — David Woodrow, 95, raises the American flag beside a memorial on his farm in eastern England every morning, weather permitting.

He makes sure that memorial is tip-top, too. Dedicated to the U.S. Army Air Force’s 93rd Bombardment Group (Heavy), it is surrounded by irises and geraniums Woodrow planted himself. The grass is trimmed to the millimeter. The granite gleams.

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“There’s one thing for certain: If Americans hadn’t come over here and went to Normandy with us in ‘44 and the Germans had pushed us back into the sea, we couldn’t have gone back again for another two or three years,” Woodrow, a D-Day veteran himself, said when asked why he put it there. “By that time, Germany would have had the bomb first and they would have won the war. They would have won the war then — if Normandy had failed.”

As the wartime allies prepare to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings, people around Britain are also remembering the Americans who paved the way for the invasion, including sailors who helped keep supplies flowing across the North Atlantic and air crews that flew bombing missions over occupied Europe.

From 1942 to 1945, more than 2 million U.S. military personnel were stationed in Britain. People across the country still commemorate that friendly invasion, which bolstered the nation’s defenses and gave many their first taste of America. From Portpatrick on the west coast of Scotland, where a plaque marks the site of a plane crash that killed 22 American airmen, to the Norfolk farm where Woodrow raises Old Glory, Britain is dotted with memorials to U.S. servicemen.

Some are formal affairs funded by public money, like the Cambridge American Cemetery, which houses the remains of 3,811 war dead, and the American Air Museum a few miles away, where the silhouettes of 7,031 lost aircraft are etched into a curving wall of glass.

But most are impromptu shrines built and tended by local people to honor those who died and to remember the thousands of others they drank and danced and fought with.

There was no government master plan to make this happen. The memorials just sprang up organically, particularly in southeastern England, where most of the U.S. air bases were located because of the proximity to occupied Europe.

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Volunteers look after memorials in village squares, on corners of former airfields, at crash sites. Museums have been placed in former control towers. World War II memorabilia collections are preserved in pubs.

One of these personal monuments made headlines earlier this year, when 82-year-old Tony Foulds persuaded the U.S. Air Force to stage a fly-past to honor 10 American airmen who died in a crash in the northern city of Sheffield in 1944. Foulds, who believes the pilot saved his life by steering away from a field where he was playing with other children, has tended a memorial to the airmen since 1969.

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