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‘Workin’ on those airdromes’: Discovering the experiences of Black American servicemen in Suffolk during WWII

During the Second World War the East of England hosted a ‘Friendly Invasion’ of the US Army Air Force (USAAF) to conduct operations with the RAF, to progressively destroy the German war machine through strategic bombing.

By April 1944 there were 71,000 American GIs in Suffolk alone and it has been estimated that there was one GI to every six civilians. The stories of this ‘Friendly Invasion’ have been well told and many recall ‘rose tinted’ childhood memories of receiving gum and candy, but there is one story which has been neglected.

Before the majority of US troops arrived, there was a smaller contingent of predominantly Black engineers who arrived in Suffolk in 1942 to contribute to the construction of 19 US Army Air Force bases. Other Engineers, Quartermasters and Truck Battalions were also stationed in Suffolk to assist with keeping the supply operations functioning.

A group of volunteers have come together at Suffolk Archives to discover the experiences of the Black US servicemen who came to Suffolk, first to build the airfields and pave the way to the ‘white flyers’ who came after. The team have dug deep to uncover the stories of these Black servicemen in Suffolk, what they achieved, how they were treated, and how they worked, played and loved.

The group soon discovered that there was a lack of Black voices in the sources they were finding. This is because unlike white servicemen, Black units very rarely created veterans’ groups, had reunions, and did not have their oral histories recorded. This group was keen to ensure that the Black servicemen’s experiences are shared though the archival research in African American contemporary newspapers, memories of local people and the memoirs of Black officials such as Walter White of the NAACP. This exhibition shares some of the stories discovered and we leave it to the viewer to imagine how these men must have felt and if and how their experiences serving in Suffolk had an impact on their future lives back in the US.