Late Amarillo businessman served in England during WWII
(This is a front-page story, not one of my Faith columns.)
By Mike Haynes
A black-and-white photo shows Bob Williams and other Americans marching in an English village with local residents, young and old, dressed in their Sunday best, watching from the edge of the dirt street.
The scene helps illustrate the relationship between the United States and Great Britain during World War II as about 3 million U.S. soldiers were stationed on the British Isles or passed through to continental Europe during the war.
a village near Thorpe Abbotts Army Air Base
in England while he was stationed there
during World War II.
(Photo courtesy Medora Williams)
For Williams, a longtime Amarillo businessman who died in January, two months short of his 99th birthday, the bond between G.I.s and Brits was a good one. In an interview just after New Year’s, he said he and his buddies got along fine with the English people during his four years at the Thorpe Abbotts air base near Norwich in eastern England.
“He has fond memories of them,” said his wife, Medora, 77, who helped with the interview because of Williams’ health condition. “He would give them his cigarettes, because he didn’t smoke, and they’d give him eggs.”
Great Britain had been at war with Germany since 1939, and after Japan’s Pearl Harbor attack on Dec. 7, 1941, the United States began sending troops across both the Pacific and the Atlantic. Williams was one of several thousand who reached England in 1942 on the British ship Queen Elizabeth.
The Lorena, Texas, native had enlisted before Pearl Harbor and recalled that during the voyage to England, the British broadcaster William Joyce, known as “Lord Haw-Haw,” was announcing the location coordinates of the Queen Elizabeth on the radio. Joyce was a Nazi propagandist based in Hamburg.
To avoid Nazi U-boats, the ship traveled as far south as Jamaica on the trip to England. Of course, Williams said, the Queen Elizabeth was heavily armed.
Unable to complete flight training because of an inner ear problem, Capt. Robert Henry Williams became an administrator at the Thorpe Abbotts base, home of the 100th Bomber Group, known as the “Bloody 100th.” He was an Army Air Corps captain in the 351st Bombardment Squadron, handling such duties as transportation, payroll and sorting the belongings of the many airmen who didn’t make it back from bombing runs over Germany and other sites in Nazi-occupied Europe.
|Among Bob Williams' World War II memorabilia|
are his Eisenhower-style Army jacket, his
certificate appointing him as an Army Air Corps
captain, his dog tags and a silk map used by
airmen flying over Europe.
(Photo by Mike Haynes)
“He had to go through their personal effects and make sure there wasn’t anything the family didn’t need to see,” Medora said. “It was not easy duty. These were friends he had gotten acquainted with.”
London is known as a key target of German air raids, but other parts of England also suffered attacks. According to a military magazine clip in Williams’ scrapbook, English bases were laid out haphazardly, but on purpose, to protect from raids. If barracks and other facilities had been neatly arranged together, bombing damage could have been more serious. Thorpe Abbotts’ spread-out design also allowed more room for growing food in the days of strict rationing.
“All we got to eat for the first three months was ‘Billy beef stew,’” Williams said. “For breakfast, they’d put biscuits on it. It was corned beef from Argentina.”
Thorpe Abbots was attacked only twice, Williams said, with no loss of life. “We were strafed,” he said. “German fighter pilots strafed us.” But like Londoners, the base residents were accustomed to spending time in bomb shelters, and returning planes occasionally executed crash landings.
Williams said his group lost 273 bombers during the war during runs over factories, bridges and other German targets. He recalled one mission over the Netherlands that airlifted provisions to the population. His base was directly west across the English Channel from Amsterdam.
“Our planes dropped food over Holland,” he said. “They were hurting for food, and we flew
|Bob Williams and his wife, Medora,|
spent much of their retirement time on
fishing trips. Williams owned Builders
Supply in Amarillo for many years.
(Photo courtesy Medora Williams)
American servicemen in England who stayed as long as Williams certainly knew the cold weather and the landscape. Medora described the available transportation.
“He had a bicycle,” she said. “That’s what he had to ride into town on. She said bicycles had to be pushed up and over stiles, or steps that allowed them to go over railroad tracks.
Williams’ World War II scrapbook was a 2010 gift from Air Force friend Bob Spellacy. It includes photos of life on the base as well as copies of mission reports. A July 30, 1943, report provides a word picture of a bombing operation over Kassel, Germany. Some excerpts:
“Target and bombs away at 0935. … Terrific damage seen throughout. Large mushroom like column of smoke seen immediately rising to between 15 and 20,000 ft. … Flak and fighters followed us from coast to target and return. … Over target, flak concentrated and accurate. Received hits on our plane and most every plane received flak holes. We had about 7 or 8 flak holes …
“Hard to distinguish between enemy and P47’s but didn’t fire unless attacked. … 100th Grp. lost no planes, but other groups lost between 4 & 6 planes. Am a firm believer in tighter and tighter formations. …”
|Capt. Bob Williams|
The group leader ended with this recommendation:
“Suggest that new pilots fly 100 hours of battle formation, very closely, before tackling Gerry. It would prevent 80% of ship losses.” “Gerry” or “Jerry” was a term referring to the German enemy.
Another report included a personal complaint:
“All crews suffered severe cold. Wish to h--- they’d send us some electric suits to replace those that won’t work. It is impossible to work efficiently at hi alt. under very cold weather otherwise.”
The planes had names such as “War Eagle,” “Salvo Sal,” “Our Baby,” “Rosie’s Riveters,” “Just A-Snappin’” and “Piccadilly Lilly.”
An Oct. 8, 1943, mission to Bremen, Germany, illustrates the origin of the name, “Bloody 100th.” Of 21 bombers on the mission, seven – and their crews – did not return.
Williams didn’t fly on bombing missions, but he and others on the ground enabled them to happen. He saw the reports and knew who did and didn’t return to base. At his passing last month, he decreased by one the roughly 558,000 living American World War II survivors, according to the National WWII Museum in New Orleans. About 16 million Americans
|Capt. Bob Williams displays a crab during downtime|
while stationed in England during World War II.
(Photo courtesy Medora Williams)
Williams came home on another British ship, the Queen Mary. He said it normally carried about 4,000 people but that 24,000 crowded onto its decks for the return trip at war’s end.
“I’m sure you’ve seen the pictures of when they came back,” Medora said. “It was really something.”
As a civilian in Amarillo since 1946, Williams completed his degree at the University of Texas at Austin and became a partner and later full owner of Builders Supply at 7th and Travis. He met Medora, a Houston native, on a fishing outing, and they were married for 40 years. One of their mutual loves was fishing. “He’s owned a lot of boats,” she said.
After a memorial service at St. Luke’s Presbyterian Church in Amarillo, Williams was buried in Dallas-Fort Worth National Cemetery. He was preceded in death by his daughter, Katherine Lynn Davis. Survivors include his wife, Medora of Amarillo; his sister, Martha Harper of Salado; a niece; a nephew; two stepsons; six grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
In his last week, Williams did not feel well enough to talk much. But the pride in his Army Air Force service showed through as he finished talking to a visitor:
“Medora, show him my Army jacket.”
Bob Williams' World War II scrapbook contains this dollar
bill with signatures of Gen. Carl Spaatz and Gen. Jimmy