War and Verse

In the 2nd Air Division Memorial Library archives, there are numerous poems both by and about the United States military personnel who served in East Anglia during the Second World War. When they are compared with one another, the poems draw attention to the differences between how the American servicemen understood themselves and how they were perceived by the British.

Poems about the Americans

In 1941, George E. Cocker was an operational crew member of the RAF Bomber Command based at Marham, Norfolk. As a wireless operator and air gunner in a six-man crew, Cocker flew Wellington bombers on over 30 missions to France and Germany. It is appropriate that his first operational flight, a leaflet raid over occupied France, saw bombs substituted for the written word. Cocker was also, to use his own phrase, an ‘occasional poet’. Several of his poems were reproduced in 2006 for the BBC oral history project “WW2 People’s War”, available here. While much of his poetry seems to be based on his own experiences in the RAF, he did also write a tribute to the American airmen stationed in England. ‘I was moved to express what many people of my generation feel towards our American allies’, he explained. An autographed copy of the poem that resulted is in the 2nd Air Division Memorial Library archive:

cocker
George E. Cocker, ‘Fallen Eagles’, poem, no date. MC 371/364, USF 8/1.

 

‘Fallen Eagles’ venerates the American servicemen who ‘steeled themselves to die’ by coming to England ‘to vanquish tyranny’. Their origins are humble and diverse – ‘from forge and factory, | From college, farm, and store’ – and they are heroic without arrogance – ‘with comradeship and grim resolve, | They shared each other’s fears’. This depicts the Americans as all the more admirable, for they possessed not only a military might, but also a humanity: a ‘careless freedom’ and ‘a mocking jest’. Cocker’s celebration of the US servicemen is as much affectionate as it is admiring.

This is, perhaps unsurprisingly, common in British writings about the American airmen of the Second World War. Also in the Memorial Library’s collection is a poem of tribute to the United States 467th Bombardment Group which was stationed at Rackheath, five miles north-east of Norwich, from March 1944 to July 1945. The poem is as full of admiration as Cocker’s ‘Fallen Eagles’, but elaborates on the legacy of the American airmen: ‘They have gone to a life eternal which awaits the brave, and many men’s hands welcomed them into paradise . . . . . | They were men with splendid hearts’.

Poems by the Americans

‘Fallen Eagles’ and the 467th Bomb Group tribute are not so much descriptive of the lives and experiences of American airmen as they are testaments to British perceptions of the US presence in England. Indeed, poetry by the US servicemen themselves often challenges the impressions we might get from the British poems about them. These American writings reveal self-doubt, fear, and a complex attitude to military service in England.

Take this poem, for example, which describes a particularly eventful flight of a US aircraft of the 467th Bomb Group:

458th
Eugene A. Garrett [not credited], ‘Ballad of the 467th’, poem, no date. MC 371/476, USF 11/6: Image 23.

This verse is simply handwritten on the inside back cover of Rackheath Memories, a book of cartoons about the 467th bomb group. Although the poem is anonymous, we can assume it was written by the owner of the book, Eugene A. Garrett. He was a co-pilot in the 467th bomb group, and the poem reveals in its final stanza that it is written from the perspective of a pilot. Additionally, the inscription of Garrett’s name on the inside front cover matches the handwriting of the poem.

Garrett recalls how, after a close-call with a German fighter (the ‘Jerry’), his bomber became separated from its formation, leaving the members of the crew lost and disorientated. Colonel Shower, in command of the bomber crew, asked his ‘brave navigator’ and then his ‘brave bombardier’ for directions back to base, but neither knew the way. In this hopeless situation, the triumph of the pilot emerges in the final stanza: ‘he glided to safety | on the runways of his home base | and it’s with very great pride that he tells you this story | with a shit-eatin’ grin on his face!’.

rackheath
A page from Rackheath Memories, the book in which Garrett’s poem is written. The image in the centre is of Colonel Albert Shower, who is described in the poem. MC 371/476, USF 11/6: Image 5

Evidently, the pilot-narrator is not shy to indulge in his success in finding the airbase. Presumably, the crew had a friendly culture of competition. But there is also a grudging admission that his triumph was at least a little lucky. The pilot’s smug ‘grin’ makes even him sound surprised that he located the base! Despite saving himself and the rest of the crew on this one occasion, Garrett still generously describes the navigator and the bombardier as ‘brave’, whereas he only presents himself as playfully boastful. Beneath the façade of cockiness, this evokes a feeling of modesty, as though Garrett might see himself as the undeserving recipient of good fortune out of a crew with good character. While he might well identify his comrades with the heroic portrayals of American airmen in the previously discussed British poems, Garrett appears to understand himself in humbler terms.

Another poem in the Memorial Library archives, ‘From a Yank in the E.T.O.’ (European Theatre of Operations), anonymously written, further challenges British poetry’s assumptions about the American airmen in England.

from-a-yank-in-the-eto
Anonymous. ‘From a Yank in the E.T.O.’, poem, no date. MC 376/1, USF 1/1: Image 15

Here, the morale of the unnamed American serviceman is undermined not by the strength of the enemy, but simply the culture of England. The bad weather, unappetising food and alcohol, poor transportation, and apparent belief of the local women that ‘every Yank[’s] pocket is lined with gold’ all leave the narrator despondent and, presumably, longing for home. The writer concludes by quipping that ‘the Isle ain’t worth saving’ because ‘life’s rough as a cob in the E.T.O.’.

When imagining the lives of these American servicemen (and, as we shall see next week, servicewomen) in East Anglia, it is tempting to fixate on their experiences of the military conflict itself. ‘From a Yank in the E.T.O’ reminds us that these people also had to cope with being so far from home in an unfamiliar country. For many, it would have been their first time outside the United States. By recognizing these day-to-day challenges, we can build a more humanized impression of the American military personnel. As much as the British poems articulate a great admiration and gratitude to the US Air Force, perhaps reading the poems that the Americans themselves wrote is a more fitting tribute to their service and sacrifice.

 

For more poetry and other writings by and about the Americans, browse the category ‘Poetry and Literature’ in the 2nd Air Division Memorial Library’s Digital Archive.

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