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Meet the African American engineers who built Eye airfield and worked on bases in Bury St Edmunds, Beccles and Framlingham during World War Two





They were the trailblazers who literally paved the way, but their story has largely been forgotten.

The African-American men of the 923rd Engineer Aviation Regiment lived, worked and loved in Suffolk while battling deep-rooted racism and segregation enforced by the US military.

These men, of the 827th, 829th, 847th and the 859th battalions, solely built RAF Eye, assisted in the completion of an airfield in Debach, near Woodbridge, and serviced aerodromes across the county during World War Two.

But why is their contribution to the war effort not widely known?

The 'friendly invasion' of American troops to the UK began in December 1941 with the aim to assist the war effort in Europe. By 1944 there were 71,000 American GIs in Suffolk and it was estimated that there was one GI to every six local resident.

The African-American personnel of the 923rd Engineer Aviation Regiment are the forgotten trailblazers who built Eye airfield. Picture: Supplied by 490th 490th BG Memorial Group
The African-American personnel of the 923rd Engineer Aviation Regiment are the forgotten trailblazers who built Eye airfield. Picture: Supplied by 490th 490th BG Memorial Group

But before they arrived, a smaller number of mainly black engineers came to Suffolk to build and work on the airfields, paving the way for the white pilots. They were based in Drinkstone and Tostock, with the largest camp at in Haughley Park, near Stowmarket.

Clive Stevens, a World War Two military historian, said: "Their first and foremost role was a soldier and secondly they were builders, they were engineers. They had three roles – to built the airfields and once the airfields were built they maintained them and they were also responsible for airfield defence, so they manned the anti-aircraft guns in the event of German attacks from the air.

"After the D-Day invasion in June 1944 the same men were shipped over to Europe to be responsible for airfield construction and airfield defence over there.

A parade through Stowmarket. Picture: Supplied by Stowmarket Local History Group
A parade through Stowmarket. Picture: Supplied by Stowmarket Local History Group

"They had a very busy war."

The engineers, a lot of whom came from Southern states like Louisiana and Upstate New York, began building Eye airfield in 1942 which did not become operational until April 1944 when the 490th Bombardment Group moved in. The job was dangerous and men died.

"One of the reasons why it dangerous was because of the speed that it needed to be carried out at," Clive added.

Eye airfield even featured a baseball ground. Picture: Supplied by Graham Cross
Eye airfield even featured a baseball ground. Picture: Supplied by Graham Cross

"We needed to get these aircraft units operational and flying combat missions and we couldn't do that without the construction of the airfields. There was a lot of haste and speed associated with what they were doing and as such risks got taken.

"The black troops worked 10 hour days and worked a seven day week."

Once the engineers built Eye airfield, they moved over to Debach which was operational from mid 1944. These airfields would have been similar to the current USAF bases in Lakenheath and Mildenhall, albeit a more stripped down version. The Eye aerodrome would have had its own hospital, mortuary, doctors, dentist, baseball field, theatre and accommodation for 3,000 men.

The construction of the bases was dangerous as they were built quickly. Picture: Supplied by 490th BG Memorial Group
The construction of the bases was dangerous as they were built quickly. Picture: Supplied by 490th BG Memorial Group

As well as the construction of the airfields, they also maintained bases in towns and villages including Bury St Edmunds, Honington, Framlingham, Beccles and Bungay.

During their time in the UK, the US military enforced Jim Crow style segregation, disallowing the black engineers to enter towns on certain days of the week.

"All of the fighting, the disagreement and segregation came about because of what was implemented by white American policy," Clive said.

The engineers were stationed in Drinkstone and Tostock, with the largest camp at in Haughley Park. Picture: Supplied by Stowmarket Local History Group
The engineers were stationed in Drinkstone and Tostock, with the largest camp at in Haughley Park. Picture: Supplied by Stowmarket Local History Group

"The overwhelming majority of the officers were white and the men underneath them were black.

"These men were treated woefully. If the men where off duty they wouldn't be allowed into Diss on a Saturday or Friday night because that would be reserved for the white troops. The blacks could only go in on a Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.

"They had military police on the roads leading into Diss so that if the troop trucks were coming in from Horham or Eye and they had blacks aboard they would stop the trucks and inspect them. If they were black they would turn them around and send them back to base.

The Eye airfield wasn't operational until April 1944. Picture: Supplied by 490th BG Memorial Group
The Eye airfield wasn't operational until April 1944. Picture: Supplied by 490th BG Memorial Group

"There was a slight logic to this in that if you kept them separate there wouldn't be a rumpus because there are all too many examples of blacks and whites were in the town on a Saturday night either one or both have had too much to drink and they ended up in horrendous fights."

However, although most Suffolk residents had never seen a black person, there was little racism between the British and the African American engineers and even interracial relationships were fostered.

Once the war was over, the airfields that were constructed were no longer needed and much of the land that was requisitioned from farmers to build the airfields to begin with, was handed back.

"The bombing campaign of Germany and Europe that was conducted in East Anglia was rendered obsolete because the military had developed the jet engine and the atom bomb and in the immediate post-war years they were developing intercontinental missiles so the type of warfare that required dozens and dozens of airfields across the region didn't really serve a purpose."

Clive added that after the war, General Eisenhower, who would later be president, did state in his memoirs that the aviation engineers were among the most important people he had in the European war, but there has been little recognition in the years that followed of the black engineers' contribution to the war effort.

The black engineers faced segregation enforced by the US military. Picture: Supplied by 490th BG Memorial Group
The black engineers faced segregation enforced by the US military. Picture: Supplied by 490th BG Memorial Group

"Their contribution was immeasurable," Clive added.

"Without the airfields, we wouldn't have been able to launch the daylight bombing campaign from the United Kingdom.

"The daylight bombing campaign was absolutely fundamental in conjunction with the RAF's night time bombing campaign – the two went together hand in glove. It was called the around the clock bombing campaign because the RAF and the commonwealth forces were doing it by night and the Americans were doing it by day – the idea being there would be no let up in the pummelling of Germany and the German's ability to fight the war.

Highlights for the regiment included meeting famous heavyweight champion Joe Louis Day. Picture: Supplied by Stowmarket Local History Group
Highlights for the regiment included meeting famous heavyweight champion Joe Louis Day. Picture: Supplied by Stowmarket Local History Group

"It is important to remember these men because of the contribution they men made to the ultimate successful outcome of the war. And it a great sadness that these black African-American engineers who had such a tough war have received little recognition over the past 80 years."

Some of the highlights of the regiment's history included the appearance of the 923rd United States Army Negro Chorus with Roland Hayes and when the entire regiment assembled when famous heavy weight boxer Joe Louis Day visited.

For more information, visit the 490th Bombardment Group Memorial Page.