I thought that would be the last of the story. Thankfully, I was wrong.
In June of 2010 I received a letter from Iain Edwards, a friendly gentleman from England. Mr. Edwards forwarded the following story of his encounter and corrospondance with Winans Shaddix, the pilot of Ol' Dad.
My little story began in 1996. I was 58 then and had just lost my wife of 37 years after a long illness. My main hobby was then and still is to some extent now Ham Radio, and it was always a great pleasure to swing my beam antenna Stateside when conditions were right and chat to fellow Amateur Radio guys across the water. I collected 'Counties' and so looked forward to getting the QSL cards from my contacts confirming the 'hook-up ' and then marking off a new 'County' in my logbook, the ultimate prize for a full house being a framed certificate. Needless to say I never did get that certificate since Alaska and Hawaii have always been elusive radiowise from this location. I did however make regular skeds' with the same stations, and one of these was with Frank, WB4ZOD who lives in Jasper Alabama. He and his wife Sharon were sad when they heard I had lost Sheila and lost no time in sending out an invitation for me to go over to AL and spend a little time with them.
"No excuses" said Frank, "get yourself a flight and I will collect you in Atlanta."
This is what happened, and I arrived in Atlanta in the summer of 1996 and was duly collected by Frank and brought back to Jasper. We got along fine. He was a miner and in his time had seen service in the Korea. I had been in the RAF in my early years although not a flier, and had been involved in civil engineering since I left the Air Force.
Frank and Sharon showed me around a great deal. I was taken up to the Space Centre at Huntsville and to Birmingham and Montgomery where I even had the pleasure of being intruduced to the Governors Secretary who shook my hand and gave me a badge. She said how nice it was to meet somebody from England, and added that the Governor was over in England right now. I asked where in England he was and she replied Stuttgart. On that note we left her office.
It was a few days into my stay in Jasper that Frank decided we should go to the flea market. A few days earlier we had visited the bigger market at Cullman and I had bought a very nice piano accordion at what I considered to be a good price.I have always enjoyed the accordion from boyhood and over the years played with several dance bands.
Frank had told me that a group of old timers had a get-together with their slide guitars and mandolins most times in the corner of the flea market and he said it would be a good idea to take along the accordion and sit in with them for a while. I did exactly this and was welcomed into the fold and told to sit down and join in. It was an 'every man for himself' affair. I first had to guess the tune that was being played, then sort out the key, and finally find a suitable entry point and get stuck in. All by ear of course.
This tall man sitting slightly in front of me and was playing banjo turned round and said, "What key are we playing in buddy?" to which I replied "D".
"Oh boy that's not an easy key for me." said the banjo player.
When the market frenzy faded and folk began to drift away, the old boys put away their instruments and quietly disappeared the banjo man introduced himself.
"Call me Shadrach" he said, "everybody else does round here." Then he went on "Have you ever been to Diss?" I replied that I hadn't, in fact I had never heard of it.
"It's in Norfolk England" Shadrach continued, "I was stationed just up the road from there during the war at a place called Thorpe Abbotts. I flew B 17's." I think I went quiet for a few seconds to ingest what Shadrach had said. This old boy in his faded blue bib overalls and orange cap and precious banjo, had just told me he had actually flown wartime missions over Nazi Germany as a B17 pilot . He went on to tell me that after the air force days he had settled in Double Springs AL and had gone into the lumber business. Shadrach told me that he had written a book on his wartime exploits, and that he would bring me a copy on the next market day. Well Frank and I turned up the following market day and Shadrach showed as well with a copy of his book for me called "Not the Bloody Hundreth Again". The title seemed odd, but of course makes sense now we know the full story that. Having been shot down over Belgium, evading capture and eventually repatriated back to the USA he was then sent back to Thorpe Abbots for a second bite of the cheery. Good title. Shadrach and I shook hands at that market and I told him that when I got back home I would take a trip over to Thorpe Abbotts and Diss and take a few photographs, and send them on to him if indeed there was anything left to photograph. ................I was to be surprised.
It was nearly two years later before I made that trip across to Norfolk. Things had moved on for me. A new lady had come into my life, indeed a former friend of my first wife and herself alone. I had traded in my trailer caravan and together we bought a secondhand motorvan....certainly not American RV in size, in fact we call them campers over here, but one day we packed a few things into it and set off for Norfolk. From where we live here in Shropshire the county of Norfolk is about 150 miles or thereabouts. I had already learned of how the B17's and the Liberator crews planes flew nightly sorties over Germany and the terrible losses incurred.
I had read Shadrach's book at least three times. I had met Major Winans Shaddix USAF and a photograph of him resplendant in his uniform adorned the inside cover. It was a gripping tale and I could not wait to start looking for that old airfield called Thorpe Abbotts.
Arriving at Diss I made enquiries at the tourist information offices in the High Street, and was told that there was quite a lot to see at the old base although the main runway and billeting areas had been turned back to agriculture. We where also told that there was a museum to be seen there.
The following day Sandra and I made our way through the back lanes, quite off the beaten track, searching for a gated entrance to the museum. We had to stop and ask an elderly couple if we were heading the right way. Yes they said, not very much further. The man said he had lived all his life in the area and remembered the airfield during the war years. He said they got to know the American boys well especially the ground maintenance crews who he remembered would be quite happy "to take you up for a spin when they where doing test flights." A few minutes later we turned the campervan through the gates into the museum area of Thorpe Abotts. A car park was to our right and a large nissan hut type building covered in corrugated sheeting freshly painted in khaki. This was the original quartermasters stores, in sound condition now serving as the reception and information office. To the front of us was the recently renovated Flight Control Tower, again all in pristine khaki paint. I learned later that the "Mighty Eighth" made funds available for the upkeep.
At the reception desk I started to tell my tale of how I had met Major Shaddix, but I had hardly opened my mouth before one of the staff came out with 'Ole Dad '. He turned open what I seem to remember as being quite a hefty book, containing the names of B17 crews and other information. Major Shaddix was a man of some standing here, I was told. In fact he had his own command. I listened to the story again of "Ole Dad's" tragic end and of how the crews managed to bale out and later captured except Major Shaddix who evaded capture and later was repatriated back to the USA before being once again returned to the 100th Bomb Group.
"That's right." I said, thinking of the title of Shad's book.
I produced the book and told them that Major Shaddix would like them to retain it at the museum. I was happy for them to have it and be available for others to read. The staff told me they knew about this book although had not read it, but said it contained some very "naughty" paragraphs in which Shad' had given vent to his feelings and thoughts of General Patton and one or two other high ranking officers. Well they were quite right, he had indeed slated the military hierachy in no small measure. Shadrach had his reasons.
Sandra and I spent most of that day browsing around. Within the quartermasters building several TV monitors had been set up showing films of B17's in action during the war. Facinating archives. Inside the old Control Tower we found more artifacts. Photographs of aircrews, and sad letters which had been left behind. A baseball bat found by the local farmer when he reclaimed the airfield was a poignant reminder of what crews got up to during what little leisure time they got.
I decided I wanted to make a surprise telephone call to Shadrach to tell him where I was. I checked the time first as I didn't want to be giving him a very early call, but I reckoned that since it was around 2 pm at that time in the UK, it would be about 9am his time in Alabama. I climbed to the top of the control tower and looking out over the old airfield dialled his number on my mobile. A young man answered and I told him who I was and where I was speaking from and asked to speak if possible to Mr Shaddix.
"I'm sorry sir" said the young man "I saw my daddy about a half hour since getting in his truck and heading off. He had his banjo with him so I guess he is heading for the market, but when he returns I will pass on your message."
So that was that. As Sandra and I left Thorpe Abbotts that afternoon we took a road which brought us around the airfield perimeter and we managed to look down on what was the main runway, albeit now a field of thriving corn, with the control standing to the left of it. Many young brave aircrews had set off from here never to return, very very many. The Bloody 100th Bomb group indeed. One gets the feeling that time has stood still in this part of Norfolk. So quaint and laid back, and the people so friendly and welcoming. A couple of miles from Thorpe Abbotts we stayed at a small farm campsite for the night before heading back to Shropshire. The owners father wandered over to chat and leaning on his stick told us how his wife used to tailor the uniforms for some of the servicemen stationed at the camps. The word had got around somehow that she was a seamstress. Of course a stones throw from here was the USAF base at Tibbenham and it was from here that Jimmy Stewart flew Liberators.
I sent Shadrach many pictures of his old base and over a period of time we kept in touch and I received four letters altogether.
"Those pictures had me in floods of tears Iain." he said. "I would never want to go back to that place because of the sad memories of the dead."
His sense of humour was always there even when his health began to fail.
"You are the fifth scholar who went to Thorpe Abbotts checking up on me." he told me. "You make me feel important." By the year 2000 he was struggling with prostate cancer and breathing problems as well. He told me he had built up a good timber business, and owned 350 acres in Double Springs. He loved music and had two of most instruments but couldn't play any of them well because he lacked the patience. His favourite instrument was his banjo, but also in his house he had a Hammond organ which gave them a lot of pleasure because his wife was a very good pianist. I received Shadrach's last letter in 2002. It was handwritten and he apologised for the delay in answering my last letter to him. He said he had undergone heart surgery and a hip replacement as well and added that I would not recognise him now.
"If ever you get back over here I hope you will come and visit me." I wrote back and wished him well and said that it had been a great experience meeting him and learning about his time at Thorpe Abbotts and that I would always remember him and aircrews like his who gave so much for this country. I said it had been an honour to shake his hand.
I learned from the museum staff at Thorpe Abbotts in 2006 that Major Shaddix had passed on but they were unsure of the date.
What started out to be a little story seems to have turned out to be on a par with "Gone with the Wind". I feel you may have already visited these places in Norfolk and if you have I apologise for boring you with information that you know about. Major Shaddix's book was probably only 200 pages. He talked of his early childhood folowed by his training as a pilot and the journey to the UK by boat ariving at Liverpool and the train journey to Diss, the same as described by Sergeant Hugh Hamilton in his story. He described his time with the Belgian Resistance workers whom he joined and worked with for a while. He actually did an update on the first book because he said he had made errors and I believe it was published but I dont know which copy I received and passed on to the museum, probably the later version.
I am constantly amazed at how this story continues to unfold over the years. It's been almost ten years now since I did the first research on Ol' Dad and the aircraft, and it's story, has taken on a life of its own. As of this writing I have received one more letter from a gentleman who may be related to Major Shaddix. I certainly hope that I am able to post yet another story of Ol' Dad in the future.