Theodore Penn as he looked while serving in the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II. Penn was stationed at Royal Air Force Alconbury,
England, from October 1942 through October 1945, with the 685th Air
Materiel Squadron. (Courtesy Photo)
ROYAL AIR FORCE ALCONBURY, England (11/22/2012 - AFNS) --
On a typical day from 1942 to 1945, the flightline on Royal
Air Force Alconbury, England, would be full of activity as
aircrews, maintainers and weapons troops prepared as many
B-17 Flying Fortresses as they could for missions in
One of those troops was Ted Penn, a
quartermaster in the 685th Air Materiel Squadron, who
returned to RAF Alconbury on Nov. 13; the first time in 67
years; to discover the installation in a far different state
than when he left it in October of 1945.
On his tour
of the base, Penn shared some of his experiences about World
War II RAF Alconbury.
"We'd play baseball in the
summer and football in the winter," the 92-year-old Penn, of
Berkeley Heights, N.J., said. "We'd organized a baseball
team and played against Jimmy Stewart and his team when they
were here at Alconbury for a little bit."
Soldiers had many activities to choose from during their
downtime to keep them occupied and not go stir crazy, Penn
said. The command provided trucks to take us to local pubs
and towns where we would buy a meal and some drinks and
socialize with our British neighbors.
Not all of his
time at Alconbury was peaceful, as he was present when an
explosion rocked the runway. On May 27, 1943, after
delivering some supplies to the flightline, Penn stood
around talking with "the munitions folks" loading 500-pound
bombs on the B-17s before a mission. As the loaders were
finishing their task, they told Penn he should head out for
lunch and they'll join him.
"One of the guys, I
didn't know his name, told me to get on my bike and beat
them down to the mess tent so I could be first in line," he
said. "Halfway down the hill, I heard a terrific explosion
and the force rocked me on my bike. I hopped off and saw a
The ground personnel were arming a
B-17F (tail number 42-29685) in the dispersal area when the
500-pound bomb detonated. The explosion, in turn, set off
several other bombs. In an instant, 18 men were killed, 21
injured and four B-17s were destroyed on the ground. Eleven
other B-17s were damaged. Penn survived by mere seconds.
"The fellows I was talking to were all gone, and I could
just as well have been killed if they hadn't told me to go
ahead," he said. "Nothing was left of their plane but a big
Penn was also responsible for delivering
supplies throughout the island, including in the run-up to
the D-Day landings.
"My boss, Lt. Sheets, and I would
be on per diem where we wouldn't see the base for weeks at a
time," he said. "We were hauling equipment back and forth
all over, preparing for the invasion. There were times where
it seemed like if we brought more men and equipment, this
island would sink!"
During their time in Britain, the
Soldiers could also get passes to travel, giving Penn the
opportunity to visit Ireland, Leicester and London. Penn
happened to be touring London when victory in Europe was
"There were so many people out you
couldn't even move," he said. "Everyone was just happy,
laughing and crying on the streets and hanging out of
The post-war days at RAF Alconbury were not
all full of joy, however. While Penn and other Soldiers
stood in formation waiting to depart RAF Alconbury one last
time for home, in October 1945, the officer present asked
for a volunteer to run and fetch the paperwork necessary to
get them all home. A Soldier volunteered and hopped in the
waiting jeep for what should have been a 10 to 12 minute
"About thirty minutes after he left, someone
drove up and said the guy had rolled the jeep and died,"
Penn said. "It was very sad to see someone make it safely
through the war, only to die right before we went home."
After departing RAF Alconbury, Penn boarded the USS Lake
Champlain, an aircraft carrier converted to carry Soldiers
home from Europe. All of the aircraft were removed from the
carrier and there were Soldiers all over.
States, we hit the tail-end of a hurricane," Penn said. "The
waves were so high, they came up and washed over the flight
deck of the carrier. They'd also pick the ship up, and it
would start vibrating because the propellers were hanging
out of the water."
Once he got home, he surprised his
parents, since they weren't aware he'd be coming home so
"I was walking down the street and saw my dad
walking toward me," he said. "My dad did a double take and
then ran to greet me. He led me back into the house and in
the kitchen to show my mom, and said he wasn't going to work
Penn was accompanied to RAF Alconbury his
son, John, who grew up hearing stories of his father's time
in the Army.
"My father kept in touch with his Army
buddies after he left the service in 1945, but of the dozen
or so friends he wrote to each year, there is only his
friend, John Swisher, and himself left from the group," said
John. "I've always marveled at how much he remembers from
those days and hearing him tell of his experiences back then
allowed me to have a greater appreciation for what he
experienced as a 22-year-old Soldier away from home for the
John was the driving force behind the
visit, as he was determined to see where his father served.
It took several months to convince his father to come, but
he was finally able to convince his father to return to
"This was my father's second time in England
and my first," he said. "I would have felt something was
missing if we had not visited the airbase that was the
source of so many memories for him, both good and bad.
Alconbury played an important role in his life as a young
man, the three and half years he was there, and now I have a
better feel for the context of his stories, having seen the
base personally. It was important for me to give him the
chance to pass on his knowledge and experiences to today's
By USAF Capt. Brian Maguire
501st Combat Support Wing Public
Air Force News Service
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