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81st Fighter Wing 50th Anniversary Reunion, 15 September 2001.
Graham Haynes reports from an emotional field in Suffolk
September 1951 saw the arrival in the UK of personnel belonging to the USAF's 81st Fighter Interceptor Wing. As part of the Third Air Force under the command of United States Air Forces in Europe, the 81st became the first F-86 Sabre unit in Europe. Its role was to assist No.11 Group, RAF Fighter Command, with the air defence of the UK and to support offensive air operations against Warsaw Pact forces. RAF Bentwaters, in the heart of the Suffolk countryside, became the wing's headquarters although its three F-86A Sabre squadrons were co-located at Bentwaters and Shepherds Grove. The 81st was destined to remain at Bentwaters for the next 42 years.
On 15 September 2001, some 50 years after the 81st's arrival at Bentwaters, a large number of veterans and their families made the pilgrimage back to the base as part of the 81st Fighter Wing Association's 50th anniversary reunion. Amongst these 'vets' were aircrew and groundcrew associated with most, if not all of the aircraft types flown by the 81st whilst at Bentwaters - F-86, F-84F, F-101, F-4 and A-10. The event was charged with emotion, both from a historical viewpoint and as a result of the terrorist atrocities back in the US on 11 September. As a mark of respect for those who had lost their lives, both the union flag and the 'stars and stripes' flew at half-mast alongside the control tower. Throughout the day the control tower was open, allowing visitors the opportunity to view an excellent display of memorabilia and photographs.
Aircraft present at Bentwaters for the occasion were a P-51D Mustang and an AT-6D Harvard, the latter turning up unexpected. Near perfect weather conditions allowed both aircraft to carry out short but impressive flying displays before landing and parking by the control tower. Other than the RAF Harrier deployment in 1994 and occasional light aircraft movements, this was the first time the runway had been used since Colonel Roger R. Radcliff and Colonel Wally Berg flew the last two A-10s out on 23 March 1993.
The presence of the P-51 at Bentwaters was particularly significant as this type, albeit a different version, was the first aircraft to operate from the base. On 11 December 1944, Mustang IIIs belonging to 129 Squadron, RAF arrived at Bentwaters followed three days later by 118 and 165 Squadrons. A full complement of six squadrons was eventually reached by the end of December 1944 with the arrival of 234, 64 and 126 Squadrons. The Mustangs remained at Bentwaters until 5 September 1945.
Following the arrival of the Mustang and Harvard a short service was carried out to unveil a stone by the control tower dedicated to all those RAF and USAF personnel who served at Bentwaters between 1944 and 1993. Following the unveiling ceremony an announcement was made by the new owners of Bentwaters, Bill and John Kemball, of their intention to turn part of the control tower into a museum. This was good news for all those people, myself included, who want to see some form of museum at the base. Hopefully this museum will enable future generations to learn about the important role that RAF Bentwaters played during the Second World War and throughout the Cold War.
Graham has produced this CD-ROM which aims to provide an insight into what went on at RAF Bentwaters and RAF Woodbridge prior to the departure of the USAF. Although the title of this work is 'Bentwaters: The Living Years,' it would be impossible not to include Woodbridge because both bases effectively operated as one under the control of the 81st Tactical Fighter Wing. Graham has tried to keep to the subject matter where possible but has deemed it necessary in some instances to deviate and include material that is indirectly associated with Bentwaters and Woodbridge. This has been the case when writing about squadron and wing histories where he has elected to continue these up to the present day and not end at the point at which the respective units departed the Twin Bases.
Air-Scene UK thoroughly recommends this excellent product which contains around 1,000 photos and provides a fascinating record of what was one of the UK's busiest airfields, with unit histories, aircraft specifications and many pictures of jets from the fifties and sixties, not to mention many more obscure types. The foreword has been written by Major General Roger R. Radcliff, the 'Twin Bases' last commander. There have only been 100 copies produced, and a very limited number are now left, available on a first come first served basis. If you would like to purchase a copy of this CD at a cost of £30.00 plus postage & packing, please contact Graham at email@example.com.