Every now and then a piece of local ‘history’ intrigues me, especially when it involves a connection to the wartime experience of my family.
My grandfather, Cyril Cole, had worked on the land and in the mill at Roudham during and after the war, which had brought him into contact with Italian prisoners of war who had been housed at the military camp at Harling Road (Roudham) – the former RFC landing ground and later airfield home to Number 10 Training Depot Station and Number 10 Training School for the fledgling RAF. Its later incarnations included a detention camp for the Italians, but also Germans, and later as a resettlement camp for Polish servicemen.
The footprint of the old camp can still be seen, with a General Service shed complete with Belfast Truss roof, and a selection of Romney huts forming part of a more modern industrial estate, with many of these military relics still in use.
But it’s the allied WW2 phase that intrigues me most – a period when Harling Road fell into use by the US Army and ancillary units supporting the development of the USAAF airfields rapidly sprouting up across East Anglia, particularly Snetterton Heath; and especially an incident described in a series of anecdotes I stumbled across in an oral account recorded in 2011 by WISEArchive for Ancient House Museum of Thetford; rumours of which had drifted into family memory.
The full link is here:
Along with a number of interesting anecdotes about life around Harling Road, the fabulous article left me wondering if the victim of the incident could be identified. I got round to researching some of the background of likely units based there at the relevant time, using some of the clues in the account – allowing for a wide margin of error.
So what of the clues?
The US Army of 1942 that arrived in the UK was fully segregated under the Jim Crow laws, defining which units would hold black or white servicemen – black men overwhelmingly formed support units making it potentially easier to identify the relevant battalions.
We know the victim was a black serviceman. It’s inferred he was a ‘Sergeant’ and it’s assumed he was from a unit working there. We know where it happened, on the road close to the bungalows near the base; but not exactly when. All of this, though, depends on the accuracy of the memory of the storyteller.
Cursory checks identified the following American units stationed at East Harling at various points during the war:
364th Engineer General Service Regiment (Colored)
529th Quartermaster Service Battalion
829th Engineer Battalion Aviation
513th Ordnance Maintenance Company
Due to covid-delayed response from the US archives, I’ve not fully confirmed how many of the above mentioned formations were coloured units, but the 364th were a black unit, and I suspect the 529th were also. Due to references to white servicemen at the base, I presume at least some of the others on the list would be white only.
I began scoping American burial records to see if I could identify any potential names, using the American Battle Memorial Commission records. A working hypothesis that the victim might be buried here in the UK would quickly be scuppered if he’d been repatriated, which is entirely possible, but it was the best first option. For context, the US Graves Registration Service recovered 280,000 war dead, of which 171,752 were repatriated under the “Return of the Dead” program.
Searching the records for the units listed quickly narrowed down the options for finding a name; only the 364th and 829th had listed casualties buried in the UK, all at the American Cemetery at Madingley, near Cambridge. Separating them by rank clarified things further. Of the 829th, Richard F Dilley was a 2nd Lieutenant, Otha Clark was a Private First Class, and Robert Lamar, a Private.
364th Engineer General Service Regiment produced only 3 candidates.
Lonnie Story, Private First Class 3827053 from Oklahoma, died as a non combatant on August 3rd 1944.
Henry Wiggins, Staff Sergeant 34050935 from Florida, died as a non combatant on November 9th 1943.
Rufus Oten jr, Staff Sergeant 38259887 from Louisiana, died as a non combatant on November 23rd 1943.
So knowing that Henry Wiggins and Rufus Oten were from a black unit, and are the only candidates of the correct rank, have we narrowed down the possibilities to a field of two?
Owing to the situation with Covid and the inability to obtain service files and unit histories quickly from the US we are left guessing. Maybe the remembrances are completely inaccurate!
Luckily, internet searches did reveal a bit more about Rufus Oten, but without reference to the circumstances of his death. At least we can put a face to the name.
Dad has shared tales of how East Harling interacted with the influx of Americans during the war, including tales of how The White Hart pub took the side of black servicemen when the military police decided to break up fraternisation between black men and the locals. There’s a wealth of social history of similar stories from around the country on how the segregated US Army fitted in with their hosts and each other, so maybe tales of MP’s being driven off from White Hart Street under threat of violence aren’t that far from the truth.
It certainly adds weight to the mental image of black soldiers being made to walk on the opposite side of the street from Roudham on their way to get a beer in East Harling. Maybe Rufus Oten or Henry Wiggins were the person described as being summarily shot for the transgression of choosing, or accidentally testing the “Separate but Equal” doctrine. Equality certainly wasn’t in the mind of the man who pulled the trigger.
From this standpoint, it’s why I’ve decided to try and unravel the facts to identify the man shot dead because of the colour of his skin on a Norfolk lane. Maybe I’m expecting too much from the archives to contain the detail needed. Maybe there was a thorough investigation, and maybe someone was held to account. I’ve no idea how long it will take, or how much it might cost, but in the end I’d like to think the truth might be worth remembering. It might be I’m barking up the wrong tree entirely!
The search goes on…