The Friends Of Leiston Airfield History
History of FOLA
The 'Friends of Leiston Airfield' was formed in the summer of 1995 by Peter Saunders, Chris Betson and the late Peter Barker, after a group of people with holiday caravans on the 'Cakes & Ale Park', had become concerned that a small memorial erected on a hardstand in an area hidden from view from the general public, had become neglected and rubbish strewn.
The person who provided the motivation for me to start the 'Friends' was Gus Clutten. He lived in Rose Cottage adjacent to the airfield, he worked on the airfield for the duration of the USAAF's occupation and subsequently was employed by the owner of the Cakes & Ale. Gus and I used to chat at length about the airfield and the 357th and he was the first person to be made an 'Honorary Member'.
After several meetings it was agreed the name of the association would be the 'Friends of Leiston Airfield', and the Constitution states that the objects are:
'To preserve and develop the history of Leiston Airfield, Station 373, by forging and maintaining links with associations representing former military personnel. Erecting a Memorial and Information Point on Leiston Airfield in the vicinity of Harrow Lane to all who served on the Airfield during it's operational life, and in particular to those who lost their lives on active service. To fund and maintain the Mustang replica sited on the Cakes and Ale Caravan Park, and such other activities as shall from time to time be approved by the Committee'.
After some fund raising and a generous donation from the 357th Fighter Group Association in America, the present memorial, was erected in the autumn of 1997 on a section of the airfield perimeter track where it crosses Harrow Lane, and is therefore able to be viewed by the public. The 'Friends' hold the site on simple licence from Mr Peter Little owner of the adjoining Cakes & Ale Caravan Park.
A memorial and dedication service conducted by the Revd. Christine Brooks and supported by The Band of the Royal British Legion, Leiston was held on the 31st May 1998. The service was preceded by a stunning flying display by a single P51 Mustang aircraft 'Big Beautiful Doll' flown by Robert Davies and the unveiling ceremony was performed by Major General William S Hinton Jr Commander 3rd United States Air Force Europe at RAF Mildenhall. Also on parade were the USAF Honour Guard from RAF Lakenheath and 1379 [Leiston] Squadron Air Training Corps.
Watching proudly were four veterans and their spouses, the committee of 'The Friends of Leiston Airfield' otherwise known as 'FOLA' and a crowd of some 500 people from the Cakes & Ale, the town of Leiston and the surrounding areas.
Many of the crowd remembered the Americans coming to Leiston and eagerly recalled instances from those dark days of 1944/5 with our guests. There were of course the tragic memories of crashes but also the fond memories of the base dances and the visits to the local pubs.
Of our guests, Pat Buzzeo met his future wife Audrey in Leiston, she was a Land Army girl billeted in the White Horse Hotel, which had been taken over by the government and he a Crew Chief with the 357th Fighter Group. John Roche, an armourer with the 364th Fighter Squadron, became good friends with the Wilson family in Leiston and has continued that friendship, together with his wife Grace, both couples have welcomed each other into their homes. Don Kocher met a young girl, Freda, whilst training at RAFGoxhill nr Grimsby, Don, a pilot, was posted to Leiston, they subsequently married and have returned to enjoy this very nostalgic day. Joe DeShay made a return visit to his wartime home where he was first of all a Crew Chief and then a Hangar Chief. He said there was plenty of work but not much play as the serviceability of the aircraft was his prime concern. Joe, accompanied by his wife Ellen are described as 'the glue that keeps the 357th Fighter Group Association together' acting as Membership Secretary and Secretary respectively.
Since 1998 we have held a memorial service and flying display every year when the USAFE from RAF Lakenheath or Mildenhall return to provide us with an honour gurd and a contingent of airmen. Local dignitaries always attend as well as cadets of local Air Training Corps squadrons. Music is provided by the Leiston Royal British Legion Band and the Reverend Christine Brooks officiates.
This annual event not only attracts many people from the locality and further a-field but veterans, their children, grandchildren and other family members from the USA. However, bad weather severely curtailed our arrangements in 2000 and 2007. Over the years we have been fortunate to have the following aircraft types appear at our event: P51 Mustang, AT6 Texan and the RAF variant the Harvard, Yak 11, Yak 52 and the RAF's Battle of Britain Memorial Flight Lancaster, Spitfire and Hurricane.
Each year we also attend the American Military Cemetary at Cambridge on their memorial day to lay wreaths on the 'Wall of the Missing' and on the only two 357th pilots buried there, William Thompson and Robert Hoffman.
Many veterans have visited the airfield at other times before FOLA was formed including a large contingent in 1992.