Second World War heroes’ poignant return to Grafton Underwood airbase

Veterans Henry Kolinek,  Henry Sienkiewicz, and Leonard Estrin
Veterans Henry Kolinek, Henry Sienkiewicz, and Leonard Estrin

Veterans of an American bomber squadron have made an emotional visit to the airbase which was their home during the Second World War.

The ex-airmen were joined on their pilgrimage by their families and those of their colleagues in the 384th Bombardment Group (Heavy).

Neill Howarth

Neill Howarth

A special open-air service was held at the memorial in Geddington Road during which three veterans placed wreaths in tribute to their fallen colleagues.

All three former airmen flew on the famous Flying Fortress B-17 bombers to targets in Europe from May 1943 until June 1945.

Returning to the airfield was former tail-gunner Henry Kolinek, 94, who flew 35 missions with the 544th Squadron; Henry Sienkiewicz, 97, who as a navigator was the bomb aimer flew 35

missions with the 545th Squadron, and 94-year-old Leonard Estrin, a ball-turret gunner who flew 17 missions with the 546th Squadron.

Mayor of Kettering Cllr Keli Watts joined families at the memorial

Mayor of Kettering Cllr Keli Watts joined families at the memorial

A colour guard comprising US military personnel from RAF Molesworth carrying the Stars and Stripes and a Union Flag added to the pomp and ceremony.

After the service led by the Rev Graham Bell, Northants Military Vehicle Trust members drove guests on tours of the old base.

The trip was arranged by the 384th Bomb Group UK, on behalf of the veterans and the families.

384th Bomb Group UK member Neill Howarth has been busy organising the itinerary helped by fellow volunteers Matt Smith from Clopton, and Kevin Flecknor and Jason Mann, both from Kettering.

The Colour Guard from RAF Molesworth

The Colour Guard from RAF Molesworth

Neill, who lives in Barton Seagrave, said: “We’ve been planning this for over a year.

“The visitors really enjoyed the ceremony. The weather was perfect and they have been bowled over by all the support."

Mayor of Kettering Keli Watts, who grew up in America, attended the ceremony.

She said: “It was a colourful and emotional service. I was pleased to see so many visitors, especially the veterans who have such fond memories of Grafton Underwood and its people.

Rev Graham Bell leading the service

Rev Graham Bell leading the service

“I told Len that he was a hero and he said ‘Don’t call me a hero – the heroes are the ones that didn’t come back’.”

Neill added: “We used to play on the airfield when we were children and we grew up knowing about the airmen.

“Interest in the history is growing and we want to preserve the site and educate people about it.

“We don’t get paid a penny for doing this – it’s our passion.

“They gave their lives so we could have a future and we’re trying to pay back the debt on behalf of the community.”

For further information about the 384th Bombardment Group (Heavy) go to their website.

Henry Kolinek, 94, who flew 35 missions with the 544thSquadron places a wreath.

Henry Kolinek, 94, who flew 35 missions with the 544thSquadron places a wreath.

Military personnel from RAF Molesworth were in attendance

Military personnel from RAF Molesworth were in attendance