Window to Winn with Bob Holeman

(Writer’s note:  I conducted this series of interviews with local World War II veterans in 2011-12.  Most of those 34 American heroes have passed away in the decade since.  This is the second of two interviews that combine a love story with the heart-breaking reality of war that Americans may never realize).

“Americans have no idea of the devastation of war,” said an English war bride in an emotional interview in which she described her memories more than six and a half decades following the D-Day invasion of Europe by Allied forces and its aftermath.

Audrey Walton struggled at times for words and wiped away tears as she continued, stating emphatically that it is a story that must be told lest later generations fail to understand the sacrifices that were made before for today’s freedom. “The thing about it is that if we don’t talk about it now, it will be forgotten. That’s what is sad.” Part of America’s inability to understand, she says, comes from the fact that no wars since the Civil War have been fought on American soil. England, on the other hand, was in harm’s way. “Our little country was destroyed.”

But the cost of war in terms of human life is hard to comprehend with newspaper statistics or even television or internet coverage. But incomprehensible suffering and death was all too real for an 18-year-old girl in the Royal Air Force (RAF) when she witnessed the carnage of wounded and dying boys brought back to England where available help and medicines were far too little.

Audrey Sinfield signed up for the RAF when she turned 18, admitting all these years later that she chose that branch of service because she liked their uniform best. Service itself was not optional. “Everyone served in the military, ages 18 to 45. We had to because we’re such a small country and we would have been overrun by the Germans. We knew the Germans were going to invade us any time they could. When we heard the bells ringing, that was the signal…we knew they were coming.”

The teen went north of Morecambe Bay, on the coast near Scotland, for her basic training where she recalls “it was so cold,” then returned to the more moderate climes of Portsmouth on the English Channel, a pre-war pleasure resort that was converted into the largest naval base in England. “There were 26 of us girls and most of us stayed in this three-story hotel.

“We were on the third floor. Every night, we looked out across the sea. It was full of boats and ships of all sizes, so many that you couldn’t see the water. They were preparing for the (European) invasion. All we had to keep us informed of the news was radio, but one morning we didn’t even need that to know the invasion had started. All of the boats were gone.

“The tragedy,” she said, choking back a sob as she continued, “was that by that afternoon, the streets of Portsmouth were filled with ambulances and litters and boys who were carried in on anything, even doors. And I mean these were boys, 18 to 21, not men, wounded or dying. They asked if any of us could help and I went down there. There were so many boys that we were stepping over them. There weren’t enough people to tend to them; there wasn’t enough medicine.

“I knelt down and asked one if I could help him. He asked if he could have a cigarette. I didn’t smoke but I took a pack from his pocket, took out a cigarette and drew in a breath to light it, then put it between his lips. I wonder to this day if he made it. Americans have no idea of what it’s like to be in a place like that and seeing all those young men dying. I hope and pray that America never sees what we went through.”

She went on, “After the war, a big cemetery was built near where I lived for many of those boys who didn’t make it home.”

Even in the days before her RAF experiences, a young Miss Sinfield would watch each morning as wave after wave of American planes, all in flight formation, would fly over her home en route to their targets over Europe. The missions would take 12 hours and with her father each evening she’d watch the returning flights, still in formation, with gaps where any lost planes would have been. “My father would always count how many men had been lost. This went on every day, every day. Then the British would fly the night missions.”

Mrs. Walton recounted one memory of heroic action by a crew. Hit over Europe, a Flying Fortress (B-17) was headed back towards England but the crew knew the crippled aircraft would not make it back safely to the base. They could have bailed out to save themselves but calculated that the unmanned plane would have gone down in the village of Cambridge, causing unknown death and destruction. “They made a pact and went down in the English Channel, never heard from again.”

Security was a high priority during those high tension years, she said. “You were scared to say anything to people who weren’t your close friends. You didn’t know who was the enemy. And when the city was blacked out, the least little light could be seen for miles by the enemy. You could be arrested if you went outside to light a cigarette.”

Her duties with the RAF in Portsmouth included the deployment of a kind of early-warning and protection system from German bombers. Barrage balloons were huge, blimp-shaped balloons that could be raised to certain heights and then pulled back to the ground as needed. Mrs. Walton explained that when the balloons were raised, thousands of them across the country, lower level airspace was denied to German bombers. They were forced up to much higher altitudes, with more inaccurate bombing runs. “It did save many lives.”

This war veteran is still reminded of those terrible scenes of death in the streets of Portsmouth when she sees TV coverage of fighting in Iraq. She also recalls the scale of destruction of her home country by remembering a return trip five years after the war’s end to see that many places were still in shambles.

But those who read last week’s Veterans series installment will remember that this story has a happy ending. A whirlwind romance just prior to the June 6, 1944, landing at Normandy found this young lady engaged to an American soldier from north Louisiana, Clomer Walton, who returned to claim her as his bride a year of battles later. When Walton finally came back to the United States (and Louisiana), his wife had to wait in England a while to fulfill her military responsibilities.  While their first child, Lucille, was born on British soil, she was granted American naturalization before heading to the U.S. with her “mum” at the tender age of 6 months. Audrey, however, has held proudly to her British citizenship to this day.