Roger Freeman: the farmer who wrote the history of the Eighth Air Force
Roger Freeman was a farmer’s son who lived close to Boxted airfield in Essex, used by the United States Eighth Air Force during the Second World War. His teenage enthusiasm for the airfield developed into a life-long interest, and he published many highly respected books on the US Air Forces in Britain, whilst making his living as a farmer.
Roger Anthony Wilson Freeman was born in 1928, and lived on his family farm in Dedham, a village on the border of Essex and Suffolk, his whole life.
In 1943, Roger’s father pulled him out of school at age 15 to co-opt him into work on his farm, it coincided with the arrival of the US Army Air Forces at Boxted.
I spent all my spare time hanging over the hedge, because there was a public road right along one side of the airfield which wasn’t closed. And you’ve got a good view of these aircraft.... And we boys began to collect, write down the serial numbers of each plane together with its nickname, and adopted aircraft as our personal aircraft. They were our favourites.
B-26 Marauder Privy Donna of the 386th Bomb Group was one of Roger’s first favourite aircraft. Its radio call letter was A, which Roger assumed meant it was flown by the most important person in the unit. Roger met the pilot, Captain Albert Caney, many years later.
Roger began taking long bicycles rides to surrounding airfields and kept records of which aircraft were flying, who was flying them and what distinguishing marks (nose art and victories) were painted on them. When his mother took his jacket in to be cleaned, the owner of the shop found Roger’s detailed notes in a pocket and called the police, sure that he had caught a German spy.
Undeterred, Roger later began acquiring copies of the US military newspaper Stars and Stripes from a local girl with an American boyfriend. He realised he was reading about the people, aircraft and units he encountered at Boxted and began researching them in earnest.
The Mighty Eighth
After the war Roger worked as a farmer, but over the years found time to correspond with hundreds of veterans and researchers in the USA and in Europe.
Roger climbing a tree near Leiston while investigating Otto Jenkin’s P-51 Mustang crash in 1953.
In 1970, after almost 25 years amassing letters, official documents and photographs Roger published his history of the units, men and machines of the Eighth Air Force. He titled it The Mighty Eighth to appease his publishers, who demanded a snappy title to appeal to American audiences at the last minute.
‘I sat once beside the current Eighth Air Force commander. And he said, "the call sign of the plane I use is Mighty Eighth One"... and I hadn’t the gall to tell him that that was dreamed up by an old English farmer!’
Roger went on to complete more than 60 books on the American airmen in Britain during the Second World War, with his Mighty Eighth trilogy being among some of the most highly respected works on the subject. He forged a reputation as a first-rate researcher and author, which meant that his expertise was called on by many different projects seeking historical accuracy.
In 1989 he acted as the technical adviser on David Puttnam's Memphis Belle feature film and he advised on the development of the American Air Museum before its opening in 1997. He was also the historian of the 8th Air Force Historical Society for many years.
The Roger Freeman collection
Throughout his career, Roger collected images from veterans and official sources, identified and sorted them.
Shortly before his death from terminal illness in 2005, he decided to box up his study and sell the collection to his publishers. These same boxes were purchased by IWM in 2012 as part of a project to refresh the American Air Museum.
The vast majority of these photos are now available in the American Air Museum’s archive. Many of these images are black and white but a significant proportion of them are in colour. The colour photographs in particular offer a fresh view of Second World War military life.