Hethel Base Chapel

A work of art

A Chapel for the 389th

The Hethel RAF base had been handed over to the USAAF in October 1942 and numerous improvements and additions were made to runways, storage and accommodation for the arrival of the 389th Bomb Group. One of the buildings in the communal area included the gymnasium with large folding doors at its east end beyond which was a small chapel with its own entry door, and beyond that the Ops Room. If there was a large congregation for special services, the folding doors could be opened and the gym used for extra seating.

The chapel was for all denominations. Among the Protestant chaplains serving the 389th was Rev Earl Widen from Minnesota who was chaplain from the arrival of the 389th in 1943 until he died on base of a fatal heart attack on 28 June 1944. His funeral was conducted by the Catholic chaplain, Father Beck, a good friend who had worked so closely with him. The replacement chaplain left after a short time, and then Rev Paul Mellish, a Presbyterian from Cleveland, Ohio, arrived. He is described as 'quite reserved' but he too worked closely with Father Beck and enjoyed each others company. But of all the chaplains who served at Hethel it is Father Beck who made the greatest impact.

Father Gerald Beck ('White Flak')

Gerald Beck was a Franciscan priest of the Order of Friars Minor. He was born Othmar Beck on 19 June 1900 in the colourful Over-the-Rhine district of Cincinnati, Ohio - the 8th of 9 children of German-American parents Lorenz & Mary Ann Beck. His mother encouraged his musical talent and he became an accomplished pianist as well as playing violin and saxophone. He took the name Gerald when he joined the Franciscans in 1918 and was ordained in 1926. After mission and parish work, he was accepted as an army chaplain in 1941 and joined the 389th in Libya in 1943. He was met by Charles ('Bud') Doyle in his jeep 'Hellzapoppin'. Bud was a lapsed Catholic and they became good friends - and Bud was to play a significant role at Hethel Chapel.

By the time he reached Hethel in 1943, Father Beck was a striking figure with a shock of white hair who already had a reputation for his energy, enthusiasm and ability to get on with 'the boys' of any faith or none. He was awarded the Air Medal for flying with his men, before he was 'grounded' by the Head Chaplain when he reached England! On arrival at Hethel he sought out the local Catholic priest - Father Ketterer at Wymondham. Shocked at the situation for priest and people in wartime England he organised a 'silent collection' on the base which reached $1,200 (then £300). 'This huge amount astonished this poor, struggling English priest. He felt deeply grateful to the men of the 389th and continued to come on his bicycle to help Father Beck with Masses, confessions and [other] services. They became close friends....'. Father Ketterer often had Sunday lunch on the base - full meals in days of rationing - and the GIs continued to help his struggling parish financially whilst they were stationed in England. It was Wymondham Catholics who made and presented the chapel with altar linens and vestments. It was Bud Doyle, the driver of 'Hellzapoppin', who used his artistic talents to paint a life-size cross on the brick wall of the tiny chapel - a painting that remains to this day, now flanked by photos and a portrait of Father Beck.

After Father Beck arrived, the doors from the chapel into the gymnasium were seldom shut for services. Bud Doyle commented: ' I would not call Father a fire and brimstone type of speaker but he had quite a forceful way of getting himself across. Many people of other denominations attended Mass regularly just to hear and watch him. The number of confessions he heard was unbelievable.' Also, 'Most of the men; Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish, seemed to believe Father Beck could do anything to help them with their problems, whether in combat, on the ground or at home. I never heard him say it couldn't be done....'

There are many other memories:
From Joe Lauro, pilot of Regina Coeli (Queen of Heaven): 'Before each mission, Father Beck will eat his breakfast with the combat crew at 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning. His joking is heard throughout breakfast as he takes our minds off the mission.... After the target briefing he is found in the locker room shouting, "All you Catholics in the High Squadron (or Low Squadron) let's go to Communion." The gunners know the familiar call, for he never misses a mission and they begin to tread their way towards the white-haired chaplain, saying a few hurried prayers before they kneel to receive the "First Pilot", as the Protestant and Jewish boys stand to the side.....' [He does the same for the pilots, co-pilots, navigators and bombardiers in the navigation room.]  'After Father Beck's blessing, you will see him once again at the end of the runway giving a big smile and good luck high sign.'
Robert McCormack, a navigator on 'Precious Jewel' and a Protestant: 'The men loved and respected father Beck very much....probably because he had stowed away on one or more combat missions. He knew what they were experiencing.... He was an unforgettable man who touched many lives.'
William Stevens, pilot of 'Sugar Bar': 'In January 1945, Father Beck made himself known to all of us new arrivals. We were young, green, and well aware of the mortal danger that we would face daily.... [He] was a priest and a chaplain...more importantly a lover of God, God's people, his country, and his men of the Army Air Force.... He counseled us in Confession with compassion and tough love.' Stanley Katz, navigator on the same plane and a Jew, writes: 'This chaplain cared about me and my spiritual need and the spiritual needs of all of us regardless of our religious backgrounds.'
And from Colonel Ramsay Potts, Group Commander of the 389th: 'Father Beck was very companionable with the bomb crews who flew on the missions and he did a great deal to buck up their morale and keep them in a cheerful and affirmative mood. He was very down to earth for a cleric.'

Off duty, Father Beck would play dice, poker and other games with the 'boys'. Bud Doyle again: 'He was a kind of GI Robin Hood, win from the officers and lose to the enlisted men, mostly on purpose. In some cases, if he would win from the enlisted men, he'd give them their money back and tell them that should teach them not to gamble.' His office next to the chapel was facetiously called 'Beck's Social Club & Pool Hall'! He used his musical talents to entertain the men - any excuse for a party! But he didn't like the fact that the men were mixing with the English girls and let them know it. He earned his nick-name 'White Flak' from a gunner who returned from London after a 48-hour pass, met the chaplain who pointed out the error of his recent ways in no uncertain terms: '"Yep, old 'White Flak' knows the ropes, and you can't pull anything over his eyes.... I've seen heavy flak over Berlin, light flak over St Lo, but 'White Flak' is the toughest when I step out of line."'

Under his ministry attendance at Mass increased by 600% between July 1943 and August 1944. There were converts, baptisms and men were prepared for confirmation by the Bishop of East Anglia in the Catholic Cathedral in Norwich. A week after VE day the 389th received orders to return to the USA. They invited Father Ketterer of Wymondham for one last Sunday lunch and gave him their final collection. Father Beck left with the majority of the GIs from Bristol in SS Cristobel. He continued as a military chaplain - mainly to veterans in psychiatric hospitals - until 1948. After running a parish in Kansas he had one last spell as a chaplain - in the New Mexico State prison in Santa Fe, where he did much to ease the tension between staff and inmates. He gave his all to the men there, until he was too ill to serve. he returned to Cincinnati to be nursed by the Franciscan Sisters of the Poor. He died on 6th July 1962.

Information on Father Beck and quotes about him from 'White Flak: vignettes of a Franciscan Friar' by his niece, Jane Beck Sansalone (Regina Publishers, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1998)

A Chapel for 'Hethel Camp'

The post-war 'Camp' was in Hethel Parish and the former base chapel was used as a mission church. 'Religion on the camp was provided by the Church of England. If you were non-conformist or Catholic then there was no provision for you whatsoever' writes Michael Coates in Memories of a Hethel Childhood. But that was true of most of the villages in the area, too. He continues, 'the chapel.... was now under the control of the Reverend J Frost, who also had charge of All Saints' church, Hethel and St Nicholas' Church, Bracon Ash. He was a kindly old gentleman who lived with his wife in the the Vicarage in Bracon Ash. At first, the services in the camp chapel followed the basic Anglican form, usually conducted by Reverend Frost. Then, after a few years, a strong evangelical group took over the services at the chapel. Today, they would probably be known as "happy-clappy" with traditional hymns being replaced by choruses..... My mother, who was very much a traditional Anglican, didn't approve and ceased to attend services at the camp chapel.... Despite my mother's reservations we were still made to attend the Sunday School. The teachers were often teenage girls, so the lessons were not too onerous....' He tells of the Christmas nativity plays; of a later time when the Sunday School was run by 'a man whose name I no longer recall but who lived the other side of Wymondham' and his equally serious teenage daughter. He also speaks of attending Hethel Church, which introduced occasional family services, when Michael might get to pump the organ or take the collection. 'On special occasions, Easter, Harvest, Christmas, etc. we would attend an evening service at All Saints. Those services were usually quite well attended with the church almost full.'