RAFM pilot brings new angle to heritage after serving at three of four squadrons sharing 100th BG roots

  • Published
  • By Karen Abeyasekere
  • 100th Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs

During World War II, the 100th Bomb Group at Thorpe Abbotts, Diss, England, consisted of the 349th, 350th, 351st, and 418th Bomb Squadrons. A pilot from Royal Air Force Mildenhall, Capt. Brett Anderson, is now stationed at his third of the modern-day squadrons that all owe their heritage to the B-17 Flying Fortress pilots once stationed at the 100th BG.

Anderson, a 351st Air Refueling Squadron pilot was previously stationed at McConnell Air Force Base, Kansas, flying KC-135 Stratotankers with the 349th Air Refueling Squadron, then moved over to the 350th Air Refueling Squadron, also at McConnell Air Force Base. The 349th ARS is now a KC-46 Pegasus squadron.

“I basically showed up at McConnell AFB, went to the 349th BS and flew KC-135s with them for two-and-a-half years when they started converting everybody (over to KC-46s). I asked to stay with the KC-135s, so they moved me over to the 350th BS,” said Anderson. “I knew that if I wanted to get to England, then I’d have to stay with that aircraft, and I became an instructor pilot with the 350th, so I could hopefully get a follow-on to RAF Mildenhall.”

The 351st pilot and 100th Operations Support Squadron assistant director of operations said he’d been trying to get to England since he started his career in the Air Force. On every one of the three assignment sheets given to him, he put Mildenhall first on the list. Third time was a charm.

“At the 349th and 350th ARS, we would have briefings, usually on ‘First Friday,’ and commander discussions about the heritage of our squadrons, but there wasn’t a formalized event like they have at Thorpe Abbotts,” recalled Anderson. “During those briefings, they would tell stories of the history to bring some of that back. When I arrived at the 349th ARS, they were making a big push to pull the heritage into the squadron; the entire upstairs hallway was redone with a timeline of where it started, with its history displayed on the wall.

“There was an awareness for sure, but being in England and having the close proximity to Thorpe Abbotts, definitely makes the history more real,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to live in England; growing up my dad was in the Air Force and we moved overseas, which was an awesome experience for my siblings and I to experience different culture and language.”

Anderson commissioned in 2014 and has a military background which stretches back to his grandparents, so the Air Force was in his blood.

“Both my grandfathers are Air Force veterans – one was a navigator on KC-97 Stratofreighter, and the other was a pilot during Vietnam, flying various aircraft, including the C-47 Skytrain,” he recalled. “My dad was a B-52 pilot; my twin brother is a KC-46 pilot and we were stationed at McConnell AFB together.”

“My wife and I saw this as a good opportunity to expose our kids to something outside of their normal bubble, to open their minds and expand their horizons. Our oldest son is 6 years old and goes to a local British school; he’s really enjoying that and making lots of friends.”

Anderson made his first trip to Thorpe Abbotts Feb. 2, 2023, when attending the 351st ARS heritage patching ceremony, and said while there he saw all his old former squadrons’ heritage patches and numbers on display at the 100th Bomb Group Memorial Museum.

“I know there’s an incredible aviation history here,” he remarked. “When my dad was visiting about a month ago, we went to Duxford, which was incredibly fun to walk around and see all the airplanes with him. It seemed like the tour guides knew more than we’ll ever know about airplanes! We saw a B-52 while there, and my dad let the guide know he’d flown B-52s – the guy’s face just lit up, and he started asking all kinds of questions. It showed there’s an incredible appreciation for the history of flying, that’s fun to see.”

While visiting Thorpe Abbotts with his current squadron, Anderson said he was greatly impressed with all the books available on display there, covering many different stories.

“When I saw the books, I realized there’s an incredible amount of information out there that I’d love to dive into. I want to go back and look more into the history of the 349th and 350th Air Refueling Squadrons, and maybe even go back and retroactively piece together my career, to see where the roots are.

“I have a big appreciation for each squadron,” he said. “I showed up to McConnell as a member of the 349th ARS, but due to training timelines I ended up deploying with the 350th ARS right out the gate, as they needed an extra pilot. We went straight to a deployment that was very busy, but it was amazing for my career, as far as learning how to fly the tanker, deliver gas to the different receivers in different scenarios. I was able to fly consistently enough to feel comfortable, happy and excited to be in the tanker, and without that I probably wouldn’t have gotten there or reached the level of proficiency I needed.”

As soon as the deployment was over, Anderson was able to return to the 349th ARS with that experience and fly with them on missions, TDYs and training.

“I deployed with the 349th at the end, and that was a completely different deployment,” he recalled. “Though we weren’t as busy at the beginning, that’s the timeframe when the U.S. was withdrawing from Afghanistan and all of a sudden, we got very busy doing more important and critical missions. I got to be a tiny part of Air Force history with the 349th, and I loved that experience and the fact they let me go out there and do some missions which included flying on the last night of the withdrawal. On that last night that we had troops and planes in Afghanistan, getting out of the country, I was able to be there on station giving gas – that was incredibly rewarding!”

The now-351st ARS pilot explained that RAF Mildenhall has a very dynamic mission from one week to the next.

“We could be doing any kind of mission, from refueling local or NATO allies to aeromedical evacuation practice for real-world missions. It’s very different dynamic here, and very interesting to tie that back to the origins of the 351st BS, when they were out here consistently flying incredibly important, but harrowing, missions. I’ve been thinking about how we use the same tracks, air space and direction to make our own difference now.”

Anderson said in the short time stationed in England, he and his family have visited another couple of small, local World War II airfields to learn more about the history.

“But Thorpe Abbotts is a beautiful place to go, and I can’t wait to take my boys there and show them around,” he said. “I love this aspect of being stationed here, and I recognize the importance of heritage and history.

He shared that when he was in college, at Brigham Young University, Utah, there was a memorial dedicated to all the students who had been killed in action while in the military.

“It listed names of all those killed in action from World War I up to Operation Enduring Freedom,” remarked Anderson. “Seeing that on a regular basis meant I felt a pretty strong connection to the heritage there as I was making the decision to join the Air Force, take the oath of office, and knowingly put myself into military service.”

Because of this, he began a project to honor those names listed on the wall.

“I researched every single name on the list; there were some I couldn’t find anything on, but I found quite a bit of information, stories and newspaper clippings on some who were from World War II. I was into running at the time and ended up running a mile for each name – there were 210 names – over the course of my senior year.

“I wanted to dedicate some time and attention to that heritage. What struck me was how many of them were aviators, and how many had been shot down from the bomber groups in England, or in their initial training. Now I’ve been to Thorpe Abbotts, I want to give myself another project and look back over that list, whether killed in action or other alumni from my university who did make it back, to do some more research on them, now I’m actually stationed in England.”

Anderson remarked that although none were stationed at the 100th Bomb Group, at least four were former bomber aircrew, and one – 2nd Lt. Billy Hugo Huish – was a navigator with the 332nd Bomb Squadron, stationed out of RAF Bassingbourn, in Cambridgeshire, England.

“I’d love to find another piece of the puzzle so to speak, just to show how connected we all are, and how through all these different periods of time there have been similar people doing similar things, for the same reasons, sacrificing their lives,” he said.