The presence of “transient personnel” at Grenier Field in Manchester was a constant reality during World War II. Combat units of the U.S. Army Air Forces would stop at the air base on their way to Europe as they traveled from American bases to the south and west.
A story told by an Army veteran, Bertha Barwikowski, points to the fact that Grenier Field also hosted airmen who were not American citizens and who were traveling from Canada to Europe. In an oral history interview she stated that “A lot of overseas Canadian troops would come through.” She proceeded to tell an interesting story that has a local connection.
Bertha (Bielen) Barwikowski was of Polish ancestry and grew up in an immigrant community in Stamford, Conn. During the war she was a WAC (Women’s Army Corps soldier), serving at Grenier Field from October 1944 to May 1945. Her job was to handle clerical tasks in the base command office. The record of her interview, conducted in 2000, is held in the archives of the Betty H. Carter Women Veterans Historical Project at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro, N.C.
In her narrative Bertha told of her interactions with a group of Polish airmen who had arrived at Grenier Field from Canada. She provided no information about their origins, but it can be speculated that they had been trained there as part of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP), which had been established in 1939 to train air crews for Canada, Great Britain, New Zealand, and Australia. More than 131,000 pilots, navigators, bombardiers, radio operators, gunners, and flight engineers were trained through the program and deployed to the original four countries and to other allied nations.
From 1942 to 1944 a total of 448 Polish airmen trained in Canada. Some were naturalized Canadian citizens, some had dual Canadian/Polish citizenry, and some were Polish exiles who had been sent to Canada from Britain for training. The Polish airmen passing through Grenier Field were likely headed to England, where they would serve in the Royal Air Force (RAF).
As Bertha told the story, “Well, we got some young men from Poland, and there must have been eighteen or twenty of them that came into the office, and one of them had an aunt who lived in Manchester. … He was trying to find a way to go see her. Of course, they weren’t going to let him off the base. They didn’t want anybody to know that this large group of Poles were here. So, they’re sitting there, and they’re talking away in Polish, and they don’t know how to do anything. They’re lost, nobody to help them. They were only in there muddling.”
She continued, “Well, I’m taking it all in, and then I realized, ‘Boy, these fellows don’t know anything. They don’t know what’s going on, where to go. So, I stood up and start talking Polish to them, and they almost come over the counter after me. But when they found out that I could speak Polish, then I acted as an interpreter.”
She expressed that encountering the Polish airmen was “the funniest thing that ever happened to me there (at Grenier Field). That was really shocking!”
She went on, “They were only there three days. But we had a terrible time explaining to that one fellow. His mother’s sister lived in Manchester.”
The young man was not allowed to see his aunt, though it is possible that he was permitted to speak with her over the phone. Bertha promised that she would visit her when she was allowed to.
She took photos of him with his fellow airmen, all posing in their uniforms, to give to the aunt. Ten days after the men left, Bertha was allowed to visit the woman in Manchester. She brought her the gifts that her nephew had purchased for her at the base store.
Unfortunately, Bertha did not mention the name of the Polish airman or his aunt in the interview. Readers of this column are encouraged to contact the author if you have any information about the Polish airman’s family that could help complete this story for the historical record.