Villagers mark 70th anniversary of Huntingdonshire war hospital

FOR a short time in the 1940s, Diddington was transformed from a sleepy village into a hive of military and medical activity.

Now home to fewer than 100 people, Diddington played host to thousands of wounded American personnel during the Second World War, who were treated at an American field hospital, the US Army’s 2nd Evacuation Hospital.

Built in 1942 by British engineers in Diddington Park, on land owned by the Thornhill family, the hospital was staffed by doctors and nurses shipped to the UK from New York on the Queen Mary liner.

In just seven months, the 750-bed hospital would care for more than 4,200 patients – with just nine recorded deaths.

This weekend, villagers will remember the heroic war effort of Diddington’s past residents with the unveiling of a memorial commemorating the hospital.

A dedication ceremony will take place on Saturday in front of the families of American officers, the US Color Guard from Molesworth and the St Neots Air Cadet Band. One of those present will be Jean Decker, whose mother, Ann Slocumb, was a nurse in Diddington.

Mrs Slocumb, 92, said: “In Diddington, we bunked in groups of four nurses, who we trained with in New York, so we felt like a family.

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“The village and the manor are beautiful and we felt very welcome in Diddington and all the locals were always kind.”

As well as unit personnel, the memorial will remember the men who lost their lives in the conflict.

Another person who will be at Saturday’s event is resident Lorraine Sherrington.

When Mrs Sherrington moved to the village seven years ago, she was unaware of its history.

“It came as a shock to know about the hospital,” she said. “It was only in the last couple of years we found out and since then we set about trying to learn more.

“It’s fascinating that this type of thing was found in our village and this year marks the 70th anniversary of the hospital so we wanted to do something for it.

“The village would have been completely different back then and there would have been so much going on, with patients coming in and out.”

Mrs Sherrington said Diddington was chosen for its central location to the US airforce. “Patients came from Bassingbourn, Thurleigh and elsewhere but the doctors also treated people from the area,” she said.

After the ceremony there will be a 1940s-style fete and the chance to view a photographic exhibition of the hospital’s history.

The 2nd Evacuation Hospital treated injured airmen of the 8th Air Force, based at Alconbury. Most patients were from bomber crews and suffered multiple injuries.

One of these patients was Captain Robert Salitrnik, a navigator on a B17.

Capt Salitrnik was severely injured when a shell exploded in the nose of his plane.

Despite his injuries, he was able to navigate his plane home to Thurleigh before losing consciousness.

Despite being transferred to Diddington, he died 11 days later on April 16, 1943.

His body was repatriated to California and he was posthumously awarded the Silver Star for conspicuous gallantry in action.

The 2nd Evacuation team was joined in July 1943 by the US Army 49th Station Hospital, which officially took over the running of the camp on August 1, 1944.

The 2nd Evacuation Hospital left Diddington for Normandy, where it provided medical assistance to troops involved in the D-Day landings.

After the war, the hospital became a Polish settlement camp and was later used as a Polish maternity hospital, where more than 1,000 babies were born, including the actress Rula Lenska.