American soldier’s rare photos capture life in 1950s Newbury and RAF Greenham Common
George Tiss served as a corporal in the United States Army during the Korean War.
He was assigned to the 804th Engineering Aviation Battalion tasked with rebuilding RAF Greenham Common in the early 1950s.
Mr Tiss died in 2021, aged 90, but his legacy survives in the fascinating collection of photographs he leaves behind.
These show one trooper’s remarkable journey from the shores of New York to the quiet scenery of West Berkshire.
Each paints a vivid portrait of how life once looked in Newbury and Greenham and will hopefully awaken many happy memories for those who remember these times.
RAF Greenham Common was reactivated in 1951 in response to growing communist aggression in Central and Eastern Europe.
By this time, its Second World War runway was obsolete and badly damaged after repeated take-offs and landings from 1942 to 1945.
It would not withstand the far heavier bombers entering service after the war.
US Army survey teams began arriving at the base in February 1951. They lived in basic accommodation under canvas, locally known as ‘tent city’.
The 804th Engineering Aviation Battalion started work demolishing and rebuilding the new 10,000 foot runway from June 1951, ready for USAAF bombers of Strategic Air Command.
New barracks, hardstanding and an air traffic control tower, which remains today, were also added.
The reconstruction involved diverting the old Basingstoke Road (A339) and demolishing six homes, including the beloved Volunteer Inn.
Among the hundreds of US Army engineers working at the base was Mr Tiss.
He left New York in May 1952 and docked in Southampton.
He helped break and pour concrete for the new runway, earning himself the nickname the ‘Sledgehammer Kid’.
His photos show his work and leisure time at the base and at Newbury. Other locations featured include Reading and London.
Greenham historian Jonathan Sayers was first contacted by Mr Tiss’ daughter-in-law Tara Graham-Turner in 2021.
He shared his reaction to seeing the splendid array of photos.
“I was amazed with this collection, which included images of what was described as ‘tent city’. I had until that point never seen any photos of it,” he said.
“Even better was that George had taken the time to include details of who and what each picture was of, sometimes with where they were taken and with the dates.” Any historian’s dream.
Mr Sayer’s added: “It was a very touching experience to be able to look back in such incredible detail at the experience of one young man far from home at a time when Britain was a very austere place with steam trains and few cars.
“Even the armed forces used ships to move men rather than planes.”
Mr Tiss left Greenham Common in August 1953. The work there finished a month later and the base was declared operational.
The base was kept fully manned and SAC bombers patrolled the skies 24/7 on reflex exercises, ready to tackle any potential threat from the communist bloc. And it was men like Mr Tiss who helped make it all possible.
“George lived a nice, long life and was very proud of his time in the UK,” said Mrs Graham-Turner.
“Shortly after he returned to New York, he met my mother-in-law, Karyn. George and Karyn were inseparable for 68 years.
“The pictures I shared are a very special reminder of how George spent his time during the early 50s and in many ways opened up his eyes to a world outside the five boroughs of New York.”
She added: “It has been over 20 years since Brian [her husband] and I crossed the pond.
“Hopefully, not too much more time will pass before we go back to the UK.
“When we do visit, we will be sure to visit Greenham. It will be a nice way to pay homage to a place that meant so much to my dear father-in-law.”
All images are credited to Tara Graham-Turner.