Thursday, October 9, 2014

Aluminum Overcast

   My son and I had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience a bit of history first hand last week. Flying on a B-17 from the WWII era. The Experimental Aircraft Association, has restored this beautiful old girl and keeps her flying for new generations to enjoy and share in a unique machine and time. I don't know what was more inspiring and joyful--meeting some of the veterans of WWII B-17 crews or riding in the plane itself and feeling just a little bit of what it might have been like back in the day.
   It was amazing to talk with a gentleman and his family who came to the media day of the tour stop. He was a radioman and I was mesmerized watching him climb back to his station and seeing his face transform as he touched things, telling us where they should have been and how they were used:
My son at the radio station
   To be allowed to experience some of his and his children's emotions as they toured the aircraft was a rare privilege I will always cherish. He told us that he safely completed 40+ missions, but that he witnessed several crews that didn't make it. Describing the 30-second take-off intervals, the forming up of large numbers of planes from several surrounding airfields; I'd never realized how dangerous it was just getting airborne without crashing into another plane! The day they took off for Berlin the plane in front of them went off the end of the runway bursting into flames killing the entire crew, yet they had to take off right after them, careful to avoid the wrecked fireball; and once in the air prayed they didn't collide with another plane as they formed up--all this peril before flying into the flak and enemy fighter planes to and from their targets. Mr. L was lucky, and Mr. H was not.
   Mr. H was a top turret gunner on a mission headed over Germany when their plane was shot down. He was the first to have to bail out--having to go out the pilot's hatch in the front of the plane because the other exits were on fire. He tells the story about being trained to count to ten before pulling his parachute ripcord, "I was a little anxious, so I counted 2-4-6-8-10." He blacked out at high altitude and woke up in the tops of trees being cut down by local farmers. He was taken to the German officer in the village who looked him up by name in his intelligence file, and spoke excellent English having been educated in Chicago. Mr. H was sent by train to a Polish prison camp, and later marched 600 miles back through Germany at the end of the war. He was finally liberated by the RAF and came home to America via troop ship. His buddy told him he should ask for duty in the bakery on board ship--which he did--and arrived home having regained much of the weight he lost in captivity on that long march out of Poland. 
   The Greatest Generation is passing rapidly and we don't seem to be teaching much about their sacrifice anymore. I hope we can make a little time to appreciate that time in history. If you have any B-17 connections please share them with us!
   Thanks for reading along today--more tomorrow! 
   

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