In the summer of 1987 I took classes at Pierce College to help fulfill requirements of my Air Force ROTC program at the University of Washington. Being from a military family, I held a deep respect for the veterans all around me and especially for my grandfather Loran who had served with the US Army Air Corps during World War II.
In the summer of 1944 my grandfather had arrived in England with the crew of a B-17 Flying Fortress. More than 115 hours of flight training in Pyote, Tex., had groomed him for a flight to Berlin on the first of 30 missions in the wartorn skies over Fortress Europa. By the end of 1944, grandfather’s crew would be the lead ship for the 447th BG, and he would log more than 223 hours of combat flight time before joining the illustrious Lucky Bastards Club.
In the summer of 1985 my grandfather and I attended Boeing’s celebration of the B-17’s 50th anniversary in Seattle. It was the first time I recall ever seeing the graceful Fortresses in flight and it was a true honor to meet with some of his fellow veterans, now in their mid-60s, who had been brought together as young men at an American airbase situated outside the small town of Rattlesden.
Now, as we approach the 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, most of those men are gone and the few that remain are well into their 90s. Many of their stories are lost forever, never shared with family and friends. Their memories often are a small batch of black and white photographs left for a perplexed younger generation.
However, those of us lucky enough to call the Puget Sound area home have an opportunity to catch a glimpse of that era as restored vintage warbirds visit the Museum of Flight at Boeing Field, the Flying Heritage Collection at Paine Field and other Northwest locations.
In the summer of 2011 I had the great privilege of flying aboard one of the surviving B-17s that visited our area.
On the morning of June 26 I strapped into the Collings Foundation’s B-17G Nine-O-Nine for a sortie from Boeing Field. The vintage bomber taxied to the south end of the runway and gracefully lifted into clear blue skies as those aboard exchanged excited grins and flashed a hearty thumbs up at having such a rare opportunity.
I’m sure the young men huddled in the radio room of Ol Scrapiron would have been feeling their emotions a bit deeper in their gut as they headed east with their heavy burden.
We were dressed in light jackets that would protect us from the cooler air, but nothing close to the cumbersome bulky flight suits needed to keep a crewman from losing fingers and limbs to frostbite as temperatures plunged to 50 degrees below freezing at altitudes of 30,000 feet.
We enjoyed the sight of Seattle neighborhoods drifting below as we looked through the plexi nose where a bombardier would have been hunched over the top-secret Norden bomb sight.
I appreciated the view through the top turret where my grandfather would have scanned the skies for Messerschmitt and Focke Wulf fighters coming out of the sun to attack the formation. In fact, my grandfather’s plane was equipped with the earlier Sperry turret with considerably less visibility than the later type that is present on Nine-O-Nine.
During our flight there was no tell-tale blanket of oily flak bursts or the terrifying rattling of metal as shrapnel perforated the thin aluminum skin.
The sound of camera shutters was lost in the continual drone of the four Wright Cyclone engines. The sharp staccato of 50-caliber machine guns was missing as we weren’t subject to attack from Luftwaffe fighters during our brief flight.
In fact, we were making our descent back onto Boeing Field in less time than it would have taken the large fleet of bombers to form up after punching through the ever-present cloud layer on the cold mornings in 1944.
As we taxied back to the tarmac in front of the Museum of Flight I think I speak for all of us that we each would love to have the chance to do that again. I think my grandfather and his crewmates probably were not so eager for such an opportunity.
But those brave men did take to the sky again when called upon. Their stubborn sense of duty caused them to perform when every instinct must have been screaming against it.
A small number of B-17s remain flightworthy, each once hurriedly assembled to meet wartime demand, will probably outlive the veterans that once depended on the B-17s durability to see them back to bases scattered across the England countryside.
These are proud examples of our nation’s ability to rise to the challenges of a dark time when freedom around the world was threatened like never before or since.
I hope everyone gets the chance to see these graceful planes in person whenever one makes a tour stop in the Northwest. Run your fingers across the smooth and over the riveted seams. Lightly tap on the stretched fabric control surfaces. Climb the ladder into the nose area where crew members would have hoisted themselves up almost 70 years ago. Squeeze yourself through the passageway from the nose compartment up into the flight deck where flight engineers like my grandfather would have assisted pilots and co-pilots manage the complex controls.
Another tight squeeze as you cross the narrow catwalk between the bomb rails heading back to the radio room. Around the structure that keeps the ball turret nestled in the planes belly and past the window-mounted machine guns on each side of the fuselage.
By the time you emerge from the rear door you’ll have a greater appreciation for the crew that often spent eight hours trying to avoid getting bounced around in turbulence or shot up by the Luftwaffe as they fought their way in and out of enemy airspace.
You can get even more by taking a flight on one of these precious treasures from World War II – B-17s, B-24 Liberators, B-25 Mitchells, P-51 Mustangs and more – or at least visiting of the vintage planes available at any of several Northwest collections and museums.
Of course, more than just the machines, we are so fortunate to still have a chance to meet a few of the veterans that flew them and can share their first-hand experiences with those who will listen.
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