Sunday, August 19, 2012

Flying High

            It was a beautiful, hot August afternoon in 2008, and my brother, my sister and I were, in a manner of speaking, about to open our Christmas presents.  Perhaps I should speak of it singularly, since it was a combined gift from our father.  We were about to have the opportunity to take a flight on a restored B-24 Liberator, better known to my father as his “office” during the Second World War.   This once in a lifetime opportunity was indeed an early Christmas gift from our father, and one that will likely never be matched.
            The B-24 Liberator is the often overlooked little sibling of the more glamorous B-17 Flying Fortress, yet this is not the result of performance but of publicity.  In Hollywood, looks are everything, and having garnered the nickname of “the Flying Boxcar,” its silhouette certainly did leave something to be desired.  Yet in many ways the B-24 outperformed its sleeker and more illustrious counterpart.  The Liberator could carry a heavier bomb load, and do so flying faster and farther than the B-17.   And its reputation has nothing to do with numbers, either, as the B-24 was the most produced of all the Allied heavy bombers and still holds the distinction of being the most produced American military aircraft to date.  However, despite 18,400 of these planes being built over the relatively short span of its production life, only a handful exists today, and of these only a couple are capable of actually flying.  We were about to board the only fully restored, flying model B-24J in existence.
Dad's main plane during the war

            The plane is owned and operated by the Collings Foundation, a non-profit organization created in 1979 to share the nation’s heritage through “living history” events, and while they originally focused on land transport, their focus shifted more to aircraft in the 1980’s.  Today their Wings of Freedom tour brings fully restored WWII aircraft to venues throughout the United States.  Flying together are the B-24, a B-17, and a dual-control P51 Mustang.  A couple of times before, we had gone with Dad to a local airport to see these planes and walk through the two large bombers.  The B-24 has gone through a few incarnations through the years.  The first time we saw it, it was the silver, unpainted All American representing the 15th Air Force.  A year or two later, the scheme was changed to the Dragon & His Tail, a ship that had served in the Pacific.  On the day of our flight, and still today, she  is painted in olive drab and carries the colors and insignia of the plane Witchcraft, a noted aircraft of the 8th Air Force which is the branch in which my father served.
My first view of an actual B-24 back in 1993
Several years later the plane returned as The Dragon and his Tail

It is an emotional and heartwarming scene to see aging WWII vets proudly showing off “their planes” to their children and grandchildren.  For many, it is the first time they have seen or stepped back onto such an aircraft since the war’s end.  Sometimes you can see one of these men standing off to the side, looking up at the plane with a faraway look in his eyes, and you can only imagine what past scenes of action or horror must be playing themselves out in his memories.  For others it is more like an emotional reunion with a long lost love as they reach out and touch the skin of the plane ever so softly.  Children, on the other hand, seem to be drawn to the 50 caliber machine guns projecting out the waist windows, where they grab the controls and take aim at imaginary Messerschmitts. 
My daughter, Rebecca, finding the 50 mm gun in the waist
A look at her from inside the plane

For me, my first walk through of the plane was an opportunity to “put a face” on the stories my dad had recorded during the war.  And on this particular day, it was an opportunity to have life breathed into those tales.  Only once had I ever seen the plane powered up.  My wife and I had taken Dad’s brother out to Mt. Comfort Airport to see the two vintage bombers.  Uncle Earl had never had the opportunity to see or explore the plane on which his brother had served during those fretful years away from home.  Unfortunately, we had misread the details in the newspaper, and when we arrived there were no WWII aircraft in sight.  We talked with the office and learned the planes were scheduled to arrive in about an hour, so we decided to sit in the shade and wait it out.  After what seemed an eternity, a low rumble in the distance caught my ears and soon the silhouettes of two large aircraft appeared overhead.  As they banked to make a sweeping circle before their final approach, I could see the twin tail fins that are perhaps the B-24’s most recognizable feature.  That moment was an emotional one for me, and tears welled up in my eyes.  It was as if an ancient dinosaur had just been resurrected from a fossil.  The plane that had until that point only existed in grainy, black and white footage and wrinkled snapshots from the war was descending from the sky right in front of me.  I felt like one of the ground crew back at Horsham St. Faith, where my dad had originally been stationed, sitting by the tower and counting the ships as they returned, praying “their plane” was one of the group to make it home.  The planes in turn touched down and taxied to a corner of the airfield where they would later be available for tours.  We were not able to visit the plane with Uncle Earl that day, but Dad brought him back the following morning to give him a more personal tour.
The ground crews and officers awaiting the planes' return at the tower in Horsham St. Faith

And so it came to be that here we were again at that same little airport awaiting our chance to actually fly in that magnificent plane.  The bombers were still available for walking tours, and so we first visited Nine-O-Nine, the foundation’s B-17.  What struck me was how much tighter the interior of the plane felt to me, and I thought of how difficult it must have been for the airmen to quickly maneuver through a disabled plane to bail out. Then we climbed up through the bombay doors into belly of the B-24.  Of course my daughter headed to the machine guns, but the rest of us gradually worked our way to the front section to peak into the cockpit.  Dad was happy to share his knowledge of the plane with other families walking through, and a couple other veterans could be heard doing likewise.  Once our tour was over, we gathered again on the tarmac to await our flight.
Dad talking with my wife, Sara, before our flight
 While we were loitering, the individual who had purchased time in the P-51 got his chance to go airborne and take control of the Mustang.  The spectator/pilot climbed into the front seat, the true pilot into the back, and the plane sputtered to life.  With sunlight gleaming off her bright, aluminum sides the impressive fighter plane bearing the name Betty Jane rolled off the tarmac and to the end of the runway where it pivoted and began its charge into the wind.  It took to the air and quickly rose into the clear blue skies, made a loop around the airport and was then gone from sight.  My heart only raced faster after watching this, and just as it began to settle into a normal sinus rhythm once more, the Mustang returned and buzzed the airfield with a spectacular low-level pass.  Now I was really chomping at the bit to start our own flight.  
The beautiful P-51 Mustang, "Betty Jane"
Yet more time passed until those of us flying were finally gathered together for a pre-flight briefing.  Dad had chosen not to accompany us.  He wanted this to be for his children and not so much for himself (his enjoyment was watching us experience it.)  And he figured he had given the B-24 enough opportunities to claim him; he didn’t need to try his luck one more time.    We were given a brief history of the aircraft followed by instructions.  We were to find one of the available seats in the plane, either in the waist or immediately behind the pilots, where we would buckle in for takeoff.  Once in the air, the pilot would ring the bail-out bell signaling we were free to get up and explore any part of the plane we desired.  We were cautioned to be very careful on the narrow catwalk that led through the bombay because the weak bombay doors would not support a falling person, and one would quite likely plunge through the bottom of the plane.  Likewise, we were warned against grabbing any of the cables running alongside the plane, as these were the flight controls and the pilots preferred it if we did not try controlling the air surfaces ourselves.
Author sitting at the radio operator's table
With our lesson over, we once again crouched under the plane and entered the bombay area.  I had purposely pushed my way towards the front of the group because I had one particular seat in mind.  I wanted to experience the take-off from the radio operator’s table just behind the co-pilot.  This had been my father’s view of the war, and I was determined to experience the flight from his perspective.  In fact, this is where my father was sitting on just his third mission when he observed the following on March 8, 1944-
  “I must say it is sure a grand feeling to be back in England tonight and I don’t care much for England.  We had quite a day as we went to Berlin known as “Big B” to us.  We flew Satan’s Mate and everything went pretty well until we got into heavy flak at Hanover going in.  Capt. Booth was flying as Command pilot and at that point he was hit by a piece of flak.  I was standing right behind him and when he jumped about a foot off the seat I thought his electric suit had shocked him.  The flak took the tips off the fingers of his right hand, the top off his right knee and then lodged in the back of his left leg.  We were at 25,000 feet where it was 40 below zero so the wounds didn’t bleed much.  I called Lt. Moore up from the waist and we did what we could for the Capt. then Moore took the co-pilot seat.  I kept working with him.  His electric trousers were in such a condition I was afraid they would short out so I disconnected them and turned the heat up on his coat & gloves.  I wrapped blankets & coats around his legs to try and keep them warm.  I don’t think he will be handicapped permanently but he will be laid up for some time.  He sure took it like a man and wouldn’t let me give him any morphine.  I should’ve anyway.  We went on in and the group did a swell job on the ball bearing factory.  I got a glance at it and it was in ruins.  I was pretty busy most of the time but it seemed like we would never get home.  We had some bombs hung up that we couldn’t get out so we landed with them to get the Capt. to a doctor.  We had about 10 flak holes.  One life raft was ruined.  Two of our ships are missing. The 8th air force lost about 35 heavies today.  (Toll’s guns were froze all the way)”
An injured Captain Booth being downloaded from the plane
Pilots going through the pre-flight checklist
            Thankfully, the seat was open and I swiveled out the small, radioman’s chair and buckled myself in.  From this vantage point, I could watch the pilots at work going through their extensive pre-flight checklist, just as Lt. Clark and Lt. Moore had done 60 years before.  Outside, the engineer pushed each propeller through a full rotation before the pilots could start the four 1200 hp Pratt & Whitney engines.  Eventually, the engines fired and warmed to build the necessary pressures to ensure a safe take-off, and ever so subtly the plane began to roll.  The engineer was standing next to me when suddenly he popped open the emergency hatch on the roof and climbed up.  There he sat perched on the plane’s roof between the cockpit and the top turret and became an extra pair of eyes for the pilots as they taxied to the end of the runway.  Slowly the plane turned and waited for the okay to take to the air.  At that point, the engineer dropped back into the plane and fastened his own seatbelt, and the race down the runway began.  It seemed like forever before the plane separated itself from the ground, but eventually we were airborne and the pilot immediately rang the bell.  As much as I loved sitting in my father’s seat, I wanted to see the rest of the plane.  Being near the front, it made the most sense to just move forward, and besides, that was a part of the plane I had never visited even on the ground.  I dropped below the pilots and made my way to the nose of the plane.  Here is where Lt. Haley, the navigator worked, plotting their course or taking positions through the astrodome above.  And here is where Lt. Hoobler had guided the bombing runs from a prone position as he gazed through the top secret Norden Bombsite in the nose.  Making my way through their cramped quarters I came to the nose turret where my dad’s crewmate Demkey had watched for attacking German aircraft.  Although the view was interesting from there, I was anxious to head back into the belly of the plane, passing my brother headed in the opposite direction since his goal was to get the bird’s eye view from the nose.  I passed what would have been Okie’s postion in the top turret on my way back to the bombay.  
Dad's crew in front of their training plane
            Here is where my father would peer through the open doors to watch the bombs release and tap out a “bombs away” signal, just like he did in this mission from June 22, 1944. 
    “I think after today we’d better thank the Lord for little favors.  Capt. Mitchell flew with us in our own ship leading the 491st to another noball target northeast of Abbeyville.  There was just a few scattered clouds so we bombed visual and with excellent results.  I hope I never see or hear any more flak as I did today.  Those gunners were sure putting it up around that lead ship.  We got into it on the bomb run and most of the way out.  It was very heavy and too accurate.  When it gets close enough to hear it’s too close.  Again it was impossible to get out of it and as the result our ship was hit all over.  I guess we had about 150 holes.  There are 12 gas cells and 11 of them hit.  Toll had some plexiglass knocked in his face when a piece went through the dome of his turret.  I was down by the bomb bays watching the results of our bombs and the command pilot was looking over my shoulder.  He says I ducked once but he must of been wrong cause I never raised up.  We got hit in the bomb bay just before bombs away.  Those rocket sites have first priority now that they are hitting London.  I think the Germans have their best AA gunners protecting them too.  Our ship will be in Sub Depot for some time.  I think I broke all speed records for sending in a bomb strike message today. We were still in flak so I didn’t waste any time.  They got it the first time.  I wonder if the guy who copied it had any idea how scared I was just then.”
View of bombs striking their target in St. Trond, France

The narrow catwalk coursing through the waist
            I eased my way along the narrow catwalk, past the raised ball turret where Donovan, the smallest guy on Dad’s crew, would squeeze himself in, and found my sister in the waist.  This is where two of the plane’s ten 50 caliber machine guns reside, being manned in my dad’s time by Innis, the crew’s waist gunner.  This became my favorite perch for the flight.  With open windows to allow for the guns, I could lean out and feel the air on my face and watch the world pass below.  Rather than the hedgerows of England, I had to content myself with the patchwork farm fields of central Indiana.  And standing in for the English Channel was Geist Reservoir.  Speedboats pulled skiers below me on this day, but with a little imagination the scene could be altered to what my father looked down on the day after D-Day when he wrote this in his journal-

My version of the English Channel
The Hoosier countryside standing in for England

            “Oh, what a day!  I must say this was the most interesting so far.  It was our first since moving to Hardwick.  We led our old group, the 458th to the town of Lisieux, France just past our troops.  The bombing wasn’t very good as the G.H. Beacon wasn’t working and it was a little too cloudy for visual bombing.  We didn’t encounter any flak or fighters but we had to feather #2 because the prop ran away.  It was clear just at the beachhead.  Below was the most exciting scene I ever expect to see.  The Channel was full of ships, boats, landing craft, etc.   There was all kinds and sizes with hundreds of allied fighters giving them cover.  The battle ships were shelling some coastal target and some coast gun must have returned the fire cause I saw some hits very close to one of our large ships.  I hope we get to go back tomorrow!”
Our shadow follows us below
Not exactly standard pilot uniform
            I watched the plane’s shadow chase us across the ground below.  It was the perfect day for a flight with clear skies and warm weather.  My father had to fly through the thick muck that makes up the English weather in the springtime.  We were clothed in shorts and shirtsleeves, but my father’s crew flying at such high altitudes in an unpressurized aircraft wore warm underwear, an electrically heated flight suit, with a two piece heavy outer suit of leather and sheepskin.  Over this they wore a parachute harness, a flak suit, leather flying helmet, gloves, goggles, heavy boots and a flak helmet, not to mention an oxygen mask.  The temperature was often 40 degrees below zero, and exposed skin quickly succumbed to frost bite.  The bulkiness of their flight apparel made it all the more impressive to me that they could maneuver and perform in such tight quarters. 
View from the tail gunner's position
            When I had made my way back to what had been Tolleson’s position as the tail gunner, the bell again sounded, and I had to find a seat once more.  Reluctantly since I did not want it to end, I sat by my sister in the waist and buckled up awaiting our landing.  I had expected this aging, clunky bird to set down a little hard, but to be honest, I never felt the contact with the ground.  It was as smooth as silk and better than some of the commercial flights I’ve taken.  For my siblings and me the trip was over, but the memories will last a lifetime.  
B-24 going down

Nothing can ever show us what combat was like for those men.  Statistics tell us that early in the war they would most likely not survive their full 30 missions.  We will never again in our lifetimes see the vast armada’s of heavy bombers filling the sky as far as the eye can see in all directions.  How can we appreciate the terror of seeing the black puffs of smoke around the plane and knowing that at any minute shrapnel could rip through its fuselage, taking lives, maiming crewmates or disabling the craft?  We will never know what it is like to have waves of enemy fighters repeatedly dive at your formation while you are forced to hold a steady course, while the sounds of your crew’s machine guns returning fire rings in your ears.  We cannot fathom the fear a crew surely felt when their plane became crippled and they had to drop out of the protection of the group formation in hopes of limping home alone over enemy territory, knowing all the while enemy fighters were waiting to pick them off.  We will never know the pain of seeing the faces in the barracks and mess hall change daily or weekly as your friends fail to return and new crews take their place.  Each plane that went down took with it 10 men.  The fear and subsequent relief when such missions ended is well reflected in my father’s final journal entry.  The date was August 8, 1944 and Dad was flying his 30th and final mission with the 93rd Bombardment Group when he recorded the following-
            “It seems that my roughest missions always come on the 8th of the month as my four worst missions have been on that date.  Today was the last one in this tour and I’m greatly relieved.  I flew with Capt. Darughty today as his radio operator is finished.  We went in at 14,000 feet which is the lowest yet and a mile or so too low to suit me.  We were by ourself  but this time I was glad cause if we’d had a formation with us I don’t think we would be here to tell it.  We were to drop five British flare bombs on the target which was a small village just in front of our own troops.  The reason was to make it so the first & third division of forts could pick up the target easier and be sure on not getting behind our own lines.  It was very interesting as we went in over Cherbourg.  There was a couple of convoys heading into the port.  It looked like the harbor was pretty well cleaned up as it was full of shipping.  I could see about five small vessels the Germans had sunk to block the harbor.  The shell holes in the large harbor forts were very visible.  From there on I saw lots of villages that were mainly shell holes & crators.  The red crosses marking the hospitals were very plain to see so there really shouldn’t be any excuse for the Germans to bomb them.  They’ve built a great number of aircraft landing strips.  I was really enjoying it till we got to Vire and turned on the I.P.  At about that time we crossed the German lines and did they ever give us the works.  I never saw so much flak in my life and it was accurate.  I think a lot of it came from German tanks cause their 88 mm will reach 14,000 feet easily.  Anyway as we were by ourself we did violent evasive action to try and get through safely.  We turned as high as 90 degree turns but is was still too close for comfort.  We got the flares on the edge of the target but I don’t know how we did with such a bomb run.  If we held a course for a few seconds the flak was right on us but the navigator & bombardier did a grand job.  The bombardier took the shortest run I’ve ever known but it was good.  By the time I got the bomb doors shut after watching the flares hit, we were at 16,000 feet and climbing fast.  It was just a couple minutes till we were back over our lines but we were in that heavy flak for about 15 minutes. I think there were 10 of the scaredest men on that ship I’ve ever seen.  Maybe it was because it was the last mission for 8 of us & 29 for the other two.  We really came home in a hurry.  The forts were suppose to come in at 12,000 feet and they couldn’t do very much evasive action as they were in formation.  Flak got the first three forts.  Our fighters were down on the deck strafing every gun they could find so it was quite a sight to see.  We were very lucky cause we only got hit about 15 times.”
Dad posing with his kids after the flight.
             Our father was grinning broadly as we each climbed from the plane.  He had given us one of the most memorable days of our lives, and opened a small window onto a very special time in his own life.  I am forever grateful to the Collings Foundation for maintaining these rare aircraft and for offering these special flights.   I thank Dad as well all the men and women who have ever worn the uniform of our country for their service and sacrifice.  And I especially thank him for a very special Christmas present, opened on a hot sunny afternoon in August several years ago.

****For those interested in reading the entire account of my father's war experience, you will find his journal at


  1. It is only as I have got older that I have realised how terrifying life must have been for my late father, a rear gunner sitting in the back of a Lancaster during WWII. He never talked about his experiences with us, my mum and I, but suspect he may have told a few embellished tales of derring-do as well as relating real life tales to his pals over a beer or several. Photos of him in his uniform make him look terrifyingly young, but then he did lie to get into the RAF, adding a couple of years to his age.
    I love the old American planes, decorated - such artistry and imagination.
    Thanks for visiting my book blog.

  2. Scott, that was a great story about this grand old bird. Uncle Walt took me to see it once when I was over visiting him and Ruby. I didn't get to go up in it, but I checked it out all over with my dad. You did a great job of working parts of your dad's story into this one. HOOAH from one old military guy to another. Thanks for writing about the old memories in life.