Rumbling down Runway 8 at Bob Hope Airport in a World War II B-17 Flying Fortress was not just another item on my bucket list. For all on board, it was a unique opportunity to experience the physical world in which thousands of young American fliers of every ethnicity, background and region courageously fought their war. Many had only seen an airplane from afar; few had ever flown in one.
Christened Liberty Belle, with flight markings of a sister aircraft that was severely damaged and lost two crew members on its 64th mission, the airplane's preservation is the dedicated effort of Don Brooks, whose father Elton flew on the original Liberty Belle. Built at Lockheed in Burbank, the Liberty Belle's present-day mission is one of reacquainting the younger generation of Americans with the courage and sacrifice of those who risked their lives in the skies over Europe and in combat theaters around the world.
The Army Air Corps suffered the highest percentage of casualties of any of the military services during World War II. One-third of the B-17s built were lost in combat.
As one "passenger" explained, this flight was a belated tribute to her father, a crewman on a B-17 who upon his return home had steadfastly refused to discuss his wartime experiences. She was seeking some insight into the environment in which he experienced the terror he so desperately wished to forget. And this short flight, over the Burbank hills on a beautiful Saturday morning in April, provided the sound, smell, vibration and starkness of the confined space in which these brave men experienced subzero conditions, skies thick with flak, attacking enemy fighters and the prospect of instant death.
I am acquainted with the sons of two airmen who served with the Eighth Air Force, flying missions from airfields in England. Each has made a special effort to honor and recall their father's service.
Mike Gray's father Darwin, a flight engineer and top turret gunner, had the unenviable job of sliding into the open bomb bay, with nothing but daylight and eternity below him, in order to "kick out" bombs that refused to release. Mike was able to track down several members of his father's flight crew, including the 19-year-old pilot who had kept a diary describing each mission. The diary concludes with "Whoopee, we made it!" on the day of their safe return from their last mission.
At 5 feet 6 inches, Tim Trovato's father, Anthony, was the ideal size for the cramped belly gunner turret of a B-17. Not until well into his 60s did he discuss his wartime experiences with his family. Tim has attended reunions of the veterans who flew with his father and has visited the air base in northern England where his dad was stationed.
Longtime Glendale resident Russell Jacobs is one of those brave airmen who served with great distinction. Russ joined up one day before Pearl Harbor and piloted a B-17 throughout the war. Based in north Africa, he flew 33 missions over targets in Italy and the high-value, heavily defended oil fields of Ploesti, Romania.
During the Normandy invasion he had the unique experience of flying sorties from a Russian base, belatedly receiving a medal for his heroism from the Russian government on the 50th anniversary of the war's end. (The only catch: The Russian government was too cheap to pay the postage, requiring Russ to do so!)
As we approach Memorial Day and the 65th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe and the Pacific, let us pay special homage to all who have given so selflessly of themselves. Many lie in military cemeteries around the world. Many of those who came home have since departed. Let us continue to recognize and honor them all, but most conspicuously those of the greatest generation who are still with us.