Unclassified Info: Through a respectful pair of eyes

It is 3 a.m. in England, July of 1944. A young man from Los Angeles wakes up and dresses for a pre-flight briefing.

It something he will do more than 30 times during his tour of duty. Together with the rest of his crew and squadron, they gather. The news is grim.

Along with crews in other bomb groups throughout England, they will be flying their B-17 to Munich. The mission will be extremely dangerous. They will encounter anti-aircraft cannons and enemy fighter planes trying to shoot them out of the sky. And then there’s always the risks of mechanical failure, and of mid-air collisions, as bomber groups rendezvous among the clouds.

It is 3 p.m. in Burbank, March of 2011. A middle-aged man from Glendale is gathered with a group of strangers on a tarmac, waiting for their pre-flight briefing. It is something he has never done, but something he’s envisioned from stories his father has told him. The news is uplifting.

Together with eight strangers and his girlfriend, the man will be flying over Glendale in a B-17. During the flight, there will no threat of enemy fire. The man will be free to roam around throughout the plane and is encouraged to visit the bombardier’s position and peer through the bomb sight just as many brave men did nearly 70 years ago.

And so it was that on Sunday afternoon, I found myself retracing my father’s footsteps as a B-17 tail gunner courtesy of The Liberty Foundation, which last weekend came to town offering flights in one of only eight B-17s still in operation.

There’s an old saying, “You can't really know a man until you walk a mile in his shoes.” I thought flying in the same plane my father flew in during World War II would give me the opportunity to feel, if only for a fleeting moment, what he might have felt flying over Germany, England and France. Perhaps it would give me a new perspective as to why so much of his life’s fabric was draped around this part of his history.

As we took off, I heard my dad’s voice.

“During takeoff, the crew would lay down where the radio operator was,” he told me so many times. “Then, while the other guys would sleep, I’d go up to the front of the plane where the bombardier sat and look out.”

As soon as I could, I made my way across the catwalk over the bomb bay, crawled under the cockpit and squeezed into the nose of the plane where the plane’s Plexiglas nose gave me one of the most incredible views of the valley I have ever seen. I was able to sit on the small wooden stool where the bombardier sat and look through the bombsight onto the traffic below.

I could see cars and buildings and imagined what it must have been like to fly in formation with hundreds of other planes over Europe.

But imagining myself in my dad’s combat boots on a peaceful Sunday afternoon flight over Glendale was unrealistic. What would always be impossible for me to fully realize was how scary it must have been to fly over Germany with cannons and enemy planes shooting at you from all sides.

On my flight, the temperature was a comfortable 65 degrees. My father encountered temperatures of 56 degrees below zero in a heated suit that often didn’t work properly.

My dad has told me stories of seeing planes right next to him blow up. And I am sure there was much more carnage to behold from his vantage point in that tin-can of a “Flying Fortress.” But for the vast majority of his tales, his memories are fond and without regret.

As the plane landed, I thought of how my father must have felt each time they returned safely and what it must have felt like to plant his feet back on solid ground. To walk back to his barracks, collapse in relief and think that tomorrow he’d be going back up to fight again. No. I could never walk a mile in those shoes. To say I did on a flight over the Valley would be a disservice to him and every other veteran.

With every mission flown, my dad earned the right to claim this point in time as his defining moment. Stepping into harm’s way repeatedly and knowingly took real guts. What I realized as a result of my little flight is that over the last 40 years, I had heard his stories so many times that they had become matter-of-fact and perhaps somewhat routine. But there was nothing routine about getting into that plane during combat — this I now understand with great clarity.

When I think about it, maybe the shoes I got to walk in weren’t actually his. Perhaps the shoes I got to walk in were those of the many strangers who walk up to my father and ask him about his B-17 cap and his experiences in WWII, which he is always willing to share.

I got to see my father’s life through a more respectful pair of eyes. For that I am grateful.

GARY HUERTA is a Glendale resident and author. He is currently working on his second novel and the second half of his life. Gary may be reached at gh@garyhuerta.com.

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