It’s a warm summer morning. Still early, by cubicle standards, but the sun has been up long enough to start baking the asphalt. The shade is still a pleasant place to be, and luckily for you, the shade is exactly where you need to go. Reaching up above your head you wrap your fingers around the cool metal spade, pulling down against the resistance of the pistons. Leaning into it, you push the blade through, standing up on your tip toes as another set of fingers wraps around the next one. You wonder to yourself what it must be like to be where you are, when the engines turn. Metal blades whipping through the air, driven by the enormous power of the motor. You’re glad you’ll be somewhere else.
As you walk across the tarmac to grab a bottle of water, you glance over your shoulder and see the aircraft in all of its glory, sitting on the ground, seemingly restless, waiting to get into the sky. The first group of passengers arrives, and the process begins. In the same manner that one would heard cats, the passengers are all rounded up into a group, and the briefing begins. You meander over about halfway through to find the meeting has been commandeered by an old guy in a hat that says “WWII – Ex POW”. So, you stop and listen. It’s 1944, you’re in England. In a mess hall. A Colonel has arrived, recently. You and your buddies are all sitting there, awaiting an announcement. The Colonel gets up onto the stage and begins to speak. “Gentlemen, I have an announcement to make,” he says. “The allied forces have officially decimated the German Luftwaffe’s fighters.” You cheer. Everybody cheers. But something is nagging you. You start to think to yourself, ‘You know, if I claimed the same two Messerschimdts as my buddy Tommy, who claimed the same two Messerschmidts as his buddy Joe Sue, who claimed the same two Messerschimdts as his buddy Frankie T, then dammit, we should have decimated the German Luftwaffe weeks ago!’
The laughter from the group brings you to Colorado. Denver. You’re a young enlisted soldier, in flight training. You and your crew have been doing very well. Performing all the tasks your instructors ask of you to their liking, which, is not easy. You’re excited because soon, you’ll get to go off to do what you’ve been training to do. Drop bombs on the Nazi scum who are trying to inherit the Earth. The day is finally here. Your commander tells the guys, much to their excitement, that tomorrow, they’ll be flying to England. Except, he says, you and your crew. You have, in fact, done so well in training, he says, that you are going to stay behind and train the next group of yuppies. You don’t like this. In fact, you and your crew complain, you write letters to Washington. Dammit, you’ve trained to fly bombing missions, not to be instructor pilots! Finally, you get your chance. The commander says, “Tomorrow, a B-17 is going to come in, and you and your crew are going to fly it to England.” Which you do. One, lone, B-17. From Colorado, to England. It is not even the most epic flight you will undertake.
You’re back now, you’re you. Standing there, mesmerized. The man says something about, “When we got shot down…” and your eyes flick back up to his hat. “Ex POW”. The meaning of those letters actually hits home inside your head. “We lost weight like it was in style. Your cheeks start caving in. Boy, if you want to lose a few pounds, have I got the program for you.” You don’t know whether or not to laugh. He does, so you do too. You try to imagine what it must have been like. You try, and you fail. You can’t help but stare at that man, standing there in that hat.
It’s time to move now, the first group of passengers is getting ready to board the plane. You have to practically pull the old man away from it. Safety reasons or something. Once he gets relocated, he just keeps going on about his stories. But you have to do your volunteer duties, which involves a lot of standing around, doing not much of anything. A man comes up to you and asks, “Have you been inside?”, motioning with his head. “No, not yet,” you say. “Man, I tell you what, I give those guys more credit then me and the guys I was with in ‘Nam. Being cramped up in one of those things for 10, 12 hours,” the guy says, “Especially the turret gunner, man. I give these guys credit.” His hat also informs you that he is a veteran. That gets you thinking though, as if your mind had been idle before. You’re just a 20-something year old kid. Still in college. You haven’t seen the real world, let alone war. Your idea of war comes from the stories you’ve heard, and the movies you’ve seen. A good descriptor, at times, but not real. To have a Vietnam veteran come up to you and say that the B-17 crews had it worse than he did, that’s perspective.
It becomes apparent that the second flight has unsold seats on it, so they are giving some to the volunteers, for volunteering. The head volunteer comes up and informed you of this, and asks if you want to go, and you say, “See if that Vet wants to go instead.”. He does. The paperwork gets filled out, and after all is said and done there are still enough seats for you too. The plane comes back, swings around to park. The passengers all file out with smiles on their faces, a good sign. Next, you, the other volunteers, the Vet, and the actual paying customers get herded into a group, and taken over to the plane. Under one of the massive wings, you meet the pilots and the crew chief. They start the briefing, and the Vet is just elated. You can see it on his face. After the crew gets done, they ask the Vet if they missed anything. Which is all he needs to tell some more stories. These planes were based in England, you see. They would often start their missions in the early morning. The missions would begin by everyone taking off, and subsequently forming up over the English Channel. Makes sense. The problem is, it’s the English Channel, early in the morning. What is around England and its channel early in the morning? Fog. Thick fog. So thick, that a lot of B-17s were lost due to mid-air collisions while forming up in the thick fog. A lot of men were killed. The thing is, when you’re killed in a mid-air collision with your own squadron, you’re just as dead as when you’re killed over enemy territory.
You’re now over Germany. You’re the radioman on the airplane. You come under attack from enemy fighters. All of the sudden your plane has been hit. It is your 13th mission. Ordinarily, the pilot is in charge of the aircraft, and the crew, so he gives the order to bail out. This particular time, the number two engine has been hit, which is the one on the left, closest to the pilot. Some part of the engine has flown through the windscreen and hit the pilot. He’s bleeding from his head, so he says to the copilot and the guys in the nose, “Let’s get out of here.” Which they do. They just forgot to tell you. So you’re flying along, with nobody forward of the bomb bay, and your crew members ask you, hey when are we going to bail out? You respond that the pilot hasn’t said anything, and when he does, you will. Then the tail gunner pipes up. “Hey Joe, would it be of any use to you to know that I have three parachutes that have just popped up off our tail” “Three?! Where?!?” “Just aft of us.” “Then let’s get the hell out of here!”
This brings you to the point where you have to actually jump out of the plane. Something of an unnatural maneuver. Your guys ask you what to do. This is where all that training the Army Air Corps gave you comes in. All that training. “Hold the parachute on your chest, jump, and count slowly to 10, then pull the cord real hard like.” Well, you must not have been very good at math, see, because you only made it to four. The chute has opened (thank God) and you’re not sitting there, at some 15,000 feet, just floating. It’s actually a beautiful day. For a couple of moments, you’re transported from the warplane, on your way to bomb someone, to a little speck of dust floating in the air, with nothing to do but enjoy the beauty of it all.
The next thing that the old man says really knocks you off your feet. “I have no idea if the other eight guys I was flying with are dead, or alive, or what happened to them. We all jumped out of the plane, and I’ve never seen them since.” Wow. I had always thought, in my naive little mind, that they would land in the same place. I mean, I knew that a lot of guys jumped out of airplanes, but I never really considered the possibility that they wouldn’t land together. Thinking of it now, I guess it makes sense. The real improbability is that the guys would land together. If you jump out of a burning plane moving through the air at a couple hundred miles an hour, I guess it’s a miracle to land together. It’s still incredible to me. To live for all these years. 70 years. To not know the fate of your crew mates.
The pilots convince the Vet that he can keep telling his stories after they fly the airplane, and we all scrunch into our seats. It’s hot inside, but there will be air flowing soon. The plane shakes and shimmies as the engines fire up, with a great rumbling sound that you feel as much as you hear. You look out a window and see the end of the runway, and feel the engines start to spool up. The four mighty engines now produce a magnificent roar as the plane thunders down the runway. Suddenly, you’re airborne. The crew chief gives the sign, and you unbuckle your seat belt and stand. Turning around, you look out the left waist gunner’s window, and freeze. Over the great wing, the trees and houses and rivers move by. The image, of the wing flying, brings a smile to your face. Moving up through the airplane and arrive in the radio room. You sit in the bucket seat, and imagine. You imagine your not flying over Central Florida, but somewhere over England. You’ve just taken off on a mission, to go fight for your country. Maybe it’s your last one. You really have no way to tell. You try and feel what it would have felt like. Again, you try, and you fail. It’s time to move up to the cockpit. Stepping over the narrow gangplank that runs through the bomb bay, you emerge into the front of the plane. You are directly behind the pilots, can see out the windscreen, all the instruments. It’s mesmerizing. Down you go, between the pilots seats, into the bubble nose. You crawl up to the front, and sit in the bombardier’s chair. Suddenly, you’re floating over the ocean, mysteriously moving by some unseen force. It is beautiful. The time passes both slowly and quickly. Each second feels like a minute, but suddenly, all of the seconds are up. There are other folks who want to sit in the same chair you’re in. You crawl back up to the cockpit, and stand there behind the pilots, trying to imagine the English Channel moving beneath the belly. You look over to the right, and there he is. The Vet. You can tell by the look on his face that he’s not actually there. He’s back, 72 years. He’s over England, Germany. He has the stoic look of a man who has seen a lot. It’s sobering. It’s also gratifying, because more than anything you can tell he is enjoying this.
The plane comes in to land, and you sit back in your seat, and strap yourself in. Once the engines stop, and you all clamber out of the plane, the Vet comes out and greets his wife. You found out before the flight that he is only a week away from his 92nd birthday. He is sharp as a tack though. One of the other passengers walks up and tells him what a great experience that was, and that he was really grateful that he got to share it with someone who was actually there. And, the Vet tell more stories. There are less people around now, and the stories get a little more personal. He landed in a farmer’s field. Amongst the farmers. This is something of an unusual occurrence for the farmers, so things are a bit stand off-ish at first. The farmers are keeping him in his place with their pitchforks. They are trying to communicate in German, and he is trying to communicate in English, which isn’t working well. All of the sudden the Vet remembers that he has a flag on his shoulder, like all Americans. So he points to it. Everything changes. The farmers pick him up, and begin to move him towards the barn. The Vet has a broken leg, so the farmers have him on their shoulders. A German jeep comes across the field from out of nowhere, with it German soldiers. They beat the crap out of the farmers for helping the American. This is concerning to the Vet, because these are GERMANs and all they did was help him. What’s the treatment he will receive to be like?
They put you in the Jeep, and drive you someplace. They stop at another farm somewhere. Over a hill come a hundred women, the most beautiful women you’ve ever seen. The women surround the vehicle and start rocking it side to side. There is some conversation in German, which you don’t understand. One of the soldiers, obviously the one in charge, looks at you and says,”Do you know what they are saying?” “No,” he says. “They want to know if we will release you to them.” “Well,” says the 20 year old Vet, “I could probably handle three or four of them, but not much more than that.” This gets him a punch or two. You may have just been captured by the Germans, but you’re a fighter. You know you’re going to be ok.
The whole experience accomplished what it is supposed to accomplish. Through the flight, the day, you meet people who have served in the military, mostly Vietnam. Several people come up to you on the ground tour, and explain how their father, or uncle, or grandfather flew on B-17s during the war. But the Vet is the only one who actually did. The 92 year old man, wearing the hat that says “WWII – Ex POW”. It really makes you think about what it was like. These guys, 19 and 20 years old, flying these planes into war. It’s incredible to think of what they experienced. It’s even more incredible to think of how little we think of it today. Thanks for reading.