Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Inside a B-17 Bomber

As promised, and update to our adventures at the 25th annual World War II weekend in Reading, PA.

Ashley stayed with a friend and Don and I went by ourselves. It felt like a real date -- quite a treat after 22 years of marriage.

A couple of years ago I answered an ad on Craigs List for a writer. There are times in your life you just have to follow your gut and hope for the best. This turned out to be one of those times. I met John in his dad's assisted living place in Princeton. John recognized that he wanted to preserve his father's story, especially his time in World War II. By that point his father, Andy, was suffering from short-term memory loss, and Andy's wife, Lorraine, had passed away from a long illness. John also recognized he was not preserving Andy's story. He heard the stories, but did not write them down or otherwise record them. 

This is where I came in. Along with a couple of dozen other people I answered the ad. He chose mine not because I had the most experience writing memoirs (I probably had the least)  but because I mentioned I worked with pre-schoolers. My mom often says you are a combination of all of your experiences. This was certainly only of those times.

I met with Andy from Thanksgiving through Christmas, with the plan to continue after Christmas break and try to extract more from him. Unfortunately Andy died on January 8 and we did not finish the story. Most of our conversations were moments long, before he would interject and ask who was I and what I was I doing there. Fortunately Andy was an 89 year flirt and would jump right back into talking about his past. 

John and his sister had lots of ephemeral for me to sift through -- his wife's book entitled "My Soldier" and a photo album. Unfortunately he could not find the many letters they wrote daily to each other. Andy served in the Army Air Corps (the precursor to the Air Force) in Italy in 1944, only a few weeks before the end of World War II. He flew several missions in a B-17.

This brings me up to 2015 and the air show. I brought Andy's story with me and shared it with some people. One of them was Pete, a pilot who was flying the Yankee Lady -- one of less than a dozen B-17s still flying (I heard numbers between 8 and 11). The Yankee Lady was built in 1945, after the end of WWII, but it was very similar to Baby, the plane Andy served in during the war.

The B-17 people were charging around $500 for a flight. I did not want to fly in it, I wanted to see where Andy sat and what it would have been like for him. Pete understood. He invited me back to tour the Yankee Lady when the last passengers left, while the plane was being refueled. How could I turn down that opportunity?!

Pete showed Don and I around the plane. He is an excellent and patient teacher. He explained the significance of the images on the side (relates to bombing missions).

He let me sit in the cockpit. He explained back in the day there would have been less instruments, but as this plane continues to fly, they need to be able to radio the tower and maintain FAA standards.

The really neat part, though, was went I went below to where the Bombardier Navigator would have sat -- in other words, Andy's spot. I was told just how cold it would have been once they were up in the air -- hard to believe since it was super hot inside the plane that day. They would have worn extra layers, layers they could plug into the airplane for extra warmth. The flight out was about 5 hours. They had a 15 minute mission. Then a return flight of 5 hours. Oh, and along the way, they were trying not to be shot at. As Pilot Pete said, he is a commercial pilot for an airline. He faces similar situations, but he is grateful he never has to worry about being shot at as he flies. His job is tough enough without that element.

Andy would have sat in the nose of the plane. Once the pilot got to the right spot according to the calculations, he would use his headset to talk to Andy and tell him the plane is now in his control. The plane was on autopilot (a new feature of the day). It was Andy's job to push the button at precisely the right moment. Then they turned around and tried to get out of there without getting shot down. 

Norden Bombsignt
There were  a lot of calculations involved, and no real computers. They did have a  Norden Bombsight (pictured) as a guide. I remember Andy telling me about it. As I was not taking notes, but instead taking pictures, I can't say that I really understand it. The B-17 had guns that were fixed, which was a big improvement for the time and made the Germans afraid to get too close to them.

Once the tour was over, we were given the choice of returning upstairs to take the ladder out, or "go the way Andy would have gone." Well, put it that way and of course I'll take a simple four foot drop out of the bottom of the plane. Wish they had told me the four foot drop was a six foot drop, or about an inch longer than me and my arms combined (I was told to hang onto the opening to help brace my fall). 

Alls well that ends well. The refueling crew was a little concerned when we popped out of the plane ("where did you come from?"), but Pete assured them it was okay. We still had to get away from the plane, oh and find my purse which I left on a golf cart that moved away. Remember what I said earlier about following your gut? This was one of them. My gut said leave the purse in the golf cart with strangers rather than carry it around the B-17. How many soldiers carried purses with them? Still, I was relieved when I was reunited with my bag. It had my car keys in it.

Thanks, Pete, for the adventure of a lifetime.


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