As I walked toward the World War II-era B-17, I noticed how much smaller it was than I had expected. When I climbed inside, it felt claustrophobic.
I took my seat in one of the waist-gunner positions near an opening in the fuselage and prepared for takeoff. As the engines turned over, creating vibration in the plane and spewing exhaust fumes into it, I wasn’t feeling as I’d imagined, like Gregory Peck, the star of the 1949 movie “Twelve O’Clock High” or Mathew Modine, the star of 1990’s “Memphis Belle.” Instead of a movie scene, this felt like a bad idea as we bumped down the runway and careened into the sky above DeKalb Peachtree Airport.
I’d been invited onto the WWII bomber by the Liberty Foundation, a Georgia-based outfit that provides opportunities for people to fly in the iconic aircraft. The group’s mission is to keep memories alive and to call attention to the remarkable sacrifices made by Americans during that war. The plane will visit about 50 places and fly close to 4,000 people this year. The tour started in Atlanta on Saturday.
The experience makes vivid the realities faced by America’s young men during WWII. After only a half-hour, I had wobbly legs, but they spent hours on these planes.
A typical mission during the Second World War might last eight hours and extend from England deep into German territory.
The hope in the early stages of the conflict was that these large bombers would make a protracted ground war unnecessary.
The theory didn’t quite work out.
Instead, the B-17 crews experienced war’s horrors in ways that tested the limits of human endurance.
As recounted in Donal L. Miller’s “Masters of the Air,” one authoritative account of the air war in Europe:
“In the thin, freezing air over northwestern Europe, airmen bled and died in an environment that no warriors had ever experienced. It was air war fought not at 12,000 feet, as in World War I, but at altitudes two and three times that, up near the stratosphere where the elements were even more dangerous than the enemy. In this brilliantly blue battlefield, the cold killed, the air was un-breathable, and the sun exposed bombers to swift violence from German fighter planes and ground guns. This endless, unfamiliar killing space added a new dimension to the ordeal of combat, causing many emotional and physical problems that fighting men experienced for the first time ever.”
Once we were in the air, it wasn’t hard to understand why.
Aboard the plane, we were permitted to walk around — mostly stumble around as it bumped through the sky. The wind at times was violent, nearly tearing my iPad from my hands.
And we were flying at just a few thousand feet, not at the altitude where the air is cold and unbreathable.
I couldn’t resist the chance to sit in the bombardier’s seat, in the plastic nose of the plane below the cockpit. It felt like I was suspended in the air outside the plane. I tried to imagine what it must have been like to be in the same spot with anti-aircraft shells exploding around me and German fighter planes attacking.
Aboard the plane with us was Albert McMahan, 93, of Lawrenceville, a World War II veteran of the Eighth Air Force who flew as tail gunner in a B-17. He flew 25 missions, and moved about the plane with more confidence than we media types.
Asked about what it was like to be back up in a B-17, He had a concise answer: “Great!”
“You can’t be up there and get shot at and not have some vivid memories,” he said of his war experiences.
About 12,700 B-17s were produced during the period of World War II, the Liberty Foundation said. More than a third of those were lost in combat. Each had a crew of 10.
As explained in “Masters of the Air:”
“Before enlisting, thousands of American fliers had never set foot in an airplane or fired a shot at anything more threatening than a squirrel… . In this incredible war, a boy of nineteen or twenty could be fighting for his life over Berlin at eleven o’clock in the morning and be at a London hotel with the date of his dreams at nine that evening.”
You may see and hear a B-17 flying today. When you look up at it, it’s worth thinking about what those boys accomplished.
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