The details can be slow to take shape, unfurling in a halting flow, faded by the steady drain of the seven decades since he last took flight.
Capt. Alan Carlton faced a visage familiar but a lifetime removed as he stared down the B-24 bomber parked last week at Ramona airfield, a meticulously restored facsimile of the planes he piloted time and again into the heart of Nazi Germany.
Carlton, 98, swapped stories with two other veterans as they sat in the shadow of the Second World War’s other great American bomber, the B-17, waiting to take flight as the Wings of Freedom tour moved its fleet of four restored WWII planes to Carlsbad.
Stories of the fateful flight in 1944 — the 15th and final bombing run he’d get credit for — shot out of the sky by German fighter planes. Of his tail-gunner and a waist-gunner wiped out by the barrage of bullets. Of the men sniped from the sky as they parachuted down. Of the depravity he endured in a German prison camp, food so scarce that captive and captor alike had wasted away by the time Russian troops liberated them more than a year later. And of the horrors the Red Army savaged upon the villagers there.
He paused only briefly to acknowledge the quiet, conflicted anguish.
“I’ll probably never forget it,” he recalled. “But you never like to think about the guys you lost.”
His children were mostly spared those stories as they grew up, unaware for half a century of how heavy a burden he bore, silently, for the men in his crew who didn’t make it. Those details only started coming out during a trip back in Germany in 1995, a reunion with what remained of his brothers in arms.
“It took him 50 years to start downloading what happened,” said his daughter Jan.
He bore that burden in peace last week, for a few fleeting moments replaced by the simple joy of taking to the air again.
“I just love to fly,” he said after landing, embraced by the hero’s welcome that awaited in Carlsbad. His children and grandchildren met him on landing, along with a vanload of fellow residents at Brookdale retirement home in Carmel Valley, proudly waving Old Glory, the older among them awash in their memories of triumphant returns home after the defeat of the greatest evil the modern world has ever known.
The May 4 event was one of 100 stops that the Wings of Freedom tour will make this year as it hops from airport to the delight of aviation aficionados. The Collings Foundation funds their tour by selling rides to the public at each stop.
Their four-plane fleet also includes a B-25 Mitchell and the P-51 Mustang, revered in aviation lore as “the Cadillac of the sky.” The Collings Foundation’s B-24 — found in India years after the war and rechristened as “Witchcraft” — is said to be the only fully restored B-24 in existence.
After a stop in Riverside on May 10, Wings of Freedom heads to Santa Ana until May 14. Learn more about the tour at www.collingsfoundation.org. And visit the Del Mar Times Facebook page to see more photos from the May 4 flight.