Flight in historical warbirds sends memories soaring for WWII veterans

The B-17G Flying Fortress “Nine O Nine” brought back memories to veterans recently as it visited area airports with two other warbirds from the Collings Foundation Wings of Freedom Tour.

By Larry Brooks

Del Mar Historical Society

It was 11 a.m. on a Thursday, and three World War II veterans sat in the admin building at French Valley Airport in Murrieta. They were being interviewed by an attractive young female photojournalist from the local ABC-TV outlet. Her gentle but penetrating questions, and perhaps her allure, slowly earned their trust, and the stories began to flow.

The first to open up was a retired naval aviator who talked about a clandestine mission he flew for the budding intelligence service. He returned to his carrier for a night landing in a bullet-riddled aircraft. He received the Silver Star for this mission. However, the text in the medal’s citation had little to do with the mission, because it was highly classified. For many years, he couldn’t tell his family what he had done. Eventually, the citation was written correctly, and now he related the mission in great detail to the young woman.

The second veteran had been in the Army Air Force as a turret gunner in a B-24 Liberator. He openly talked of missions at night from England over the English Channel at 400 feet with no navigation lights and radios silenced. This was before D-Day, and the mission was to deliver supplies to the French Resistance. He carried with him a U.S. Air Medal and a French Legion of Honour. After the war, he never flew again.

The third veteran sat proudly in his khaki uniform with the single stripe of a private and the 82nd Airborne unit patch. He was a very quiet man and listened intently to the other two men. Several times he nodded agreement, but rarely did he say a word.

Visible through an expanse of glass behind the men, were three iconic WWII aircraft on the ramp. The closest was the B-17 “Flying Fortress” built by Douglas Aircraft in Long Beach (possibly with parts made at the Del Mar fairgrounds). There are only about 10 B-17s still flying in the world out of the more than 12,000 built.

Beyond the B-17 sat the B-24 “Liberator” built by Consolidated Aircraft in Fort Worth, Texas. Many others were built at the Consolidated facility near Lindbergh Field in San Diego. This is one of only two B-24s still flying out of more than 18,000 built.

The farthest plane out on the ramp was a P-51 “Mustang” built by North American Aviation. The P-51 is often credited with turning the tide in the air war over France during WWII because of its long range, which allowed it to escort previously unprotected bombers like the B-17 deep into the European theater.

After a long weather delay for their flight time, the naval aviator strode with much anticipation to the P-51, while the other two veterans went to the B-24. After a brief pre-flight briefing consisting of “wear seat belts during take-off and landing” and “there are no restrooms or emergency exits on this aircraft,” I boarded the B-17.

Soon, the pilot and co-pilot had completed their pre-flight check lists, and the pilot nodded to the ground crew. After a thumbs-up, the pilot began the process of starting engine No. 1. The hydraulic starter motor whined, and the huge propeller started to turn. As it turned faster, the engine suddenly belched a large cloud of smoke and roared to life with that very distinctive sound of the large radial piston engines. The smell of 100-octane, low- lead av gas wafted through the plane.

Engine No. 3, then No. 2 and finally No. 4 were started, and the engine warm-up began. When the needles on the analog gauges in the cockpit were “in the green,” the pilot gave a second thumbs-up to the ground crew. The ground crew responded with a smart hand salute, followed by an energetic gesture pointing to the taxiway. The B-17 slowly made its way to the threshold of runway Two-Four. With permission from the tower, the take-off began with increasing noise and vibration. About halfway down the 5,000-foot runway, we were airborne. The P-51 had preceded us, and the B-24 was not far behind.

In about an hour, we were all back on the ground after a heart-pounding experience. But for these three members of Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation,” their flights sent them home with memories revived from 70 years before.