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Former WWII waist gunner recalls B-24 flights

August 19, 2009|By HEATHER KEELS

World War II-era planes a hit at airport

HAGERSTOWN -- Peering into the underbelly of a restored 1944 B-24 Liberator on display at Hagerstown Aircraft Services, veteran David Demichei, 85, of Chambersburg, Pa., remembered the mix of excitement and fear he used to feel as he crawled in through the bomb bay to board the heavy bomber during World War II.

In fact, Demichei said Wednesday afternoon he'd recently reminisced about that procedure with one of his former crew mates.

"He said, 'You remember how we got in?' and I said, 'I don't know about you, but I got in kicking and screaming,'" Demichei said, chuckling.

Today, the former Army Air Corps radio operator and waist gunner speaks with pride about his service in the war and relished the opportunity to revisit the old plane, which was in town as part of the "Wings of Freedom Tour" by the Collings Foundation.

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But when offered a chance to go back up for a ride, Demichei declined.

"I flew enough," he said. "We had a lot of problems."

Demichei remembers crashing from about 50 feet above the ground during training, hitting a high tension wire during a night flight, and getting stuck in a high-speed dive after a daredevil pilot tested how high the plane could go.

"I shoulda got killed five times," he said.

After those experiences, it was no wonder climbing into the plane made his heart pound, Demichei said.

"I always tell my kids that's why I got a double chin -- that's where my heart was, da-boom-da-boom," he said, fluttering his hand up and down in front of his neck.

Hearing stories like Demichei's is what makes restoring World War II aircraft and taking them around the country worthwhile, Collings Foundation staff said.

"We meet the people that have not really shared their stories," pilot Chuck Gardner said. "Once they get around the airplanes, they start to open up."

Demichei said he was a freshman attending college on a football scholarship when he first signed up for the Army Air Corps.

"After football season ended, a bunch of us went down and enlisted," he said. "It was our turn, you know."

At that point, he had no flight experience whatsoever.

"If you've never been in an airplane before and all of a sudden you get put on a bomber, it's different," Demichei said. "Anybody that said he wasn't scared was lying."

Training was a harrowing experience, with his crew having to make about 19 emergency landings, he said.

The time their plane crashed was during the downwind leg of a landing. Demichei was bent down to turn and sign out of his radio transmitter when the plane jolted him up between the pilot and co-pilot and pinned him to the ground. Finally, he got up and escaped through a hatch behind the pilot, he said.

The crew requested a few days to recover, but were told they had to go back up the next day, Demichei said.

After completing their training, Demichei's crew was sent to Saipan, in the war's Pacific Theater. Bombers took off from Saipan to bomb Japan, which involved treacherous flights over the Pacific Ocean.

Many were shot up so badly they couldn't make it back and had to "ditch" in the ocean, he said.

On a B-24, ditching was particularly hazardous because the plane had to go in tail-first and would break as it entered the water, causing a high casualty rate.

Demichei said his crew's flights were generally about 12 hours, all over the water, and they were loud and cold. Gunners had to operate near open windows, so they wore electric underwear, three pairs of gloves, coveralls, alpaca suits and heavy flak vests.

The crew used oxygen masks to breathe at high altitudes.

By the time the crew landed, their nerves were so rattled that after making their report, they went straight to the medics, he said.

"We'd hold out our canteen and they'd fill it with 100 proof rye whiskey, and we'd drink it," he said. "And that's the only way you could sleep."

Demichei said his last flight of the war was Feb. 19, 1945, when his squadron, the 38th Bomb Squadron, dropped bombs on the beach of Iwo Jima at the start of the famous battle there.

"We dropped our bombs along the beach, and the Marines were about 300 yards from hitting the beach, and what amazed me was those battlewagons," he said. "When they fired those guns, the recall ... it moved the battlewagon back in the water."

Looking back over the experience, Demichei said it was his duty to his country that steadied him as he fought the pounding of his heart to climb into the bomber time and time again.

"Somebody had to do it," he said.

If you go ...



What: Wings of Freedom Tour, World War II aircraft display

When: Today, 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Friday, 9:30 a.m. to noon

Where: Hagerstown Aircraft Services at Hagerstown Regional Airport, 14235 Oak Springs Road

What else: Donations of $12 for adults and $6 for children are requested for up-close access and tours. World War II veterans may tour the aircraft at no cost.

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