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Flying Fortress in the sky brings back memories

August 31, 2009

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The rattle of an antique engine filled the air over Boonsboro a little more than a week ago, and heads turned up to see what would have been a common sight in the wartime skies of Europe and the Pacific nearly 70 years ago: A B-17 Flying Fortress, the workhorse of World War II.

Today, there are only nine of these planes still in flying shape, and one was on display at Hagerstown Regional Airport (along with a B-24 Liberator and a P-51 Mustang) as part of the Collings Foundation's Wings of Freedom tour, sponsored locally by the Hagerstown Aviation Museum and Hagerstown Aircraft Services.

I introduced myself to the B-17, saying under my breath, "I've heard so much about you."

It didn't matter what the topic of discussion was about, at some point, my father would work the Flying Fortress into the conversation. He was a member of the 88th Reconnaissance Squadron based in Salt Lake City, a "lighthearted, no-nonsense, off-the-cuff, nonsaluting, but dedicated and hardworking" outfit.

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In the months prior to Pearl Harbor, the men would sit and stew as they watched spanking new bombers fly in from the Boeing assembly line in Seattle -- only to be promptly flown off again by Russian pilots as part of America's lend-lease program.

Itching for some action of their own, they got it when orders came down to fly off to some secret location, a mission with the code name of Plum. They guessed where Plum might be -- Siberia, California, Brazil.

California, dad wrote, was clearly "wishful thinking." Siberia was mentioned because of the Russia connection and Brazil was not as far-fetched as it sounded; some B-17s did fly there on their way to Singapore.

Plum would turn out to be Clark Field in the Philippines, but it took longer than expected to get there. On the way was a refueling stop at Hickam Field in Hawaii, where they happened to touch down on the morning of -- the date may ring a bell -- Dec. 7, 1941.

At the time, they were happy to get there.

The lead navigator was a new guy, just out of school, who was trusted to find a speck in the Pacific. As the pilot watched his fuel gauge nearing E with nothing on the horizon but blue seas, he began to get nervous. He glanced back at the radio room to see his navigator with his feet on his desk munching on a sandwich.

As might be assumed, they were far off course, and only an immediate correction got them to Hawaii with gas left in the tanks. The relief was short-lived. From dad's journal:

"But now, something seemed funny. Things just didn't seem to look right. There was a lot of activity going on for a Sunday morning. Not just activity, but violent activity. Planes were everywhere. Bombs were bursting. Fires burning."

Finally, someone in authority suggested they were putting on maneuvers, to which a grunt responded, "Boy ... they sure put on realistic maneuvers out here."

The new B-17-E models of the 88th were outfitted with tail turrets for the express purpose of thwarting the Japanese Zero's preferred method of approach. But so remote was the thought of war that the .50-caliber machine guns had yet to be installed in the turrets.

Finally figuring out the severity of the situation, the B-17s scattered to more remote landing strips, such as they were, on the island. Several of the tough planes landed in spots where aircraft would seem to have no business landing. But to one pilot, orders were orders, and he had been told to land at Hickam Field, bomb craters or no, so land on Hickam Field he would do.

It took three tries to get the B-17 to the ground, but he did it. Then, as they ran to safety, the crew was twice strafed by Zero machine gun fire. None of the men suffered as much as a scratch.

In fact, the only plane the 88th lost that morning was one that had arrived the day before and was sitting on the tarmac. Such was the grit and dependability of these aircraft, which well reflected the qualities of the men who flew in them.

And a tip of the hat is due to the Hagerstown Aviation Museum (www.hagerstownaviationmuseum.org) for preserving the county's aviation heritage, and helping to provide opportunities such as these to us to see the machines that our fathers and grandfathers so dearly came to love and trust.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2324, or by e-mail at timr@herald-mail.com. Tune in to the Rowland Rant video at www.herald-mail.com, on antpod.com or on Antietam Cable's WCL-TV Channel 30 evenings at 6:30. New episodes are released every Wednesday.

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