A Dance With History
What to do on a clear summer Saturday? Some folks sought the rivers and lakes to boat, ski, or fish. Some probably chose to splash in a swimming pool. Others likely elected to stay inside where it was cool. My son, grandson, and I decided to venture to a local airport and embrace a bit of history.
Thanks to the Collings Foundation, my family trio had the privilege to perform a face-to-face with some of America’s most famous World War II aircraft. The display was part of the non-profit educational foundation’s annual Wings of Freedom Tour, which was established: “to organize and support ‘living history’ events that enable Americans to learn more about their heritage through direct participation.” The Collings Foundation currently maintains a fleet of restored and fully operational aircraft ranging from WWI to the Viet Nam War.
Among other things, World War II was the first major conflict in which aviation established itself as a key player in modern warfare. The planes my son, grandson, and I observed were a Boeing B17-G, a North American B-25, and a North American TF-51 (the two-seat version of the famed P-51 Mustang). Unfortunately, the North American B-24 slated to attend was delayed. Each of the aircraft we viewed was painstakingly restored and flew in to the airport, as they do for all their scheduled events across the country. It was amazing to have the opportunity to examine these bastions of aviation up close and personal.
The highlight of our family experience that Saturday was the walk through inside the B-17. In total, 12,731of these heavy bombers were built in various configurations. 5,000 of them were lost in combat. 48 are surviving today. The bomber we viewed was one of 11 that are currently airworthy. The remaining 37 surviving planes are either under restoration––some to be made airworthy––or are on permanent display.
Visitors to the Wings of Freedom exhibit were encouraged to climb aboard the B-17 and ‘dance’ with history. We entered the aircraft through the front hatch below the cockpit––the “officer’s entrance” (pilot, co-pilot, navigator, and bombardier), although the flight engineer usually hopped inside from there as well. Inside the fuselage, we stood in the flight engineer’s bay. The cockpit and flight controls were to the upper left. Immediately below the flight deck were the navigator’s desk and seat, and the bombardier’s seat, centered behind the infamous Norden bombsight, and the clear plastic dome that formed the B-17’s nosecone. A forward-facing .50 caliber Browning machine gun hung from either side of the fuselage. On the G-model, both guns were the navigator’s responsibility; the bombardier had separate controls to fire the chin-turret machine guns.
My family trio breathed in the history, then moved right, and stepped into the upper machine-gun turret bay. In addition to monitoring overall aircraft operation, the upper guns belonged to the flight engineer. Worming our way around the top gun turret mechanism, we entered the bomb bay––the business section, complete with two five-hundred-pound “demo” bombs. A narrow causeway between the bomb racks allowed the bombardier to arm the bombs when in flight and also led to the radio room––the most spacious area for one person in the entire aircraft. From the radio room we accessed the plane’s rear defense area––the lower, ball-turret gunner’s “office,” the right and left waist gunners, plus the tail gunner’s nook––the one area we couldn’t view firsthand.
We exited through the “enlisted men’s” hatch just forward of the rear wheel and then ogled every square inch of the plane’s exterior. Given this special opportunity, one walk through wasn’t enough. The second time around, we each paused just a bit longer at each station, my son and I trying to picture what it was like at 30, 000 feet, machine guns blasting to ward off enemy fighters followed by flak bursting all around. I was pleased to know that my five-year-old grandson said he was so excited to be in the big bomber that his knees shook. For us, the foundation’s goal of allowing folks to absorb and appreciate their heritage had been achieved across three generations.
At home, my son and I were inspired by the day and chose to watch the movie Memphis Belle. The Memphis Belle and her crew were one of the B-17s that successfully completed the required 25 daylight bombing missions over Europe that, at the time, allowed crews to have completed their tour of duty and return home. Shortly after the Belle’s achievement the required combat missions number increased to as high as 50. Although Hollywood has earned a reputation for over-dramatizing, the 1990 film’s depiction of the Memphis Belle’s final combat mission presents an excellent portrayal of what those flight crews endured before, during, and after each bombing run. Reminded of their tasks and their commitment to succeed, I wept. Tom Brokaw is correct, the servicemen and women, and the people back home and abroad who supported them represent the Greatest Generation.
Even as I wrote this blog post, tears moistened my eyes as I once more reflected on the young men who flew those daylight bombing missions to fulfill their duty to their country and to the world while willingly risking their lives. Back then, my country was united in its effort to preserve freedom, the kind of unity we in the U.S. have only temporarily repeated after 9/11.
I thought about my country and the world today, and the divisive politics in government that serves to destroy unity rather than promote it. Because of my recent dance with history in the B-17, a question came to mind: How would those selfless men and women of the Greatest Generation react today? So many sacrificed their lives to keep our nation and the world free from tyranny, are they turning in their graves? If they could, what would they have to say about our current situation?
My conclusion: I believe we all could benefit from a dance with history before we end up repeating it.