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Airborne Reminders of the Greatest Generation

The skies over my house were crowded this past weekend. There was an airshow in nearby Anderson County, and it featured several World War II-era aircraft. I saw examples of them on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, and each of them were icons and reminders of the brave airmen of the Greatest Generation who risked–and many gave–their lives for the defense of freedom around the world.

We were sitting at supper with my daughter, son-in-law, and their two children when I suddenly became attuned to the sound of a multi-engine airplane. It obviously was flying low and fast, and I immediately knew that it was not just any old airplane–it was a World War II-era bomber.

I bolted from my chair at the dining table and out the front door just in time to see a B-24 Liberator bomber pass over the house and quickly out of sight. The twin tails on the rear wing were unmistakable. I could have kicked myself for not having grabbed my cell phone to take a photo of it.

I had no sooner resumed my meal and reentered the conversation than I heard another distinctive sound.

I again bolted from my chair, nearly upsetting the serving dishes, and dashed for the door. This time I had my cell phone in hand, and I fumbled to turn it on and bring up the camera feature as I unlatched the door. Turning my gaze upward, I saw a beautiful but fleeting sight–a B-17 Flying Fortress.

The photo is fuzzy, but we’re talking about a cell phone here. And I was snapping the pic on the fly. And the bomber was moving. It’s still a beautiful sight.

I’ve seen many other photos of the Fort from World War II in which the Fortresses are not nearly so beautiful because they’ve been shot all to pieces–and yet they still flew! They were rugged and well-built, possibly the closest any plane of that era got to being well-nigh indestructible. The B-24s, on the other hand, were called “flying coffins” for a reason. You never see that monicker around the neck of the B-17.

The next day, I saw the B-24 Liberator fly over again but at a distance, and again I didn’t have my cell phone handy. But I had seen both the B-24 and the B-17 at an earlier airshow in Knoxville, Tennessee, several years ago and got photos then. I was able to climb into the B-17 and examine it from nose gun to tail gun and all points in between. I saw the B-24 take off and land but was unable to go inside it. (Well, I could have gone inside, actually fly in it–for a price–$500. A bit steep for my wallet.) But that was then, and this was now. I wish I’d gotten that shot.

But the following day I got the chance to see in the sky a plane that I had never seen in flight. A B-25 Mitchell bomber. I’d seen a B-25 on display on the hanger deck of the U.S.S. Yorktown at Patriot’s Point in Mount Pleasant, S.C. But this one was in flight. And it was low. But it was moving fast. I still got a photo of it, again blurred and grainy, but a photo nonetheless. Like the B-24 Liberator, the B-25 has twin tails, but it has only two engines.

The B-25 was the plane that Jimmy Doolittle and his raiders flew when they made their historic bombing run over Tokyo. My imagination had been thrilled over this particular plane and the event ever since I read Ted Lawson’s first-hand account of flying his B-25 in that raid in his book Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo. That was the first time that land-based bombers had taken off from the deck of an aircraft carrier. The first chance the United States had to strike back at the enemy after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The Japanese had no idea where they had come from–FDR said Shangri-La. The raid did little damage, but it forced the enemy to keep at home thousands of troops that otherwise would have been unleashed against American Marines, soldiers, and sailors in other battle zones of the Pacific. As a result, the B-25 Mitchell will forever have an honored place in U.S. military history.

I had models of the B-17 and the B-25 when I was a kid. I read numerous accounts of veteran pilots and gunners who flew aboard the aircraft during the war as I grew to adulthood. And I even worked with a man, Frank Hall, who knew those planes and many others (from the World War II era to the modern jet fighter-bombers) inside out–because he had flown or worked on or helped design and build them. It took a lot of people to design, build, fly, and maintain those bombers. And they are all heroes in my mind, especially those who never came back from what would be their final mission.

Every plane I saw this weekend is a constant reminder of the price of freedom and the determination and courage of those who gave themselves for our freedom. May they continue to fly as reminders to us for ages to come.

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