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Taken for Granted: Soaring through World War II history

May 26, 2010|Pat Grant

Rumbling down Runway 8 at Bob Hope Airport in a World War II B-17 Flying Fortress was not just another item on my bucket list. For all on board, it was a unique opportunity to experience the physical world in which thousands of young American fliers of every ethnicity, background and region courageously fought their war. Many had only seen an airplane from afar; few had ever flown in one.

Christened Liberty Belle, with flight markings of a sister aircraft that was severely damaged and lost two crew members on its 64th mission, the airplane's preservation is the dedicated effort of Don Brooks, whose father Elton flew on the original Liberty Belle. Built at Lockheed in Burbank, the Liberty Belle's present-day mission is one of reacquainting the younger generation of Americans with the courage and sacrifice of those who risked their lives in the skies over Europe and in combat theaters around the world.

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The Army Air Corps suffered the highest percentage of casualties of any of the military services during World War II. One-third of the B-17s built were lost in combat.

As one "passenger" explained, this flight was a belated tribute to her father, a crewman on a B-17 who upon his return home had steadfastly refused to discuss his wartime experiences. She was seeking some insight into the environment in which he experienced the terror he so desperately wished to forget. And this short flight, over the Burbank hills on a beautiful Saturday morning in April, provided the sound, smell, vibration and starkness of the confined space in which these brave men experienced subzero conditions, skies thick with flak, attacking enemy fighters and the prospect of instant death.

I am acquainted with the sons of two airmen who served with the Eighth Air Force, flying missions from airfields in England. Each has made a special effort to honor and recall their father's service.

Mike Gray's father Darwin, a flight engineer and top turret gunner, had the unenviable job of sliding into the open bomb bay, with nothing but daylight and eternity below him, in order to "kick out" bombs that refused to release. Mike was able to track down several members of his father's flight crew, including the 19-year-old pilot who had kept a diary describing each mission. The diary concludes with "Whoopee, we made it!" on the day of their safe return from their last mission.

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