On mission of memories

Bombers: Two rebuilt World War II planes start the stories flying for moved veterans at Westminster display.

October 21, 1999|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

As he walked toward the B-17 that landed yesterday at Carroll County Regional Airport, John Morgan's memories took over and he started to cry.

Morgan, a 78-year-old retired salesman, spent a year of World War II flying B-17s, risking his life in the skies over Europe.

"When you went into combat in one of these, your life expectancy was about two minutes," he said, pointing to the huge green hulk of an aircraft parked on the runway in Westminster.

Morgan, who lives in Sykesville, was one of about a dozen World War II veterans and younger aviation buffs who came to see two restored World War II-era bombers that arrived at the airport yesterday.

The B-17 and a B-24, both considered workhorses of the U.S. air campaign during World War II, were flown to Westminster yesterday for a two-day stint at the airport, courtesy of the Collings Foundation, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit group. They will be on display and available for private flights today and tomorrow.

Morgan and other veterans used the occasion yesterday to relive the past, and praise the bravery of their comrades and the quality of the aircraft.

"We're alive because of those planes," said Jim Caulford, 75, of Westminster, another Army Air Forces veteran who flew B-17s out of England.

Caulford recalled how on one of his 33 missions, the bombs didn't fall when the bombardier pushed the switch that usually dropped the ordnance.

So he had to straddle the bay doors -- that stayed open 30,000 feet above Germany -- while using a screwdriver to pry loose 300 pounds of cluster bombs that were primed to explode.

"If we took five or 10 seconds longer those bombs would've exploded and ripped us to pieces," Caulford said.

On one mission, Morgan said, he heard a loud "thunking noise" and felt a jolt against the wooden seat behind him. When he returned to England, he discovered a piece of German shrapnel had lodged into the seat.

"If that seat wasn't there, it would have gone right into here and killed me for sure," he said, pointing to his groin.

Morgan was 21, newly married and working in a Baltimore oil refinery in 1942 when he enlisted in what was then the Army Air Forces.

He was assigned to the 305th Bomb Group and was shipped to a base near London, from where he flew 26 missions as a tail gunner aboard B-17s.

The missions meant 10-hour flights from England to Germany, with much of it spent on his knees firing a machine gun and only a small seat near his backside for support.

At 30,000 feet, temperatures would drop to 50 below zero. "You never felt such cold," he said.

Gene Hill, another air corps veteran, said the cold was only part of the problem.

On training missions in Ohio, the landing gear on the B-17 didn't always function properly, making landings a dicey proposition.

"Sometimes I think the training missions were more dangerous than the combat," said Hill, 75, of Ellicott City.

The planes are owned by the Collings Foundation, an organization that supports "living-history demonstrations," such as air and antique car shows.

Robert Collings, the retired businessman who started the foundation in 1979, said the foundation has flown its planes to about 600 small airports and airstrips in the past 10 years to promote aviation history.

"History means more to people if they can see it and touch it," he said.

Collings acknowledged that the B-29 -- which was used to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki -- has attracted much of the limelight among fans of World War II aviation.

But he said the B-17s and the B-24s were actually the workhorses, running thousands of bombing missions over Europe and the Pacific.

"The B-29 didn't even come into the picture until nearly the end of the war," he said.

6,000 pounds of bombs

Both the B-17 and B-24 carried about 6,000 pounds of bombs. The B-24 flew at 290 mph and had a range of about 3,000 miles for bombing runs. The B-17 flew at about 250 mph and had a range of about 2,500 miles, he said.

Both of the foundation's planes have a colorful history.

Collings said the B-24, named "The Dragon and His Tale" after a bomber that served with distinction, was built in Texas in 1944, but was transferred that year to Britain's Royal Air Force and used to patrol and bomb Japanese shipping lanes.

Collings purchased the B-24 from a British collector in 1984, had it shipped in pieces across the Atlantic and sank $1.3 million into its restoration.

The B-17, named "Nine-O-Nine," was built in Long Beach, Calif., in 1945 and used as a training aircraft and for air-sea rescues in the Caribbean. In the 1950s, it was fitted with new aviation instruments and was one of several planes subjected to atomic testing in the Yucca Flats in Nevada, Collings said.

It was "cooled down" from the radioactivity it was exposed to over the next 13 years and was sold to a Phoenix firm that used it to fight forest fires.

Collings purchased the B-17 in 1985 and began flying it in 1987 after sinking $400,000 into the aircraft.

Flights are costly, too

The restoration and maintenance costs explain the high cost for flights aboard the aircraft -- $350.

"Getting them to run is an expensive proposition," Collings said.

Information: 410-876-7200

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