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Honoring Bravery

Reporter flies in World War II bomber ahead of traveling tour's Livermore visit

I gazed down the barrel of an M2 Browning machine gun, the sun flashing off the black paint.

The B24 Liberator bomber -- a plane built for a clamorous war but now has a calmer career -- bounced like a car hitting a speed bump. I slumped to my knees, my legs unaccustomed to the split second of weightlessness that comes with air pockets in military planes.

This B24, called Witchcraft, has seen its share of visiting journalists, veterans and history buffs as a part of the Collings Foundation's nationwide Wings of Freedom tour.

It saw so much more before that.

The aerial journey from Santa Maria to Monterey last week jostled me and a small group of volunteers. But about 70 years ago, the aircraft ferried young men into chaos.

There's a reverence here for the World War II veterans who board and take brief flights on the bombers, Collings Foundation flight coordinator Jamie Mitchell said. She said she can feel their melancholy. The memories are etched on their faces.

She said there tends to be a disconnect between veterans and younger visitors who view these planes as the baby boomers' cool rides or their ticket to glory back home.

"It's not glamorous to me at all," the 35-year-old Mitchell said. "You know you're standing in the same plane some guy stood in and didn't know if he was coming back."

Had I been a 25-year-old man flying on a bombing mission in 1940 instead of a 25-year-old woman taking a quick sightseeing trip in 2016, I would have needed to plug a special suit into the plane to survive the frigid temperatures in an unpressurized cabin. As it stood, we were only at 7,000 feet, and my biggest concern as I looked out the gunner windows was whether my phone would have enough battery to last the day.

Can you imagine being a young man on this bomber in the height of World War II?

The guns sway as the plane pulls away from the earth, and you can see the landing strip becoming a small line beneath your feet if you peer between equipment in the bomber's flooring.

The engines roar. The wind threatens to whip your shirt off, so you tuck it in harder. If you even want to get to the front of the plane, you have to shimmy down a catwalk in the bomb bay. Don't fall -- the doors will open and you'll fall into the blue below.

At 25,000 feet above the ground, I would have needed to wear an oxygen mask. I would have been manning a machine gun instead of a camera, hoping the bullets that flitted against the side of the hull didn't hit me.

I probably would have seen friends die right beside me. I would have had to kill. Or be killed.

Every move mattered. Every moment mattered. Defeat meant a new world order. Defeat was not an option.

Can you imagine?

Had I been 25 in 1940 -- as a woman -- my husband could have been the one in this bomber. Today, the only time I worry about his safety is if a car crash has been reported on his work commute. But back then, I could have been the one at home, growing a victory garden and praying he didn't disappear or come home in a casket.

I can't imagine.

For a brief moment, my grandfather was one of those young men in military planes hoping to come home.

My grandfather Samuel Frisbie Rutland Jr. flew planes for the Navy and trained during World War II. He traveled from his family's Alabama farmhouse to practice the harrowing task of landing Hellcats on aircraft carriers, preparing for combat over the Pacific. Then the war ended. He was spared.

He went on to fly Navy Hellcats during the Korean War, but he had several more years to train before that conflict began. Those years could have made all the difference because he came home and fathered three children, including my dad.

Mitchell said a veteran once stopped by her office and sat down just to talk. He pulled out photos of himself with the B17 bomber he served in during World War II. She said there are so many stories -- tales of narrow misses and friends lost, of battles won and tearful reunions.

A friend's grandfather lived through one of those stories. Major Jack R. Bissell flew 31 missions in a B24 bomber over central Europe. He served as the bombardier, deciding when to release the plane's bombs and recording strikes, so he would have had to crawl through the nose of the plane to get to a small pod where he would evaluate targets. Fuel refineries were big marks, as were railroads, bridges and airplane factories.

I made that crawl twice during my brief flight. My biggest concern was making sure I didn't step on the big, red flaps that said "DO NOT STEP." Apparently, you could fall out of the plane if you did that. My second biggest concern was hitting my head as I stood up.

But of course, I didn't have to worry about a bullet smashing through the clear plastic nose of the plane. I scanned the ground and picked out baseball fields and swimming pools. Bissell would have needed to quickly decide if a building held Nazis or a nursery.

Once, an armed bomb didn't drop when the bomb bay doors opened, and Bissell had moments to shuffle down the catwalk, lean out over the open sky and use a screwdriver to pry the explosive loose. It worked.

As I walked through the bomb bay on the B24, I brushed the empty bomb shell casings. I slowly moved down the eight-inch-wide walkway, hoping I didn't fall past the many support beams during the flight.

My heart beat heavily, and I let out a deep sigh when I made it to the front of the plane. Then I realized the bravest thing I'd done this month was a daily risk for the men who served here. And the real risks were much bigger. Much scarier.

And much more than I could imagine.

History in motion

My job usually takes me inside school board meetings, to animal shelters or to the rare Pleasanton crime scene. But as the lucky passenger of the B24 bomber on the Wings of Freedom tour, I gladly exchanged florescent lights for a sunburn and sore legs.

Ahead of the tour's stop in Livermore this weekend, I toured B25 and B17 bombers -- aka the "Flying Fortress" -- and flew in a B24 bomber.

You may remember that type of plane as the infamous lemon that crashed in the Pacific in 1943, leaving Louie Zamperini and his crewmates to become Japanese prisoners of war, as depicted in the book and movie "Unbroken." (And the one in the tour actually saw combat! The other bombers were made just a little too late to fight in World War II.)

B24 Liberators, also called the "Flying Coffins," could drop about 8,000 pounds of explosives and were used across Europe by the U.S. Army Air Forces, the predecessor to the U.S Air Force, said Collings volunteer Kevin Ryan. But this specific plane in the Wings of Freedom tour was also used by the British Royal Air Force in the Pacific.

Witchcraft is the only fully restored and flying B24 bomber, according to the Collings Foundation. The name Witchcraft is a nod to another B24 bomber that flew missions over Europe during World War II.

Companies like Ford started pumping them out of their factories when it became clear that war was the nation's new reality.

"They needed to crank out airplanes, not automobiles," said Ryan, a Livermore resident. "Factories used for washing machines, kitchen implements, they were all switched over."

The planes are put on display by the Collings Foundation throughout the year, and visitors can take short trips in the bombers or tour them on the ground.

These planes are important historical pieces for all Americans, but it's especially educational for younger generations who don't have a direct connection to World War II, Mitchell said. By making sure the planes stay in service, the foundation is keeping this piece of history alive.

"We need a tour like this so people can be a part of it," she said. "They're national treasures, and they belong to everyone."

If You Visit

The Wings of Freedom tour comes to Livermore this Memorial Day weekend.

What: See, tour and ride World War II B24, B25 and B17 bombers. Do a flight training session on a World War II P-51C Mustang fighter.

When: Saturday, noon to 5 p.m.; Sunday and Monday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Where: Livermore Municipal Airport, 731 Terminal Circle

Cost for tours: $12 adults. $6 children, 12 and under.

Cost for flights: *30-minute flight on the B-17 or B-24 is $450 per person

* 30-minute flight on the B-25 is $400 per person

* 30-minute flight training on the P-51C is $2,200

* 60-minute flight training on the P-51C is $3,200

For more information and flight reservations, call 978-562-9182. Flights take place before and after tours.

Comments

Like this comment
Posted by Marion Stearns
a resident of Livermore
on May 26, 2016 at 11:44 am

this was excellent. Having lived in WWII years and attended air shows at LVK, I am most appreciative of this article. thank you very much. I now live in Vermont, so it was wonderful to see this article in re to California.


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