Iíll Always Remember That Ride Ė Growing Up With The B-17
A little anecdotal story regarding the B-17. A bit lengthy but please bear with me. Let's go back in time say oh, about the summer of 1962.
While on a trip to visit his Grandmother's house in Black Oak, Arkansas from Decatur, Alabama, a young boy's family makes a stop in Memphis, Tennessee to see some of the sights. The family stops near a National Guard armory because the father wants to show something to his young son. And there it was.... A huge, big green airplane on a concrete pedestal. It was the neatest thing this six year old kid had ever seen. It had these big tires and all those engines on the wings and blue and white stars on the sides, with so many machine guns sticking out of it from everywhere. You never saw a bigger smile on a kidís face. "What is it dad?" the young boy asked his father. "It's a B-17 son. It's called The Memphis Belle. It's a pretty famous airplane, and I got to ride home in one just like this one when I came home after the war. You know, I'll always remember that ride."
After that summer vacation and another family relocation or two, in 1964, the family moves to Milwaukie, Oregon about the time a new TV series appeared on the scene: "Twelve O'clock High". So remembering that summer visit back in Memphis, that little kid could just not get enough of watching that TV show. One of the characters, the flight engineer/top turret gunner Sgt Sandy Kamansky was his hero. So one day, the kid's father informs the young lad that he needs to go put some gas in the car and for him to hop in and come along. So over the hill they go and they turn the corner to pull into the gas station. And there it was... Perched on stilts right over the gas pumps, like a winged griffin standing guard, was a big silver plane. A B-17! Just like the one in Memphis and on TV! With the gas tank full, the father pulled the car over to the side of the station and told his wide-eyed son, "Letís go get a closer look, and while we're at it, let's climb up that ladder and go inside". You never saw a bigger smile on a kidís face. Soon that young boy had explored that plane from the tail gunner's position to looking out at the imaginary "Festung Europa" through the bombardier's Plexiglas nose position on top of those twin fifties in the chin turret. Then he heard it. The call over the intercom: "bandits! 12 O'clock high!Ē What would Sgt. Kamansky do in a situation like this? Why, he'd just swing that turret around and blast those Nazis from the skies. That's what he'd do. So quick! Back up through the nose tunnel, around the backs of the pilots, and up he climbs into his favorite top turret position. The young aerial gunner swings his turret to and fro (with the help of his grinning father) and sweeps the skies of attacking Focke-Wulfs and deadly Messerschmitts. Many bomb runs were made and aerial battles were fought every time the father went to get gas.
Later, back on the ground, the young boy decides he needs to learn more about these fascinating planes so he begins to build models of them, every one he could find. Of every type and version. Then he begins to read about them. More and more he learns everything he can about them. On weekends, the father would take his son out to the airport just to watch the planes take off and land. Sometimes there would be a real treat as F-102 Delta Darts and F-101 Voodoos would take off in a thunderous roar from the airbase on the other side of the airfield. Days after school would find this lad down at the soda fountain at the local pharmacy perusing the latest issues of "Air Classics", "Wings", and every aviation magazine in their magazine rack. The man at the local used bookstore would somehow always seem to have just the right book behind his counter about aviation history and would pull it out whenever this young man would come in and he would say "here, I found this and thought you might be interested". And in all of this, he begins to learn about other aircraft, the men who flew them and about the conflict that created their necessity in that not to distant past. In those lessons there came a better understanding of who his heroes were, the country that they served, and of an underlying ethos of "Duty, Honor, Country".
Having begun to understand that ethos, this young man decided that it was his duty too, to serve his country and enlisted in the United States Marine Corps in May of 1975. One of his early tours of duty stationed him in Phoenix, Arizona in 1979. One day, while driving by a nearby airport, the young Marine happened to glance over to his left. And there is was... A big silver tail shining in the Arizona sun. Gleaming, almost beckoning. A graceful, sweeping tail rising above all the other aircraft parked nearby that could only belong to a B-17. As if guided by an unseen hand, the Marine's car found itself parked next to this B-17. She was obviously in the phases of restoration, a shining silver fuselage armed only with chin and tail turret, sans belly turret, top turret and guns but she was operational. On that shining metal nose was a painting of Betty Grable smiling in her classic pin-up pose and the appropriate name of "Sentimental Journey" right below. There happened to be a ground crew, which appeared to be of the age of men who could have flown these planes when they were new, working on the aircraft that day. They were getting the plane ready for a multi state tour. They noticed that their visitor was more than eager and in a great public relations moment, said "Hey young fella, get on over here and help us". You never saw a bigger smile on a young manís face. The afternoon was spent cranking 90 weight oil out of a 55 gallon drum with a hand pump, turning props to get the oil out of the bottom cylinders, and various other chores to get the plane ready for a test flight. Later, they were ready and one by one, the engines coughed into life, belching blue smoke out of the exhausts then settled down to a surprisingly quiet purr. Taxiing down to the end of the runway, she turned around onto the active runway, did her control sweeps, checked the magnetos, and then slowly began her take off run. Majestically and steadily, the big bomber lifted into the blue Arizona sky as gracefully as any Piper Cub could do. So as the big bomber departed on it duty, so too did the young Marine sergeant. Back to his duties and his career.
As time went by, the Marine was promoted and traveled to many duty stations. Through luck and Dame Fortune, in 1985 the Marine was stationed in his home town in Oregon. One day, he drove over to his father's house and picked him up and told him, "come on dad, let's go for a ride, I need to put some gas in my car." After a while, knowing that the gas station was just over the hill and that they were going a different direction, the father asked "OK, where are we going and why are we at the airbase?" The son smiled and told his father "I thought you might have known, it's the 50th anniversary of the B-17 and one is supposed to stop by here on it's way to Seattle. I thought you might like to see it and by the way, I have a flightline pass". So the car was parked and the two walked towards the flightline and around the hangers. And there it was... That big silver bird with Betty Grable still smiling. Only now she looked different. She seemed shinier, and look! There's a belly turret, and a top turret too! And she was bristling with machine guns looking as if she had just rolled off the assembly line in 1944. Walking up to the aircrew and introducing his father, the son recounted how she looked so much different than she did six years prior. Beaming with pride, the aircrew said ďcome aboard, we'll show you what's changedĒ. Entering the starboard crew hatch, the crewman showed how they had gotten the Browning machine guns and the ammo boxes for them, complete with belts of dummy ammo. He told his guests of how they want to get every little detail right. Even down to the rubber relief tube so airmen could answer "Nature's call" while in the air. Moving forward across the bomb bay, the trio stopped at the newly installed top turret. "Now this is our pride and joy" he said. "A fully operational top turret. Most other B-17's only have a dummy bubble for a turret but ours is a fully functional turret". The son couldn't resist but to climb up into the turret remembering fighting off those waves of enemy fighters above the gas station so many years ago. "This is amazing, where'd you get the turret from?" he asked. The crewman chuckled and said "that's the neat part. There's a guy just a little south of here in Milwaukie that has a B-17 on top of a gas station of all places. We made a trade for it and he gave us the top turret from his plane and we put it here in ours." Stunned, the son looked at his dad and then back at the crewman and asked "You mean, the turret I used to play 12 O'clock High in as a kid is this very same turret Iím standing in?" "Yessir it is" the man said. You never saw a bigger smile on a grown manís face. Sgt Kamansky would be proud.
Time marches on and so too did the Marine to a later duty station in Dallas, Texas in 1994. This time to a Marine Air Wing unit. One of the duties of this unit was to participate in local air shows. The Marine, now a Master Sergeant, was detailed to assist at one of these shows. As he was showing off the virtues of his unit's KC-130's a sound started to reach his ears. Soft and imperceptible at first, but growing louder by the moment; the unmistakable sound of a "round engine". So he stepped outside of the aircraft and walked around the nose to look. And there it was... A B-17. A green giant with mission bombs and a cowgirl painted on it's nose. Fittingly, it was "Texas Raider", taxiing into it's hardstand for the show. The Marine hastened down to the hardstand to gaze at the B-17 and to talk to itís crew. After arriving there was a chance to talk to some of the aircrew of which some were of the age that they were probably veteran airmen who flew those bombers over Germany in that war long ago. There was one man standing to the side, of a similar age of his father, quiet and of slender build, with white hair, and crow's feet wrinkles around his eyes from hours of staring into the sun and dressed in a blue flight suit of the Confederate Air Force who operated the plane. After talking with this man for a while, the veteran humbly admitted that he'd "flown a few missions during the war". Then the Marine happened to look at the older aviator's name patch on his flight suit and read the name "John Comer". Bells started to ring. "Your name is familiar" the Marine said. "Why do I recognize your name?" he asked. "Well, he said bashfully, I wrote a book a few years back, you might have read it". His mind racing, it finally came to him. "Wait a minute! John Comer..... You're the author of 'Combat Crew'!" John kind of smiled and said "yes, that was me. I wrote it for my friends who were there with me and because I had some demons to expel". John Comer - flight engineer/top turret gunner for 25 missions out of England on his first tour and came back for another tour of duty in Italy for another 50 missions. This was Sgt Kamansky personified! The next day the Master Sergeant appeared at the B-17 and found John Comer. Reaching into the pocket of his flight suit, the Master Sergeant pulled out his weathered copy of "Combat Crew" that had been recommended to him at that used bookstore so many years ago and asked him to sign it. After addressing the book and returning it to the Marine, with a twinkle in his eye and a smile, John said "be back here at 3:30, I've got you on the flight manifest for the next fly-by". You never saw a bigger smile on a grown man's face.
3:30 couldn't come fast enough. Entering through the crew hatch and taking a seat in the radio room, the Marine buckled in and looked through the open radio room door at the bomb bay doors which were open to help alleviate some of the stifling Texas heat until they got airborne. The engines rumbled to life and a metallic whine sounded through the aircraft as the electric motors begin to close the bomb bay doors. A bouncing, swaying motion and a rumbling sound began as the plane started to move and gather speed as it headed to the end of the runway. Then a slight bounce and now it's just the sound of those four Wright-Cyclones pulling the bomber into the air. Now, once in the air, the Marine is given the freedom to roam about in the aircraft. As he stands up and looks out the radio room window, he notices two F-4U Corsairs have joined up on the starboard wing of the B-17 for a fighter escort. "Wow!" he thought, "this is just like going up 'The Slot' out of Guadalcanal". And now, just like he did 30 years ago, the Marine goes from the tail gunner's position to the bombardier's bombsight and once again overlooks the imaginary "Festung Europa" through the Plexiglas nose. Only this time, the sound of the engines is real because she really is flying. You never saw a bigger smile on a grown mans' face. And by the way, the top turret really is the best seat in the house. Sgt Kamansky would be proud.
So now, I can say this. Thank you Dad, You were right. Iíll always remember that ride. In more ways than you will ever know.
MGySgt David ďJakeĒ Jacobs