Didn’t want to leave.
Something felt so familiar.
“They” say movies and pictures add 10 pounds to people…well, there’s also something movies and pictures add to history. Seeing something firsthand seems to strip away all the pomp and makeup and lighting and “best sides” to the bare, unadulterated truth.
This…was a war machine.
A well-crafted, lethal, deliverer of death and destruction.
So why the fascination? Why did so many men turn into kids around things like aircraft and boats and battlefields?
Why do they jockey for position to get in front of others to squeeze in and crawl through a claustrophobic metal tube such as the B-17’s fuselage?
I spent last weekend crawling throughout and marveling at a refurbished B-17G, the Liberty Belle. Words near fail me. This is something that has, well—I’ll use the term “haunted”—me since I first got my hands on Flying Fortress: The Illustrated Biography of the B-17s and The Men Who Flew Them, by Edward Jablonski, oh, so many years ago. Liberty Belle tours the United States. Except for the $450 rides aboard it, and any donations that are stuffed into an empty bomb shell, touring the ship (or “Fort” as it used to be called by some aircrew) is free. I explored nose to tail. All of it. Actually crawled through the much narrower-than-expected empennage to the aft tail gunner compartment—and it is a crawl, all fours—as well as experienced the waist, radio, bombardier, and pilot compartments. Getting in just aft of the bombardier compartment is a squeeze. And once inside, you’ll find there’s little “elegance” involved in its construction. Everything is totally functional. From the Spartan and oddly place tail gunner seat (maybe it was locked into position and was actually adjustable, I don’t know…), to the lethal Browning machine guns. Interior exposed fuselage airframe. There’s no padding or built-in comfort here. It was a fascinating, fascinating in-your-face exploration of an important part of WWII history. It’s obviously not for everyone… but it may be for you. It may speak to a part of you you can’t explain…don’t want to admit to even being a part of you…but just go if there’s even a little part of you at all interested. No one’ll know—at least, not until you get that faraway look in your eyes. Then everyone’ll understand and allow you your space. Your…moment.
See what it does to you.
And watch the WWII veterans who also show up, because, yes, there are still quite a few out there, and some are willing to talk—but be reverent with them, because more than likely you’re not coming from the same “place” they are. For you, this might just be a weekend diversion, but for those guys who flew them…it’s most likely something else entirely. One contemporary Belle pilot told me how on one tour he found an elderly gentleman lying on his back on the tarmac underneath mid-fuselage, one hot day. He approached the man and asked if he was all right…if he needed a glass of water or anything. The gentleman responded he was fine…that this was just the last he’d seen of his plane when he bailed out of it during WWII. He’d been a ball turret gunner (on the underside of the ship).
I spent most of my time either looking at the Belle from the tarmac, or inside the tail gunner compartment. I crawled back there twice, the second time I had much more time to myself. For some of my own fascination with the tail gunner position, please check out my previous posts (first post and second post). Though there was a intense sense of familiarity around the B-17, there was nothing Twilight Zoneish about the experience as when I first visited Bull Run. But I tell ya, though I am a fan of aircraft, the B-17 really, almost “unaccountably,” gets under my skin…no other aircraft of WWII has this effect on me…in fact, I can’t think of any other aircraft that really has that effect on me, period. There is just something about this aircraft.
I visited the Belle all weekend. The first day it was windier than hell, with gusts at and above 40 mph, so the flight crew grounded themselves after some morning flights. I wanted to see the Belle take off and land, so came back Sunday to see it. I also spent a lot of time actually talking to those working and visiting the plane. Talked to a couple of the pilots, especially “John,” an easy six-foot-four or more easy going guy who simple fell in love with the ”romance” of flying the Liberty Belle. Also talked with an 86-year-old ex-pilot with over a 1,000 hours of B-17 time. He was a trip. I remarked to my wife how well he got along at 86 (I’m pretty sure that was his age), but when I talked with the gentleman, he rattled off a host of “issues” and operations he’d had—and that amazed me more! The guy had spunk! He also had a great little ditty about himself being a “Human B-17.” I have to find that. Talked with another “Frank” whose dad had been a tail gunner. If I’m keeping all the stories straight, his dad’s flight was the only plane that had returned from an air raid one day, and it was haunting returning to base. No more guys laughing or drinking or playing cards or riding bikes.
Sooo…I saw it take off—kinda. There was this long building that actually masked any actual rubber-leaving-the-airstrip, but we saw it soon afterward. And as for landing..weeell, missed that too. Another set of buildings also masked touchdown (we had to stay “behind the cones,” since it was an operational airport), though I got a great digital video of it taxing back to its parked location.
Then…after we’d returned home, the Belle flew directly over our home! I mean directly. Straight up—twice. I took some great digital video of that, too. It’s such a beautiful aircraft, and it’s so cool to see it in flight.
Call it synchronicity, lunacy, or whatever, but ever since late last year, I’ve been giving this tail gunner “issue” of mine some serious attention, and, as detailed in my previous posts, I’ve had some cool stuff happen. And I wrote a short story about it—which I’m still marketing. But, my weirdness aside, if anyone ever has a chance to see one of these beasts “in person,” and there’s even just the teensiest of inklings of interest—I highly recommend it.
Did not want to leave.