-by Jerry Ritter, first published in the Eugene Register-Guard, later republished in Flightlines, the newsletter of the Oregon 8th Air Force Historical Society and in Can Do Notes, the national magazine of the 305th Bombardment Group Memorial Association
Her name was “Nine-O-Nine.” An olive drab ghost from the past, she sat quietly on the tarmac beside McKenzie Flying Service at Eugene, Oregon’s Mahlon Sweet Airport. On this cold, wet April 1993 morning (so appropriately like England) she would help me forge a link to my heritage.
She had been born in desperate times. To her builders she was heavy bomber design number B-17G. But to the men who flew her, she was a “flying fortress,” so named for her bristling .50 caliber guns.
In their younger days, thousands of fortresses, liberators and Lancasters had rained death and destruction from the flak-laden skies above Nazi Germany. The young…terribly young…crews of the 8th Army Air Corps had suffered a higher casualty rate than any other World War II U.S. military unit in helping to bring to its knees the greatest evil in human history. My father was one of those crewmen.
Today, 50 years later, I would fly in one of those ships just as my father had done. I am the youngest in our “crew” of seven. Most of the others are 8th Air Corps vets. We have all donated to the foundation that keeps “Nine-O-Nine” flying and this is our reward. These guys already know the drill, so I follow them into the belly of the beast.
She is surprisingly cramped inside, much smaller than a 737. I position myself by the single .50 at the starboard waist. The four ancient Wright Cyclone 1820 radials wheeze, cough, and finally catch, their combined roar shattering the morning tranquility. The smells of oil smoke and 100 octane low lead avgas permeate the inside of the aircraft and it feels as though she’ll shake herself apart, all of which add to the realism of what we’re about to experience.
Unlike a jet, “Nine-O-Nine” enters her realm at a very low angle of attack. There is little sense of acceleration. Also unlike a modern airliner, she reacts angrily to every whim of the wind; never again will I fear turbulence. And although I am sensitive to any strange sound on a passenger jet, the constant loud creaking and groaning of the old airframe causes no alarm.I try to express my excitement to the elderly gentleman on the port waist gun, but the cacophony from the engines makes that impossible. Even if I could overcome their throbbing din, he wouldn’t hear me. I can see in his eyes that he is in a different time and place. We all are.
That wasn’t Eugene – it was some Allied air base in East Anglia. This is not merely an hour’s joy ride, but a grueling run to Schweinfurt in the very heart of the Reich. Those 500-pounders in the bomb racks are for real. The 12 Browning fifties are loaded and ready. Everyone knows they’ll get plenty of use today.
In the unpressurized cabin it is brutally cold. We are on oxygen. Halfway across the Channel, the guns are tested – all are working. As we approach the continent, we form “boxes” with the other ships. Many will not be coming home today.
Through the blazing hell of ME-109s, flak and falling wreckage, the primary target comes into view! The bombardier has the ship…steady…steady…
With the subtlety of a Riddick Bowe uppercut, “Nine-O-Nine” touches down again at Mahlon Sweet. There had been no “Emmies” or Focke Wulfs. No flak. No subzero temperatures for hours on end. No desperate gunfights. No gut-wrenching fear that we’d never see home again. No mind-numbing realization that we’d have to do this 20 more times.
Several teenage boys are standing by the gate. They regard “Nine-O-Nine” and her departing crew with indifference. Their eyes are glued to United Flight 1236 thundering skyward, its twin turbofans screaming defiance at the ground below. The old rattletrap that just landed is no match for that machine! Would that they could understand! My sons will.
I leave the airport with a new and deep sense of reverence and respect for the brave men who did what had to be done. For one such man in particular. And for the ship herself: May all the “B” planes that have inherited her enormous legacy eventually fly as she does – only in peace.
Jerry Ritter of Lane County is a Technical Specialist with Weyerhaeuser Company’s Process Engineering team. His father flew with the 305th Bombardment Group in World War II.