The graceful “old lady” sat majestically on the tarmac at the Asheville Airport, the sun shining brightly off her aluminum skin. Fully restored and as “ready for war” as the day she was named, the sight of her bringing back memories of old footage, movies and a love for flying machines! Our family met at the Asheville Airport that afternoon – my wife and I, my daughter and my oldest son and his wife and two daughters – for a tour of the Aluminum Overcast and a “walk through” history. Our granddaughters were excited as we approached the huge plane with a 104 ft. wingspan, armed with .50 caliber guns and capable of carrying a crew of 10 men and 2000 lbs. of bombs.
The Boeing B-17 Bomber was dubbed the “Flying Fortress” by a reporter at the unveiling in 1938 because it was armed to protect itself better than any plane designed before it. In WWII these bombers flew 290,000 sorties dropping 640,000 tons of ordinance and by the end of the war Boeing had built and delivered 12,731 of the big planes. They were often sent up without escort planes for protection because they were so well armed to protect themselves.
I’ve always had a love for planes. I built many model planes growing up, and I can still smell the Testor’s glue and feel the pride of completing a model and even getting all the decals on straight. There is just something about the freedom of plane in the sky. The view. The sounds. The rush of adrenaline. When I was a kid one of our family friends, Al Williams, was a pilot for Piedmont Airlines – now US Air. He took us up one day in Piper Cub, and we flew over our Pine Valley neighborhood in Wilmington, North Carolina. I remember looking down the wing as Al put us in a tight turn and “placed” our house at the tip of it to show me and my sister.
As a baby boomer, my parents shared many memories of growing up during the Second World War. Both of my parents remembered well the words of President Roosevelt when he addressed the House of Representatives with these words – “Yesterday, December 7th, 1941 — a date which will live in infamy — the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.” It was the turning point for our country and brought us fully into the war.
I grew up watching movies like The Dirty Dozen, The Longest Yard and The Guns of Navarone and, of course, Tora! Tora! Tora! – a movie my Dad took me to see in the theater in 1970 about the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into the war. Whenever I’m around these memorials of history, like this B-17 or the USS Battleship North Carolina or USS Aircraft Carrier Yorktown, I can almost hear the sounds of the battle, and I always feel a sense of awe about the men who fought so bravely for our country and sadness for the many who never came home. Most of those young men were no more than boys in their late teens, and yet they were sent to fight a war a long ways from home.
All of those scenes played back in my head as I looked at the B-17 sitting on the tarmac. I climbed the ladder and squeezed into some tight spaces. I leaned up into the nose section, a very small space where the navigator and nose gunner sat. I “stood” (if you can call it that) in the cockpit, and then crossed the small track over the airplane’s bomb bay imagining what it would be like surrounded by the howling wind and noise and watching the bombs release and drop away. One of my granddaughters stood at one of the .50 caliber guns pretending to fire. The other sat in the seat where the radioman sat. As we passed through the plane and back onto the runway, we stopped and marveled at the small plexi-glass “bubble”, underneath the plane where the ball turret gunner sat and fired at the enemy with little protection for himself from the cold or enemy fire.
At this point, while some family members were still working their way through the inside of the plane, I walked by myself to the tail section. I had read about the tail gunner position on a B-17 and how the gunner had to kneel back there for hours in extreme cold not only as the lookout , but defending the plane by covering the rear from attack. Lost in thought I looked at the spot where the tail gunner sat in a cramped space with two .50 caliber M2 Browning machine guns. Standing there trying to imagine what it would feel like to be crammed into that small spot, firing those guns at a sky full of Zeroes, I felt someone standing to my right. I turned to them saying, “Can you imagine having to sit in this tiny space firing at . . . (the enemy). I stopped in mid-sentence, and I’m sure my mouth must have dropped open. I caught my breath and was unsure just how to finish my question – for I was looking into the eyes of Japanese man holding his small son. I honestly don’t know what he read on my face or if he could see the turmoil in my brain. It’s not that he was my enemy in any way, nor has he ever even been so, but in the context of that moment, his was the face of the enemy and I was amazed at the emotions that stirred in me.
This situation really took me by surprise. Sometimes we don’t quite know what’s inside us until something triggers our anger or our fear or our hidden prejudices. I think the irony of that moment was driving my shock and surprise more than anything, but it did make me stop and think and test my heart and motives. Japan hasn’t been our enemy at any time in my lifetime. But the “collective memory” lasts a long time. I remember the conflict inside me, several years ago, when I stood on the battlefield at Gettysburg. I wouldn’t think of supporting slavery for a moment, but, I did grow up the South. Feelings run deep and wide and long – what lies beneath the surface can be surprising.
This past year we’ve seen the face of racism boil over, with so much anger, just under the surface, seething and waiting for an opportunity for release. We’ve seen mobs, in our own country burning down their own towns. We’ve seen so called “leaders” who feed on this kind of thing, stir up the nation with little care for the truth. And, sadly, we’ve seen a different kind of enemy rise, beheading our own citizens and others in a foreign land. Masked in a black Keffiyeh and spouting threats and hatred.
We live in a complicated and broken world and it seems there is no limit to man’s ability to hate and harm one another. I think that’s why Jesus taught us to pray – “Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” As I think of the world my sons and daughter now live in, and of what the future holds for them and their children, I say – “Come, Lord. Please come, and bring peace.”
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To learn more about the plane we toured click here – https://www.eaa.org/en/eaa/flight-experiences/aluminum-overcast-eaa-b-17-bomber-tour/b-17-aluminum-overcast-tour-stops
If you want to read an amazing story of war, honor and unexpected outcomes, I highly recommend the book