orld War II are as crucial to the stories of unflinching heroism as the young men and women of the Greatest Generation who crewed them.
These protagonists — Tibbets’ B-29 “Enola Gay,” Yeager’s P-51 “Glamorous Glennis” and, in this case, Capt. Robert Morgan’s famed B-17 “Memphis Belle” — represent a place and time when fear was pushed aside in the name of duty and country.
WWII veterans Anthony Fifer, 88, who grew up in Twinsburg and now lives in Hudson, and Arthur Mills, 93, of Erie, Pa., understand this all too well from their own time in B-17s more than 70 years ago.
As he prepared to take a free flight in “The Belle” recently at Burke Lakefront Airport, in town to offer half-hour rides for a cool $450 per person, Fifer was overcome with emotion.
“This is going to be one big thrill for me,” said the U.S. Army veteran who was stationed in the Philippines, 1943-44. “This is really something ... I could cry.”
For Mills, a POW for a year in Germany’s Stalag Luft 4 after being shot down May 12, 1944, in the B-17 “Princess Pat” (later to become “Princess Patches” in honor of the heavy bomber’s final resting place in a German farm field), the flight brought memories of his duties as a top turret gunner — as well as of the German Me-109 fighters that swarmed his bomber like fireflies that spring morning over Daxberg.
“There were just hundreds of them,” Mills said. “Of the 28 B-17s on our mission, 14 were shot down. That’s 140 men.
“AND I’VE talked to [the German pilots] before, later in life ... I never realized that as we were putting on our flight suits and preparing for our mission, there were young kids in Germany doing the same thing, ready to come up and meet us.”
The B-17 appearing at Burke was the star of the 1990 film “Memphis Belle,” along with Matthew Modine and Harry Connick Jr. However, it is not the actual “Memphis Belle,” which is being restored at the U.S. Air Force Museum in Dayton for static display.
And that’s exactly the point for the Oklahoma-based Liberty Foundation, which operates the B-17 in “Belle” livery, one of 13 still airworthy today after nearly 13,000 were produced during the war: To keep its own flying museum aloft so that it can continue to embody the courage and valor of its crew members.
The stories of these veterans and their aircraft are inextricably intertwined, the very reason for the intense emotions shown by Fifer and Mills seven decades later.
For these veterans and others, the B-17 Flying Fortress is itself an old friend to embrace, a ghost come alive to offer a final, protective nod to its human cargo.
To see the bomber’s recognizable silhouette against the sky is to witness history come alive. To fly in one in 2014 can be altogether heart-rending.
We owe it to these veterans to tell their stories. We owe it equally to the aircraft to keep them aloft, these ghosts in ageless skies.
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