Northwest resident Al Arreola, 88, remembers the first time he saw a flak explosion in the sky as he sat in the ball turret gunner position that rested on the belly of a B-17 during World War II.
“The first one I saw wasn’t too far from our plane and thought, ‘God, that’s pretty.’ That just goes to show you why they hired teenagers. We just didn’t know any better,” he said.
At the time, Arreola was an 18-year-old flying from England to Russia, bombing along the way on a 13-hour flight. From Russia a few days later, they left for Italy, and bombed along the way, too.
It didn’t take long for the prettiness of the German anti-aircraft explosions to wear off.
“After seeing a couple of planes go down. One plane right next to us went down on one mission and the same thing happened on another mission. People were jumping out with their parachutes on fire,” said Arreola.
From April to August of 1944, Arreola and nine others in the B-17 flew on 35 missions, including the June 6 D-Day, while in the 100th bomb group. The 10 Army airmen were flying on the “Latest Rumor,” the name Arreola gave the plane.
He recalled the thick cloud coverage and when there was a break in the clouds and seeing nearly 5,000 ships out in the ocean and being alongside numerous other bombers in the air.
“On D-Day, they had a pattern all set up,” Arreola recalled. “If you got out of that pattern, you would have been shot down by the Americans or Germans. One plane got out and was trying to catch up, but it got blasted out of the sky. I have never seen a more direct hit than that one. It just went to pieces.”
Last week, Arreola took as he put it, his 36th mission. During the Collings Foundation’s Wings of Freedom Tour, which stopped in Marana, Arreola stepped aboard the “Nine O Nine” B-17G in Casa Grande. From there the plane flew to Marana.
For Arreola, there weren’t too many memories that were sparked from taking a flight in the same model aircraft that he had done years ago. But he does remember his crew.
“It was good,” Arreola said about the 20-minute flight. “I made it back safe.”
He said every two years, members from the 100th Bomb Group meet. Three years ago, there ere 80 members alive and last year 40 were alive. From his plane, the only other person who is still alive is the tail gunner Nelson Berger, who lives in Ohio.
The Collings Foundation also had a B-24 for people to experience a flight.
Riding on the B-24 was Marana resident Otto Neurauter, who was the lead navigator on the plane during WWII. He and the crew he was with flew 20 missions from Dec. 1, 1944 until the end of the war in September of 1945.
Neurauter flew in the 466 squadron within the 784th Bomb Group.
“It was just another ride on a plane for me,” Neurauter said about getting a chance to ride on the B-24 again. “I could feel everything the plane did.”
Though he and the crew he was with switched from plane to plane occasionally throughout the war, the last one he was on was the “Black Cat,” which was the last plane to be shot down in WWII. A photo of the plane has since been placed on a commemorative U.S. stamp.
Throughout the weekend, people stopped by to look at, tour and take flights in the bombers and a P-51 Mustang.
The Collings Foundation is a 501(c)3 nonprofit educational foundation devoted to organizing “living history” events that allow people to learn more about their heritage and history through direct participation.
The rarity of the B-17, B-24 and P-51 planes and their importance to telling the story of WWII are why the Collings Foundation continues to fly and display the aircraft nationwide.
The Wing of Freedom Tour travels the nation as a flying tribute to the flight crews who flew the planes, the ground crews who maintained them, the workers who built them, the soldiers, sailors and airmen they helped protect; and the citizens and families who share the freedom they helped preserve.