Northwest Tucson resident Al Arreola was one of the United States Army Air Corps airmen who were placed in the ball turret below a bomber airplane during World War II. Last week, he got to take another, more comfortable look inside.
The 86-year-old took his seat near the front of a B-24 last Friday afternoon at Marana Regional Airport. It was a bench seat just below where the pilot and co-pilot sat, a little roomier than his former spot as a ball turret gunner on a B-17. The plane flew at altitudes where temperatures reached 70 degrees below zero.
“My knees were up to my shoulders, my parachute had to be up above because I couldn’t get in there with it on,” Arreola recalled. “And sometimes my heated flying suit would go out, so I would have to pound my knees and legs against the turret.”
From his seat last Friday during the Collings Foundation’s Wings of Freedom tour’s stop in Marana, Arreola gazed up at the pilots as they took him and about a dozen others for a 30-minute flight above Marana. It was part of the organzation’s annual tour, where people are invited to come out, explore and even fly on either the B-17 or B-24. Or people could get some “stick time” in the P-51 Mustang, all for a fee.
Arreola flew roughly 35 war missions between April and August of 1944, in the 100th bomb group, known as the Blood Hundredth. From its first mission on June 25, 1943, to its last on April 20, 1945, the group had 785 men killed or go missing in action. About 900 became prisoners of war. All the while the group dropped nearly 20,000 bomb tonnage.
“When I went overseas, I made up my mind to sleep and not to dream,” Arreola said. “And I still don’t dream very often.”
But flying in a plane last Friday – simply looping around the northwest side of town – was more joyful than his war years on the bombers.
“I think it is fantastic that people can come out and be reminded of what went on during the war,” Arreola said.
Oro Valley resident Bob Mason was also out on the tarmac with a few other WWII veterans. Mason was a B-17 pilot for 23 missions beginning on Feb. 9, 1945. He flew his 23rd mission on his 22nd birthday, which is April 20. This week, Mason turns 88.
At the Marana Regional Airport he noted the constant hum of the four propellers spinning in unison on a B-17.
“When I flew, I was never able to coordinate all of the RPMs on four engines,” Mason recalled as the B-17 circled around the landing strip. “So a lot of times it was going, ‘waa, waa, waa, waa.’”
Mason chose not to fly over the weekend.
“I’ve been there,” he stated. “And I don’t know what they are charging for it, but I used to fly for free. Actually, I got paid to fly,” he chuckled.
One of those “free” flights took place on March 9, 1945. On his 12th flight over Frankford, Germany, Mason’s left wing took a direct hit, but stayed intact long enough for him to land safely in ally territory. On the ground, one of Mason’s crewmembers counted 136 holes in his plane, and then stopped counting. The hole in the left wing was big enough for the entire crew to pose for a picture with everyone able to fit within the opening.
The Collings Foundation is a 501(c)3 nonprofit educational foundation devoted to organizing “living history” events that allows 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.
Photographer/reporter Randy Metcalf can be reached at 797-4384 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.