The boys of my generation filled lots of notebook paper drawing WW2 and Korean War aircraft. Fighters were cool, but the one we all loved was the B-17.
Last week, courtesy of The Liberty Foundation, I finally got a flight in one. Liberty Foundation is one of the non-profit groups dedicated to the restoration of vintage aircraft and offers flights aboard them.
“Liberty Belle” is one of only 14 of the 12,732 B-17s built still flying. Others, like “I’ll Be Around” at the 390th Bomb Group Museum housed at the Pima Air and Space Museum, are in static displays. “Liberty Belle” never saw combat, but was an engine test bed and later a display bird in Connecticut. Heavily damaged in a tornado in 1979 and stored until 1992, it took 14 painstaking years for Don Brooks and the Liberty Foundation to get her back into the air. Brooks’ father was with the 390th and she’s named for the plane where his dad served as a tail gunner.
Getting the ride was great. Sharing it with three guys who’d done it for real was incredible.
Dwayne “Ben” Bennett flew 31 missions as a pilot with the 384th BG from March to July of 1944. Andy Anzanos was a flight engineer / top turret gunner with 26 missions from November of 1943 to March of 1944. Melvin Sinquefield was a radio operator and waist gunner for 50 missions with the 483rd BG from April to August 1944 — at the age of 16! Bennett and Anzanos were Eighth Air Force based in England, Sinquefield was 15th Air Force in Italy.
A B-17 is a 70-foot tube that carried 10 guys, a dozen big machine guns with ammo, other gear and normally 10 500-pound bombs. There’s barely room to stand or move.
Once airborne, besides the noise, you note the patches of sky around some of the seams. They flew over 25,000 feet — almost Mount Everest — at temperatures of -50F. No pressure, no heat — just heavy clothing.
While the four engines were warming, Bennett remarked Liberty Belle was pushing less smoke and no doubt better maintained than theirs were under combat conditions.
Eighth AF crews were obligated to 25 missions, others more. Anzanos notes in his Combat Diary (available at the 390th Museum) that in late 1943 the casualty rate was 4 percent per mission. Of those 12,732 B-17s, 4,735 were lost in combat and another 1,000 in other ways. On his first mission, Bennett’s squadron lost five of their six planes. He adds it got better as more P-51 escorts became available.
When shot down, not all 10 crew members would necessarily perish — a large percentage bailed and were taken prisoner. A larger percentage didn’t make it.
I moved back next to Melvin Sinquefield. Over the sound of the engines, he told me most flights from Italy were five hours one way, and he was in his old spot by the radio. He usually slept most of the trip! Unlike others already reunited with a B-17 flight, his last trip aloft in one was in 1944.
We’ve heard that stuff about the Greatest Generation. These men typify it. While only Anzanos served in the 390th, all are active in preserving the memory of that outfit and other bomb broups that flew into Hell every day. You can often find them in the hangar at the Pima Air and Space Museum, or run into them the next time “Liberty Belle” or one of the other remaining birds is in town.
If you choose to take a ride, hopefully you’ll have one of them along.