Notes from the Road, Part 2, July 9, 2009, 0600-1600.
Well, I’ll have to admit that this is actually written on Saturday, the 11th at 1530 (and finished at 2318 after my 50th birthday celebration). As you’ll read below, and also in future parts, I was much too busy to get notes out on either day and have just now finished sorting pictures and videos.
We were up bright and early at 0600 and once again, much to my dismay, I realized I had left another necessary item behind, a razor. It was good I had razor shaved rather than electric razor shaved on Wednesday so I felt it would be later in the day at least until I looked like I had not shaved. Asked Brad if he had a razor but of course, he said he wouldn’t need to shave today or much at all until he got back home. Nertz. Dressed and off to the free breakfast which included biscuits and gravy, eggs, and about anything any red-blooded American guy would need, including Fruit Loops. Brad and I caught up with Steve and met Stu Eberhart, the Mustang pilot, as well as Chris, the Liberator mechanic. Stu had flown for Pan-Am and according to legend, WAS a legend. Steve said if one wanted to fly in the Reno air races, Stu was the guy who had to sign off for the privilege. He was an older man (probably 60’s) quiet and reserved. Chris was younger and well tanned, showing his time out on, around, and under the planes. We finished up and went out back to meet at the rental Ford with the rest of the crew that were there-a total of seven. Fred drove the Ford and was general ram-rod. He’s one of the Collings Foundation trustees and holds the credit card to say “fill er up” at the various airports. He’s also the one who hornswoggled the motel into the good rate for us. He’s retired after 30 years in the Air Force and must have been a jet pilot if the trip from the motel to the airport was any evidence. I had to scoot in the old Blue Goose to keep up.
The Salina airport has been well-maintained and the folks who work there, from Tim, the airport manager, to Gunner, his 2nd in command, to Melissa, the PR gal. The airport authority had taken over what was originally the Smoky Hill Army Base, then the Schilling AFB, and maintains it. Gunner allowed how Tim could have worked at any airport anywhere in the world but chose to stay at Salina. His skills were obvious. We were to be at the new hangar and it currently held all the Kansas State-Salina aviation school’s planes on display. On the other side, opening onto the tarmac, was the people portion of the hangar, a very nice two story glass building with VERY nice a/c, and good view of the flight line. Even those who couldn’t get outside had a great view. The PX was set up in the lobby area and Steve led Brad and I out to the 24 to begin the ritual.
And sitting right outside when we got there was my interest since boyhood-the Consolidated B-24 Liberator. I’d loved it since reading the book “Ploesti”, the story of the famous low level raid from Libya to Romania, when a young boy. The most pig-ugly beautiful old bomber around. This particular one is the ONLY flying model left in the world out of 19,000 produced. First Steve gave us a guided tour through the 24 as we set ‘er up. We watched while Chris took out the key and opened the little door on the starboard (that’s right for some of you) fuselage forward of the bomb bay, and accessed the hydraulic valves that opened the bomb bay. The doors on the 24 roll right up the side of the fuselage on each side like a garage door and are about the same weight. I had read (and we were told this was true several times) that they were light weight so that a bomb (some as small as 250 lbs) could be dropped THROUGH them in case the doors wouldn’t open to prevent the necessity of taking them fused back home and have them go off on landing (or any other nasty bumps). Once opened, we ducked under and set up the exit stairs under the bomb bay and Steve showed us into the lower portion of the forward section. The 24 is kind of like a split level house, with the cockpit for the pilot and co-pilot on the upper level and the area for the radio operator and flight engineer on the lower part to the rear and navigator, bombardier, and nose gunner on the forward section. Then connecting the two lower portions, which goes under the flight deck, is the “hell hole” or crawl way along the starboard side and the nose wheel assembly takes up the port side. Rather than crawl through however, we went back out the bomb bay and up to the nose wheel where we could crawl up in front of the wheel and pull ourselves on the front lower deck where the forward crew sat. There was a seat for the bombardier and a Norden bomb sight made by the Victor Cash Register Company. Lots of glass to look down and around. Between the nose wheel and the seat, the navigator station had a fold-down table with plotter and when he was working, he looked aft. He also got a good view of the part of the flight deck where the pilot/copilot’s legs were-the rudder pedals, etc. FILLED with cables and wires. Kind of like taking everything out of your car below the dash and sitting in the engine compartment while looking toward the back of the car. We got a good look around, including the nose turret which appeared to have been perched on the nose in a cut out of the fuselage. Not pretty but functional.
Back out the nose wheel hole which was the bailout exit for the forward crew. When closed, the doors were painted red as a caution since there was nothing holding them shut. If you step on them in flight you’d better have a chute on because you’re leaving the plane. We go back to the rear behind the bomb bay where we open the rear hatch on the underside of the plane. When closed the hatch is part of the walkway to the rear turret gunner. A ladder is attached here and hung on two cables and will be the entry point for the tour. Tours then go forward from there through the plane, past the waist gunner position, around the ball turret, then into the bomb bay and finish just aft of the forward crew compartment which had a net over the entrance and a red “no entry” sign. No one was to go forward of that area but Steve said we could make an exception if the right one came along with the right story and as the day wore on, I took full advantage of that opportunity.
We got out the rags and a varying assortment of cleaning supplies from Pledge (for the plexi-glass), to WD-40 (for the skin-the plane’s that is), to Windex (for the glass). We got the rags out and after a crash course in what to wipe on where proceeded to start wiping down the oil residue that seemed to be everywhere. Steve showed us on the port side of the forward bomb bay where the fuel lines were. There were four, and each one had a little spigot that, when turned on, allowed us to drain out some aviation fuel into a water bottle. It smelled a lot like paint thinner that I used when I was making model airplanes. “Why get some of that?”, you ask? Makes a great all around cleaner, says Steve. He peeled of the water bottle label and proceeded to advise us to keep it separated from our drinking water bottle. A good bit of advice, I’m-a-thinkin’.
Brad and I spent the next good while wiping down the plane from front to back with Chris giving a bit of advice from time to time on proper wiping procedure. While we were doing this, the others were setting up to begin letting the crowd in. Some were a bit disappointed as the B-17 hadn’t arrived yet, having blown the rear wheel and damaging the rim at Pueblo, Colorado, the last stop. Since one can’t get a tire/wheel assembly at the local Advance Auto Parts, one had to be FedEx’d in from who knows where and the question of the day was “When is the 17 going to arrive?” “Soon, soon, soon, was the answer. It would be 1600 before it finally got there so a LOT of people went through the 24 in the meantime.
While standing around, the first flight for the P-51 Mustang made ready. It is a C model, the only flying C model and is rare in that it has two seats-front and rear. The fortunate rider (at $2200 per half hour) can actually handle the controls (under the watchful eye of Captain Stu of course). An older gentleman was strapped in and the whole crowd was totally engaged in the process. We all had to watch from afar since it was outside the yellow ropes and waited impatiently to hear the big Merlin cough then start spinning the prop in that classic Mustang sound. Soon they were airborne and attention turned back to the 24.
I was totally content with hanging around the 24 and giving the appearance that I was cleaning while keeping my ears and eyes open. I liberally climbed into the bomb bay and nose wheel area watching folks and answering questions like I was somebody. I really wasn’t an expert on the thing by any means but have spent my whole life studying the Lib and was surprised at the fact I really did know the answers to some questions that were asked. Steve had given us a crash course-the engines were two section seven piston radials one bank set behind the other, this was the ONLY flying 24 left in the world out of 19,000, the glass in the nose turret was plexi-glass except for the large piece about one inch thick on a set of rails that slides up and over the head of the gunner or down in front, the 24 was largely a hydraulically controlled plane while the 17 was largely electric, it was hard to fly and keep in trim as it constantly tried to pitch up and down, the superchargers and the fact that they worked on the 24 but had been disconnected on the 17, and so forth. It was a joy just talking about the old girl with folks. The weather was hot, in the upper 90’s, and windy from the south so was hot work but I didn’t notice it much at first.
As I walked around, I got to noticing older fellas, and began to take a chance on just walking up to them and asking, “Did you spend some time in one of these?” Many times the answer was “yes” or “no, but I was around a lot” or similar expressions. But each one had a unique story and I got the chance to look them in the eye, shake their hand, and sincerely say thanks for their service. I may have even saluted one or two. After a couple of days I’m sorry to say but the names and stories are starting to blend together. I hope I get them right and hope if they read this and I don’t they’ll still know I tried and am honored to have heard their story one more time before they pass from this world.
I talked to Chuck Vsetecka from Victoria, Kansas, home of the Cathedral of the Plains. He was one of the first and I put his name on the back of Melissa’s card (above mentioned PR gal for the Salina Airport). I then added the names of Lowell Hatesohl and Martin Stenseng before deciding it was smart to get a bigger piece of paper and resorted to my folder where I started jotting names. Chuck had flown as a radar operator on the L and M version of the 24 in the south Pacific. That particular model was rigged with radar. He sat behind the bomb bay and ran the radar set that was tied to the navigator. All their missions were low level so they never used the oxygen tanks or superchargers for which the Lib was fitted for high altitude bombing. Their primary targets were always naval and secondary was land targets.
|Lowell Hatesohl and me|
Lowell Hatesohl was a small man, not very outstanding in any way. He was quietly standing by the starboard wheel under the wing in the shade when I met him. I asked him my question and he confirmed he had been around 24’s with a supply group in Benghazi. He was supporting the groups who flew the famous low level raid to Ploesti, Romania and remembered it quite well. He even had a folder with a newspaper article from Arkansas City, Ks in 1997. It was about Gilbert Hadley, the pilot of “Hadley’s Harem” who had to ditch in the Mediterranean off the coast of Turkey. The story is mentioned in the book, ‘Ploesti’. I didn’t read it closely at first but have since I got home and I’m amazed. With the nose blown off the plane, the fuselage buckled and the bombardier killed, Lt. Hadley ditched the plane. He died in the ditching, drowning with his copilot but seven of the crew got out. After 54 years, Roy Newton, one of the two remaining crew members found the plane, recovered their bodies, and, as a tribute to the man who saved his life, had he and the copilot buried and memorialized. Newton noted that to the day of Hadley’s mother’s death in 1973, she still held out hope he was still alive. “They gave me a good 50 years on my life and I feel this is a good payback”, said Newton. A lot of folks wouldn’t have gone to the effort, but they did. It’s a matter of honor. I’m sure glad I met Lowell Hatesohl.
As I moved about I was able to answer the questions about crew members, how many, and where they were. Many were unfamiliar with how many were on a crew and I wanted to make sure they knew things like that. I showed them my Ploesti book and told many that it was required reading for my daughters before they left my home, including the handwritten note I put inside the front cover. It reminded them that when these planes went down, ten men went with it and not only they were lost, but the genealogy of their families was changed forever. Such ones paid for our respect with their blood and our respect is the least duty owed them. As I told many young folks about this, it choked me up when they would nod as they grasped this fact.
|Martin Stenseg at the waist gun|
Ninety-six year old Martin Stenseg was in a wheelchair with his wife and apparently granddaughter and grandson. They were clucking around him as he pulled himself out of the wheelchair and up the stairs into the aft of the plane, determined to see it. He got to the waist gun position where I got a good shot of him and his grandkids with the 50 caliber. I’m not sure how he got out but later he and his wife were in the shade and I got to chat with them. He flew in the Navy version of the Liberator and also the PBY. He carried with him his original flight logs, in mint condition, and allowed Brad and I to look them over. He was the Flight Engineer and had meticulous notes about crew, planes, and engine types. He and his wife were a joy to talk to.
|Jack and Jack|
I met Jack Walstrom standing under the starboard wing. He was a quiet man with a somewhat puzzled look on his face most of the time, wearing a t-shirt showing a crew standing at the nose of a B-17, the “Hustl’n Hussy”. In his hand he had a print out from the 398th Bomb Group website. During our conversation he continually apologized when he couldn’t remember as he had Alzheimers Disease. He pointed out himself in the picture, a fine strapping young man in a flight suit quite different from the man I saw. As he apologized for forgetting things I thought, “my friend, you have no reason to apologize to anyone. You’re a hero”. We were joined by another Jack, really John (never got his last name) from New York where, he told me, guys named John were regularly called Jack. I asked him to join my other friend Jack for a picture. He said he wasn’t of the right era, being a Marine Korean and Viet Nam veteran. I allowed as how I wanted a picture of two heroes named Jack and the era they fought wasn’t a problem. I like that picture.
I then bumped into Mel Needham of the 15th Air Force, 459th Bomb Group, based in Italy. He said it was in the boot heel. He was a bomb sight mechanic, one of only three in his group and their job was to keep up the bomb sights. He did the check rides with bombardiers after working on the sights. He recounted one time in Massachusetts when he had to ride in the winter without fleece clothing, in the front of the B-24, and the only place to sit was cross-legged on the navigator’s table. They had to unwind him and rub the feeling back into his legs to get him out. He was one of the first of many I ran into from the 15th in Italy.
Bill Jamieson was next. He wasn’t a veteran but a biker type about my age or so, with a picture album under his arm. He told me his dad, Howard, had passed on but had been a tail gunner with the 450th BG in Foggia, Italy. The picture album had many photos of his dad and the 24 in flight and on the ground, some crash landed. I told him it was a treasure not only because of the photos of his dad, but from my reading I knew there were few pictures of the 24 in flight. He had a dozen or more. He was the first for whom I broke the “no trespassing” rules. I took his camera, took down the sign to the rear turret, and got a shot of him standing there and them some more in the turret from inside and out. I then took him up front for the grand tour of the forward section where he got many more pictures. He had a grin from ear to ear and many times expressed his appreciation. It really didn’t go to me but to the folks of the Collings Foundation who took the time to restore the Witchcraft. I told him his daddy paid the ticket for his special tour and then this old grease cleaner accepted his thanks on their behalf. I later saw him and Mel Needham swapping notes and looking at pictures.
I went back and was standing in the forward section of the bomb bay out of the sun when along the bomb bay center rail comes smiling, 90 year old Dale Grothusen of Ellsworth, Ks. As I listened to him chatting with other vets, he said he was trained as a flight engineer on the Liberator but as was then assigned to the Fortress. We chatted for awhile and I asked him if he’d like to step on onto the lower section of the forward compartment where the flight engineer station was and look around. His eyes sparkled and he allowed as he would so I took down the barrier and let him in. A few kids wanted to follow him in but I explained to them that he once flew on these and that gave him preferential treatment. He climbed into the compartment and slowly pulled himself up to the lower deck without bumping his head on the lower portion of the upper turret, where he could look around and took a peek inside the cockpit. I then asked him to sit on the bench along the port side and got a picture of a grinning Dale with a “B-17G” hat on his head. I asked if he had email and I’d send the picture. He said he didn’t but his wife did so I gave him my card and email address, helped him out, and he and his buddy managed to get out of the bomb bay talking as they went. His wife emailed for the picture, by-the-way, before I got home!
I enjoyed spending the day talking that way, occasionally taking a well behaved little boy up in the nose wheel (accompanied by me of course to keep him from mischief) where he could look around and a grinning momma could get his picture through the nose plexiglass. I know I fudged the rules a bit but what could they do, fire me? Seriously though, I’d never let anything happen to that beautiful, ugly old gal. It was an honor to run my hands over her skin, to look at the amazing wires, cables, hydraulic lines and so forth, smell the unique smell of old oil and well cared for steel and think of what she and her many sisters may have been like in her heyday.
I spent most of the day doing that, running inside to get answers to questions from folks like the pilot, Jim Goulsby, and others. I was having as much fun as a kid at his first amusement park. Brad kept telling me come into the a/c and help sell tickets, or work the PX or something different for awhile. I always said I would…in a little bit. He and Steve did finally get me to come in to eat some good BBQ from the Hickory Hut but I didn’t stay long. I drank a lot of water (I don’t think I ever even went to the bathroom-it was HOT) and basked in the shade of the old Liberator. Then the B-17 showed up and that’s where I’ll continue my story in the next part.