In the peaceful confines of a suburban park last weekend, amid the aroma of barbecue, I heard a harrowing war story of the Allied WWII bombing campaign in Europe. It came not from a veteran of the war, as you might expect, but from a man who, as a boy, had been trapped in Berlin as it was pounded by air raids. Bruno Barsi (now of South Buffalo) and his mother took shelter in the U-Bahn as wave after wave of heavy bombers made the daytime sky dark. Unlike many, he was able to escape the destruction of the city when his father was able get them out of Germany and back to their native Tuscany.
B-17s like the Madras Maiden, currently visiting Buffalo, were the backbone of that effort – costly on both sides – to take the war to the Axis heartland. Of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who flew aboard them, 58,000 were killed or missing in action, according to Ray Fowler, chief pilot of the Liberty Foundation, which owns the Maiden. This was no small part of the overall American death toll. The mission of the foundation is to honor all our veterans, but especially those who rode these rough aluminum steeds into battle against those who would have taken away our liberty.
The 2017 national Salute to Veterans Tour is one of their most ambitious undertakings in fulfilling that mission.
“The Liberty Foundation’s B-17 flys today as a tribute to the courage and commitment of all the men and women who served our country in times of need,” the foundation’s spokesperson Scott Mahar told us. “Estimates place the number of World War II veterans dying each day at over 1,500. With each death, another story of courage, honor and sacrifice is lost forever. This aircraft represents that legacy of courage and valor.”
And like those veterans, time has taken its toll on the warplanes they flew. Of over 12,000 B-17s built – the most-produced large plane of the war – only a dozen today remain flyable.
You can help the Liberty Foundation achieve their mission, simply by going to see. Buffalo Rising did just that this week, and it was amazing. During a brief flight I was honored to be seated with WWII veteran Roy Philips, whose story is well told in the Buffalo News and the Niagara Gazette.
This weekend, both Saturday and Sunday, the plane is available for free public tours and also paid flights, which help underwrite the immense cost to keep her flying (e.g. $5,000 per flight hour, $5,000 per tire). All visitors make a difference, Mahar told Buffalo Rising. “Only the public’s interest and other generous donations keep this historic aircraft flying, and from being silenced permanently in a museum.”
In Buffalo, we’re fortunate to have the Naval and Military Park, where we can see what life was like for those whose battlefield was on and under the water. But sadly, despite Buffalo’s critical role in a century of military aviation, we currently have no permanent place for new generations to get a tangible sense of the war in the air, or to honor those who served there.
Among those who so served were members of my own family, making my visit to the plane especially meaningful. My father worked on fighter/bomber aircraft during the war, and because he was well-liked was often invited to ride along for a test or training flight. Although not on the front lines, he saw men killed, and never forgot. Another uncle was a spotter aboard an amphibious patrol plane that was more beautiful than an angel to downed airmen in the vast Pacific Ocean.
But most of all, visiting the B-17 brought to mind another uncle who had served as a tail gunner aboard a bomber (a B-25, smaller than a B-17). So I made a point of seeing the tail gun position, and was shocked to find just how claustrophobic, cramped, and isolated it was. Especially for the duration of a mission that might last a half day.
Yet the cramped isolation of the tail position seemed mild compared to the ball turret. Often the battle station assigned to small, wiry airmen – babes in arms, really – it was like being suspended in a shark cage, alone, isolated, and surrounded by sharks with machine guns. This job inspired one of the most well-known poems of WWII, The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner by Randall Jarrell, published in 1945:
From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze. Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life, I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters. When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.
Only after seeing the ball turret for myself, from both inside and outside the plane, did I truly understand these lines and why, in his notes on the poem, Jarrell said the ball turret gunner was “like the fetus in the womb.”
And only after being inside the plane could I grasp an essential of the experience of serving aboard her. Cramped, no creature comforts, no lavatory, and astonishingly open to the air. And bombing in daylight required flying so high – six miles up, as the poem says – that crew had to wear heated suits and breathe from oxygen tanks. All the while knowing that surviving their 25-mission tour unscathed was very unlikely, despite the bristling armaments that caused the B-17 to be dubbed the Flying Fortress.
This summer, as you enjoy a languid afternoon relaxing in a park, or perhaps some backyard barbecue, know that your peace and quiet – and your liberties – were purchased for you at great cost, by fellow Americans like Roy Philips and the thousands who served aboard great fortresses in the air like the Madras Maiden.
Click here for details.
From Buffalo Rising author, Philip Wilkins:
This weekend, the 1944 B-17 bomber called the Madras Maiden will visit the Buffalo Airport on August 12 & 13. Ground tours of the aircraft are available. Flights are $450 for non Liberty Foundation members and $410 for foundation members. All donations pay for upkeep of the aircraft, which can run up to $5,000 per hour of flight time.
The plane has been meticulously maintained and refurbished and is one of only 12 World War II Boeing B-17 bombers. These planes saw action in every theater of the War, including Europe, Africa and the Pacific. During the war, B-17’s dropped 640,036 tons of bombs on European targets in daylight raids. The plane has been fully restored and includes the guns and equipment Aircrew would have used in 1944. Visitors can tour the cabin and cockpit while the plane is in the air. It is an incredible experience to sit in the bombardier’s seat in the nose of the plane while the 4- 1,200 Horsepower propeller driven engines are roaring just behind your head. Seeing downtown Buffalo from the air is also a unique perspective that one does not normally have the chance to experience.
This is an incredible opportunity to experience history. It is also an opportunity to remember the thousands of airmen who flew on these planes and fought for freedom. We will never forget the sacrifices made by the “Greatest Generation,” or the many lives lost. Through these opportunities we remember and memorialize their sacrifice.