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History lesson 

What have we learned?

As I climb a ladder to enter the B-17 near its nose, I first have to crawl on my knees through a small passageway. I turn around behind me and peer into the nose turret with its twin machine guns, then continue to crawl up and look back into the cramped cockpit, its instrument panel a jumble of dials, levers, and switches. Moving across a narrow gangplank, I enter the bomb bay, where up to 4,800 pounds of bombs could be carried, ready for dropping.

click to enlarge RAINING DEATH :  The Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress is a long-range heavy bomber that could fly long distances, protect itself, and continue to fly despite damage. - PHOTOS BY GLEN STARKEY
  • PHOTOS BY GLEN STARKEY
  • RAINING DEATH : The Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress is a long-range heavy bomber that could fly long distances, protect itself, and continue to fly despite damage.
click to enlarge LET’S PRETEND :  Jaden takes aim at imagined German fighter planes from the belly of a B-17.
  • LET’S PRETEND : Jaden takes aim at imagined German fighter planes from the belly of a B-17.

I’m in Nine-O-Nine of the 323rd Bomb Squadron of the 91st Bomb Group, a plane that completed 140 combat missions during World War II and never lost a crewman as a casualty. It’s now maintained by the Collings Foundation of Stow, Mass., which flies the plane and two others to 110 to 120 cities a year, offering the public a chance to see up close and personal what these war birds were like.

Right now, it’s silent inside the plane as I make my way past the radio operator’s station and then the ball turret on the underbelly of the plane. I try to imagine what it would be like to be in the plane with its four engines humming, the rattle of its un-pressurized cabin, and the noise of the machine guns fending off German fighter planes as we continue toward our target.

Today I’ve come to see the B-17, a B-24, and a P-51 Mustang with my fiancée Anna, her nine-year-old son Jaden, my future father-in-law Gary, and my dad, Gene, a World War II vet who was stationed in Trieste, Italy, in 1946. A woman approaches my dad and asked if he flew in one of these B-17s.

click to enlarge NOSE GUNNER :  The B-17 had a number of effective defensive weapons systems, including these twin machine guns in the nose.
  • NOSE GUNNER : The B-17 had a number of effective defensive weapons systems, including these twin machine guns in the nose.
click to enlarge BOMBS AWAY :  Imagine standing on the narrow gangplank as the bomb bay doors opened to drop 4,800 pounds of bombs.
  • BOMBS AWAY : Imagine standing on the narrow gangplank as the bomb bay doors opened to drop 4,800 pounds of bombs.

“No, I spent my time in a finance office,” he says.

Then she pulls out a book and shows a photo of her dad, a navigator on a B-17. Some of the people here are World War II vets, old men in their 80s. Some wear hats and jackets and pins that reflect their service; others, like my dad, are in normal street clothes. Some people, like the woman with the book, have a personal connection to these planes and the conflict they reflect. Others are just looky-loos like me, interested in these examples of living history. Some—like nine-year-old Jaden—are kids whose parents pulled them out of school for this rare opportunity to see and crawl inside these planes.

Jaden and I find ourselves in the B-17’s midsection, where a machine gun hangs out an opening in the window. Jaden grips the gun handles and pretends to shoot German fighter planes out of the sky, his face a scowl of concentration. Can he imagine what it might have been like for a scared 18-year-old kid breathing in engine fumes and gunpowder while German planes buzzed this bomb-filled beast, strafing it with bullets, the whole thing a deafening roar of four monster engines, the clack-a-clack of machine guns, the whistling wind through the open fuselage? Or is he imagining a first-person shooter videogame?

- MAINTAINING HISTORY:  The Collins Foundation’s “Wings of Freedom Tour” features three World War II era planes: a B-17, B-24, and P-51 Mustang. The nonprofit has been maintaining and touring with these planes for the last 20 years, visiting 110 to 120 cities a year, with the goal of offering a hands-on history lesson about the hardships of war. Call 1-800-568-8924 for information about their next stop. -
  • MAINTAINING HISTORY: The Collins Foundation’s “Wings of Freedom Tour” features three World War II era planes: a B-17, B-24, and P-51 Mustang. The nonprofit has been maintaining and touring with these planes for the last 20 years, visiting 110 to 120 cities a year, with the goal of offering a hands-on history lesson about the hardships of war. Call 1-800-568-8924 for information about their next stop.

Jaden’s probably too young to understand the horror of war, to comprehend how the red mist of his videogame “kills” translates to real life … and real deaths.

The Army Air Force’s fleet of B-17s dropped more bombs than any other weapons system during World War II. Of the 1.5 million metric tons of bombs dropped on Germany by U.S. aircraft, the B-17s accounted for 640,000 tons.

Some of the B-17s were shot down, some crewman were killed by bullets from attacking planes, but these planes rained death upon both military and civilian targets during World War II, the so-called “War to End All Wars.” I wish. I pray Jaden never has to pull the trigger in real life. I hope death machines like this one will forever be ancient history in his mind. I pray we’ll learn our lesson soon.

Glen Starkey takes a beating and keeps on bleating. Keep up with him via twitter at twitter.com/glenstarkey, friend him at facebook.com/glenstarkey or myspace.com/glenstarkey, or contact him at gstarkey@newtimesslo.com.

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