As a fan of Big Band music, I was happy to see the announcement for a WW2 Bomber Tour and Swing Dance last June, an event promising a retro evening of dinner and dancing to a 23 person orchestra in an airport hanger, just like they did back in the wartime. Tickets were $75 per person, with the proceeds going to a children’s charity, but a bit too steep for most of my friends as it turned out. While I have “medical/work” friends, (shop talk and free dinners from drug companies), “artistic” friends, (art galleries and theatre), “book” friends ( book clubs and literary talks) and “shopping” friends, I have no one who shares my love of history and museums. My mother was not interested, she had already lived through that decade once she said and had no wish to revisit it. My mother had worked in a war plant for two years (1942-1944), from the time she was 16 to 18 years old. She remembers the young boys in her hometown volunteering for the war effort, and many did not come back. At ninety, she does not like to go out at night, but she was interested in seeing the airplane as she is always looking for new subjects to paint. So off we went to the local airport one sunny afternoon, along with a hundred guys, including a whole brigade of firemen on their lunch hour. There may have been a few other women there, dragged along by their spouses, but certainly we were outnumbered. My mother was not able to climb the stairs to tour the airplane but sat under one of the wings out of the sun and had an enjoyable chat with the pilot in charge, who was from Mesa Arizona but whose Canadian mother was from her hometown and had also worked in one of the war plants. Although he had moved to the US when he was younger, his mom had died the previous year at age 89, so he was happy to reminisce about her Canadian roots.
The Flying Legends of Victory Tour is organized by the Commemorative Air Force Air Base out of Arizona. Their mission is to take antique bombers on tour around the country, to educate people so they do not forget this important part of aviation history, especially now that there are fewer WW2 veterans left and those remaining are well are up in years. They tour all fifty states and Canada and you can sign up on their website to be notified if one is visiting your area next year. The plane they were flying that day was a B17 bomber. A four engine bomber, they were manufactured during WW2 – about 13,000 were made, about 5000 were lost during the war. (see Wikepida for more info). Those are not good odds, although the bomber developed the reputation of being able to bring their crews home safely despite being badly damaged. There are only about ten surviving in the world which are fly-worthy, restored versions which had never seen action, including The Sentimental Journey on display. The cost to tour the inside of the plane was only $5, so off I went, leaving mom visiting with her new friend.
Before we start the tour, a bit about the crewman positions on the plane. Here’s a link to a very excellent B17-Queen of the sky blog explaining the various crew positions and also a link to a Wikepedia article with more information than you might care to read. I wish I had made notes at the time but it was over a year ago, and I scarcely remember what everyone did. There was no official tour, but you could ask questions if you wished. Of course, all my questions came later, like how they decided who got which position?
This B-17 bomber, re-christened Sentimental Journey, had a picture of Betty Grable, a famous pin-up girl from the wartime, painted on the side. This nose art, as it was called, was designed to boost morale and although the planes were often named after women, sweethearts or wives, other subjects included hometowns, states, cartoon characters, mascots or something designed to scare the enemy.
I climbed the six steep steps to the front of the plane, which gave you a view of the cockpit and the pilot seats, off limits of course.
They were in town for a whole week, with certain days set aside for touring, and others for flights. The flights, ranging from $425 to $850 US, were all sold out, and well worth the money for flying fans because when would you ever get such an opportunity again. I did see the plane overhead periodically during the week, flying low along the river, and once over the farmers market but by the time I grabbed the camera the photo-op was gone. Even though you could hear its rumbling roar coming, I still wasn’t quick enough to capture it. It made me stop and think about what an air raid must have been like, the planes upon you before you could seek shelter.
Behind the cockpit, the bomb bay doors were open below, and there was a bridge with ropes you had to walk across to get to the rest of the plane, but with my fear of heights, I decided I just couldn’t do it. It was not for the claustrophobic either, as it was very tight quarters inside.
I exited back down the stairs, and went in the back entrance (below) to tour the rest of the plane.
First up after the bomb bay were three seats, two on one side and one on the other, for the navigator, the wireless operator and the bombardier, whose job it was to get the bombs dropped on target.
The next time you are on an airplane and tempted to complain about the seats, think about these. Note the overall lack of insulation, it must have been cold as hell up there despite their flight suits. I can’t imagine those poor kids (and they were mostly 18-25 year old’s), spending 12-14 hours in those tin cans, because that’s exactly what they were……pieces of steel held together by tons of rivets.
Next up was the ball turret position, and the turret jettison kit. Pity the poor soul who got that position. Located on the underside of the plane it was designed to prevent attack on the aircraft from below and was usually manned by smallest member of the crew.
The left waist gunner below. I asked a guy to take my picture here but he missed and took the floor instead. Note the spool of ammunition attached to the machine gun. There’s a better picture in this article link.
The rear/tail gunner position was also bad……so exposed, but important for protecting the back of the plane.
For me, the most poignant part was reading the signatures written on the bomb bay doors. Back on the ground, I looked underneath, where visiting WW2 veterans were encouraged to sign their names and list the number of missions and their crew members. Here’s a sample, written on July 21 2014. Earl Morrow, age 93 years old, but still able to remember everyone and their position, and his three crew members KIA killed in action – something you never forget. The “Delores” was shot down over Germany after 17 missions, POW 5/45. The doors were covered with signatures from the stops around the country. I wish I had taken more pictures of these.
Back to those rivets, while my mother was not a Rosie the Riveter, she worked on the inspection table at a die casting plant making aircraft engine parts – nose cones similar to the ones in this picture, but she says they were larger.
Her job as part of the inspection team was to check for holes in the unit, and check the threads for any defects. About 3 in every 100 were sent back. She left school at age 16 and was lucky to get hired so young, but an aunt had pulled her in. Coming out of the Depression, money was not plentiful, but her parents and brother had decided to try and save enough to buy a farm. They worked long shifts, sometimes up to 10 hours if it was busy, barely seeing each other for weeks. Because of her young age, she was put on the inspection team. She can’t remember her exact wage, but thinks it was less than $20 a week, or about $1000 per year. She said some of the farm girls who came in from the countryside paid $35 every two weeks for room and board and their wages barely covered the cost. She worked there for almost two years, with no time off for vacation, and when they had enough money saved for a down payment they bought a farm several hours away, right across the road from my dad’s farm, so essentially she married “the boy next door.” The 100 acre farm cost $5000, but with the expense of buying a team of horses and other livestock and supplies, they had to take out a mortgage, but it was a start to a more prosperous life.
My grandmother worked in the Brass factory, but married women had shorter hours, as this plaque explains.
These pictures are from a museum in her hometown which we visited this past summer. She had not been back in many years but was showing some art as part of a jury art show in the adjacent gallery. The museum was just down the street from where she used to live, so we went to visit her childhood home, and the owner let her come inside. I had knocked on the door as I didn’t want them to think there was some random stranger taking pictures of the outside of their house. It was quite nicely renovated. It sold for $1000 when they moved. My mom remembers my grandmother sending her down the street with a dollar to pay the hydro bill at what is now the museum building. And now eighty years later, she is showing her art there, which just goes to show life holds surprises, even when you are older. Like most women of her generation she did not work outside the home after she married, so it’s nice she has this chance at a late in life career.
The plane tour over, we stopped at the airport office and although I knew all 300 tickets had sold out quickly, just out of curiosity I asked if there were any tickets left for the dinner dance, and it turned out there were two cancellations, so we grabbed them for the following evening, my mother having now been enticed by the prospect of a nice meal and some big band music. (When my parents were dating they used to go to dances at a venue on the lake, where Glenn Miller and other famous Big Band musicians played). You were encouraged to dress in the style of the era, (and a few people did), but because it was so last minute, I ended up raiding my closet – thank god for that 80’s closet. (see The Vintage Corner) I had made a quick trip to the vintage store looking for some evening gloves or a hat, something to make it more retro, but no luck. It turned out the night was so hot and sultry, there was no need for gloves. The first thing I noticed near the entrance to the airport hanger was a yellow dress on a mannequin, similar to mine, only mine was a Laura Ashley sundress with a fuller skirt. But I do think mine was nicer, yellow is not a color I wear well but the material was so lovely I had kept it, even though I hadn’t worn it in decades. (I will admit, the waist was a bit tighter than I remembered).
They had made an effort to dress up the space with white tablecloths and chairs and army décor, but it was still an airplane hangar. The smell of diesel lingered in the air because the side doors were closed to the evening breeze.
Here’s the orchestra setting up, The Toronto All Star Band, none of them over the age of twenty-five. That surprised me, as I did not expect young musicians to be too interested in Big Band music, but I suppose a gig is a gig. You could attend the dance itself for $25. (Perhaps it was a good thing the airport hanger was so spacious, as last Sunday at the International Symphony Orchestra’s tribute to the Big Bands, we just about got blasted out of the back of the theatre, the music was so loud it drowned out the female vocalist, all those lovely Gershwin lyrics basically inaudible. So this band in the corner was a nice comfortable distance from the tables, with the dance floor up front the way my mother remembered). The buffet meal was excellent, well worth the price. Unfortunately, our table mates were not exactly great dinner companions. Three couples, who didn’t seem to know each other, two of the guys well on their way to being red-faced inebriated. The guy beside me was a pilot from a nearby city, but that was the only information I got out of him. His wife never said a thing all evening. It’s annoying when you sit beside someone you don’t know at a dinner function and they can’t be bothered to make conversation. I had introduced my mother as a local painter and said she had worked in a war plant – here is a living piece of WW2 history, in case you want to ask any questions. No one was interested, except in another drink. And while the music was excellent, no one danced. I saw the same ten couples on the dance floor all evening. After the dinner and speeches and silent auction, they opened the side airport hanger doors to let in some air, and a big gush of wind blew all the table decorations over. There was lightening in the sky and a storm threatening, so we left after the second set. My mother was tired by then, and wanted to beat the storm home, which we did, barely. Before I left, I said, goodnight to my table mates and said, hey guys, don’t forget to ask your wives to dance. You can bet those young WW2 soldiers did. It may have been one of the last evenings of their too short lives, but I hope they danced. Lest we forget.
If you wish to read more about the airplanes of WW2 I can recommend two excellent books. The first, Unbroken, by Lauren Hillenbrand, was made into a movie a few years ago, directed by Angelina Jolie, and is based on the true story of a plane crash in the Pacific, the pilot adrift on a raft for weeks, and then rescued and held in a Japanese POW camp. The thing that struck me about the first part of this book, (his training and missions), was the poor condition of the planes. They knew a high percentage of them would not even return from the first flight, and the chance of death was even greater when couldn’t parachute to dry land……but still they sent them up. If they came back damaged, they’d repair them as best they could and send them out again.
The second book, A Higher Call, by Adam Makos and Larry Alexander, is also a true story about a German flying ace who escorted a badly damaged B-17 Bomber (flown by a 21 year old US pilot on his first mission), back across the English channel to a British airbase, instead of shooting him down. Flash forward fifty years later, and the US captain sets out to find the German pilot who saved his life, they meet and become friends. This too may sound like a Hollywood movie, but a similar thing happened to a local man here. Late in life, he hunted down the POW’s from the German submarine crew his ship had captured in the Atlantic, and they held a reunion in 1992. He said it was one of the highlights of his life….a reminder of how the world has changed……and how much it stays the same with war still raging. Lest we forget.