World War II history comes to life at airport

Visitors stopping by the Anoka County-Blaine Airport July 18-21 were able to step back in time when three World War II era military aircraft were on display.

This is the sole P-51C Mustang flying in the world today. These fighter planes defended heavy bombers during World War II. Photos by Eric Hagen

This is the sole P-51C Mustang flying in the world today. These fighter planes defended heavy bombers during World War II. Photos by Eric Hagen

The national Wings of Freedom tour organized by Massachusetts company The Collings Foundation brought the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress “Nine O Nine” heavy bomber, the Consolidated B-24J Liberator “Witchcraft” heavy bomber and a P-51C Mustang fighter plane up close to guests willing to pay a small fee to fully explore the inside and outside of the aircraft.

California resident Leland Juhl was in town to visit a friend and see the planes. He was especially interested in the fighter plane because it brought back memories of going a mile down the beach from the base in New Guinea while on break to watch test pilots fly the P-51’s. Juhl was a medical technician during World War II.

A few other World War II veterans who flew missions in similar planes that were on display were at the airport to share their stories. Basil Hackleman flew the first 11 missions of one B-17 bomber, according to Craig Schiller, facility manager at the Golden Wings Museum at the Anoka County-Blaine Airport.

Bob Cummings and Vince Parker were both on B-17 bombers with the 15th Air Force that did missions in the Mediterranean Sea area. Cummings was a navigator and Parker was a tail gunner, said Myron Asper of Chaska, who is a member of the 8th Air Force Historical Society of Minnesota that meets each Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Bloomington.

“It’s an honor to talk to these guys,” Asper said. “I’m kind of a history buff. To listen to their stories is amazing.”

Jerry Whiting, who lives in California, shared the story of his father Wayne Whiting and the 485th bomber group he served with meeting the Red Tails. These were African American fighter pilots who fought during World War II. When the bomber group’s base in Europe was covered with snow, the Red Tails offered their clear landing strips and were wonderful hosts for the 485th men, Whiting said.

The men of the 485th bomber group and the Red Tails later corresponded through letters and Whiting filmed a documentary to share these stories. His niece, who works for Lucasfilm, offered to help. This studio had just wrapped filming a movie about the Red Tails and took an interest in this documentary. The studio later paid to fly 485th bomber group and Red Tails veterans to their reunion in California and the studio took care of the food so these men would be eating something better than cold sandwiches, Whiting said.

Former NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw provided a voice-over for a documentary about the reunion, which took place Sept. 30, 2011 in San Diego, Calif.

Asper told the story of how Parker became a German prisoner of war. Parker’s B-17 was cut in half by another plane’s gunfire. As the tail went one way and the rest of the plane went another way, he unsuccessfully attempted to activate his parachute.

Parker miraculously survived after the plane crashed, but was knocked unconscious. He awoke to find a German soldier standing over him. He was taken to the hospital and then became a prisoner of war after he was treated for his injuries.

Five of Asper’s brothers served during World War II, including one who flew 76 missions in P-47 or P-51 fighter planes. Asper was 16 years old when the war ended, but he later served on a B-36 bomber during the Korean War. There are not a lot of B-36’s flying anymore, and the same can be said for the planes that were on display at the airport, Asper said.

According to The Collings Foundation, which owns the aircraft, the “Nine O Nine” is one of only eight B-17 heavy bombers in flying condition in the United States. The B-24J “Witchcraft” heavy bomber and the P-51C fighter plane are the sole remaining examples of their type flying in the world.

Asper said it was great to see these planes “because they’re not going to be flying too much longer.”

Those who paid $425 got to fly in one of the bombers for half-an-hour. It cost $2,200 for a half hour or $3,200 for a full hour in the fighter plane. Schiller said the bombers went up a total of eight times while the P-51C went up a dozen times.

Eric Hagen is at eric.hagen@ecm-inc.com

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