World War II veterans tell stories by historic planes

Basil Hackleman looked up the step ladder into the depths of an old bomber plane similar to one he flew on 11 missions during World War II and recalled how as a 22-year-old man he would jump up and grab the edge of the door to swing himself inside the plane.

Hackleman and the other nine teenage boys in his crew needed to squeeze into tight spaces as they and the rest of the Army Air Corps fought Nazi Germany.

Blaine resident Kelly Larson and her son Andrew, 10, ask Basil Hackleman about his service in World War II. Hackleman flew on the first 11 missions of the “Nine-O-Nine” B-17 bomber. The bomber behind him is not that plane, but is a B-17 that was built toward the end of World War II and was later painted in honor of the “Nine-O-Nine.” Photo by Eric Hagen

Blaine resident Kelly Larson and her son Andrew, 10, ask Basil Hackleman about his service in World War II. Hackleman flew on the first 11 missions of the “Nine-O-Nine” B-17 bomber. The bomber behind him is not that plane, but is a B-17 that was built toward the end of World War II and was later painted in honor of the “Nine-O-Nine.” Photo by Eric Hagen

This past weekend, Hackleman journeyed from his home in Springfield, Missouri, to the Anoka County-Blaine Airport to share his story with those touring three World War II-era planes. Included in the show were B-17 and B-24 bomber planes and a P-51C Mustang, which protected the heavy, lumbering bombers from the more agile fighter planes.

“Both my parents were history buffs, so I’ve been interested in history my whole life. World War II veterans are my heroes,” said Steve Marks, who served in the U.S. Air Force from 1964 to 1968 and is now president of The Eighth Air Force Historical Society of Minnesota.

Hackleman does not consider himself a hero.

“The heroes are the ones buried over there that didn’t make it back,” he said.

Those who fought in World War II are part of what has been called “The Greatest Generation.” Bob Clemens, of White Bear Lake, considers his parents’ generation the greatest generation because they had to find steady income during The Great Depression.

Clemens and Hackleman were two of at least six World War II veterans who were at the Anoka County-Blaine Airport June 11-13. With so many World War II veterans dying each day, the chances of hearing their stories first-hand is becoming less frequent, but many of the stops on the Wings of Freedom national tour of The Collins Foundation planes include presentations by World War II veterans.

Children joined their parents and grandparents to hear these stories.

“Since we went to Hawaii this past February and visited Pearl Harbor, (Andrew) can’t get enough reading material about World War II planes,” Kelly Larson said about her 10-year-old son.

Clemens and Hackleman enlisted in the Army Air Corps, the precursor to the Air Force.

Hackleman was a “farm boy” in the southeast corner of Kansas when he enlisted in the Army Air Corps in the spring of 1940. At that time, World War II was in its early stages. The United States was over a year from declaring war against Japan and Germany, which it did after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941.

Hackleman started out as a mechanic before he became a pilot of several different bomber planes before he began flying the “Nine-O-Nine” B-17 bomber in late February 1944.

Clemens enlisted in November 1942 after his 18th birthday and flew in 50 missions as a navigator on various bomber planes with the 463rd bomber squadron.

“I studied the map of Europe. I knew Europe as well as the state of Minnesota,” Clemens said.

Most of the missions were during the day, but navigating was challenging when trying to find the oil refineries, ball bearing factories or military bases to bomb while being hit by flak from German anti-aircraft guns. Clemens circled his hands to the size of a grapefruit when recalling flak holes in the side of the bomber during one tough mission.

When asked which mission of his was the most important, Hackleman said, “All missions were important.”

The two bombers in the show

The B-17 Flying Fortress Hackleman stood by was not the actual plane he flew, but The Collings Foundation that owns this plane named it “Nine-O-Nine” in honor of a 91st Bomb Group, 323rd Squadron plane that Hackleman was the pilot on for the first 11 missions starting Feb. 25, 1944. This plane was a part of 140 missions with no aborts and no crewmen killed.

The Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress included in the show was not accepted for mission work until April 7, 1945, just one month before Germany surrendered and five months before Japan officially surrendered, ending World War II. This plane served in the Air/Sea 1st Rescue Squadron and later in the Military Air Transport Service. From the mid-1960s until the mid-1980s, it was used as a fire bomber to drop water and borate on forest fires. The Collings Foundation purchased it in 1986.

This B-17 Flying Fortress has undergone two major rebuilds, according to The Collins Foundation. But despite what it has been through, it is one of only eight B-17s in the United States that can still fly.

Before it was used to fight forest fires starting in 1965, it had a 13-year “cool down” period after it had been subjected to radiation from three different nuclear explosion tests. It was sold in the mid-1960s as an 800-ton scrap pile. Damaged skin was fabricated and replaced on site. Engine and props were stripped, cleaned, repaired and tested, and new control cables and electrical wiring were installed.

Tom Reilly Vintage Aircraft worked with The Collins Foundation to restore the plane to its wartime configuration after the non-profit organization purchased it in 1986.

In 1987, this B-17 plane was caught by a severe crosswind moments after touchdown on a western Pennsylvania runway during an air show. It rolled off the runway and crashed through a chain-link fence, sheared off a power pole and roared down a 100-foot ravine to a thundering stop. Fortunately, nobody was killed. The plane was severely damaged, but donations enabled the plane to be restored to flying condition. Since the crash, this B-17 has visited over 2,800 tour stops.

The B-24 bomber in Wings of Freedom was built in America, but was used by Great Britain’s Royal Air Force in the Pacific Theater from October 1944 through the end of the war. According to The Collins Foundation, this B-24 went to a “bomber graveyard” in India after the war until the Indian Air Force found use for it between 1948 and 1968. The plane was once again abandoned until a British aircraft collector obtained it in 1981. It was disassembled and transported back to England and advertised for sale in “as is” condition. Dr. Robert F. Collins purchased it in 1984.

Tom Reilly Vintage Aircraft and other volunteers, including former B-24 bomber crewmen or sons of crewmen, helped restore the plane to flying condition. It has had three different paint jobs to honor different World War II planes. The current “Witchcraft” paint work was done in 2005 and is in honor of the veterans of the Eighth Air Force that flew in the European Theater during World War II.

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

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