Once was enough—riding the Aluminum Overcast

I was eleven months and five days old on December 7, 1941. I remember only bits and pieces of my early years on Army bases around the world and about all I remember from the war they called #2 were a couple of times at Fort Knox. Once was when a fighter plane of some kind crashed on takeoff from Godman Army Airfield into a grassy opening just across the street from our home in Goldville. I remember seeing it catch fire, seeing the pilot struggling to get out, and watching as some men in green uniforms with a big capitol P painted in white on their backs ran and tried to rescue him.

Later I remember some of those men, guarded by soldiers in American uniforms, as they mowed the lawn around our home. My mother sent me out with some cups and a pitcher of lemonade for them. One of them suddenly grabbed me and hugged me close as a startled guard unslung his rifle and began running toward us. I clearly remember the words, “I have a leetle boy like you,” and his tears. The guard stopped running and stood to watch in silence. My mother told me years later they had been Italian prisoners of war.

Then, two years in Japan, right after the war ended. First and second grades. The first city we lived in was Nagoya. It was still leveled by American bombs. People were living in whatever shelters they had been able to build with whatever scraps they could find.

B-17s bombing
It’s history now, but it was terrifying reality for thousands of young men during World War II.

A few years later, Linz, Austria. Sixth and seventh grades. My father was with the American occupation forces. Parts of the city were still broken but rebuilding after American B-17s had pounded steel mills and rail yards not many years earlier. One day, in a field across from our house in Froschberg, one of my friends found a large corroded shell of some kind. We had been taught in school about things like that, so he ran home and his mother called the Volkspolizei. A bomb squad came to disarm an old antiaircraft round.

Frieda, our Austrian maid, told of having been arrested and sent to a work camp when she and a friend dared to help a badly burned pilot from the Free French Air Force whose parachute landed him in a field near her girlhood home in Leonding. The Austrian kids we played with took us to old bomb shelter tunnels and told us, in the mixture of German and English we used to communicate, of terrified times in those holes not too many years earlier as the earth shook around them.

I read all the comic books about the war, any comic that had an airplane on the cover. I went to all the war movies. My imagination turned our family car into a swooping fighter or lumbering bomber. I dreamed of becoming a Navy pilot and flying off carriers.

I learned to fly in high school, soloed a J-3 right after my sixteenth birthday, and passed my private pilot checkride a year later in an Aeronca Champ on skis from a snowy Ohio grass strip. I took the Navy’s aviation cadet entrance test but failed the math portion by six points. They told me to come back if we had a war because they’d lower their standards, but by the time Vietnam heated up, life had taken me in other directions. I never flew anything bigger than a 182.

B-17 EAA
It’s one thing to look at a warbird, but flying in a B-17 makes history come alive.

And so, some years later, I grabbed a chance to take a ride on the Experimental Aircraft Association’s restored B-17, Aluminum Overcast. I had grown up with stories of those airplanes and the men who flew in them. I had to take the chance to ride in one. And so it was that one beautiful spring day, I clambered aboard and took a seat in the back of that big machine.

It’s hard to describe the feeling in this old flier of small airplanes as I looked forward into the front office and watched two pilots working to start those four big radials. It’s hard to describe the sound. I can’t really explain the feeling in my chest as we taxied out and rolled northeast on runway 3. A circling climb over Ogden, Utah, was followed by climbing up Weber Canyon, then a flight north over Ogden Valley, Huntsville, and Pineview Reservoir.

I did it all. Crawling under the pilots’ seats into the bombardier’s seat. Watching some other passengers playing gunner with inert .50 calibers hanging in two waist gunner positions. Looking down into that tiny pod where ball turret gunners once curled into aching, cramping hours of pain. I enjoyed the ride, but I knew there was no way I could understand what it really had been like. None of the numbing cold of 20,000 feet. No oxygen masks crimping our faces. No frostbitten fingers or toes. No mind blasting fear. Just thirty minutes and not twelve hours.

View
What a view.

Finally it was down though Ogden Canyon, with rock walls sliding by 100 feet off our left wingtip. We touched down on runway 21, taxied in, and shut down the engines.

I had taken the ride. But I knew I could never really understand what it had been like when those Austrian kids I played with had spent terrified days or nights in tunnels under Linz or Bremerhaven or Berlin or countless other places. And I knew I could never know what it had been like for those American kids who were just a little older than my Austrian playmates when they had dropped their bombs on them.

The other passengers and I climbed off the Overcast and walked to a trailer to collect our souvenir caps or T-shirts. As we did, we all suddenly stopped and watched in silence as a family pushed an old man in a wheelchair toward the big plane. He wore a cap with “WW II Veteran” embroidered on it in gold letters. One of the men who pushed him quietly explained that he was their grandfather and the grandfather, who had once been a young man, had flown as a waist gunner in a B-17.

Someone asked, “Is he going for a ride?”

“No,” came the reply. “We can’t afford it.”

Bombsight
A more relaxed view than Germany in 1944.

They pushed him out to the big plane and helped him look inside the door. He touched the bomber’s fuselage, looked up at the weapon hanging out the waist gunner opening and then settled back into his wheelchair. I felt something in my throat and something clouded my eyes as I watched.

Another man must have felt those same things and stepped forward. He offered to give his ticket to the old man. “You take it. You deserve it.” But the old man shook his head.

The man offered again. Again, the old veteran refused it. His voice was soft and seemed to come from far away as he said, “No. Once was enough.” Then came tears. Finally he was able to speak again. He explained that he had flown only one mission. Somewhere over Germany the big machine in which he flew was hit. He was the only one who made it out. The only one who came home.

“No,” he said again. “Once was enough.”

21 Comments

  • Lee, such a heart-wrenching reminder of the pain of war and the terrible price that was paid on both sides during that conflict. We would do well to not allow us to blindly be led into another conflict that most likely would be even more imperiling. I’m glad you got to experience that flight, but even more glad you got a glimpse of the real cost of war! Thank you for sharing that experience.

  • Wonderful story. My parents had a good friend who flew Hurricanes in the Battle of Britain. Over the years my dad and I tried to get him to open up about his adventures. He was a very pleasant guy, but never discussed it with anyone, and never flew again after the war.

  • Thank you for this. My father spoke of his times in the Pacific watching big ones fly overhead to bomb the islands. My wife and I were volunteers at The Vintage Flying Museum when “Chuckie” was there. One of our volunteers had flown in that very airplane as a gunner during the war. Great many stories he told. He felt it was important, and it was, to keep the memory alive. Sadly he joined his brothers a couple of years ago but his memory lives on.

  • Well written. I took a neighbor to see the B17 owned by the Virginia Military Air Museum. He had served as navigator/top gunner on 25 missions during WE II. Like the veteran in this story, he quietly surveyed the aircraft and declined a complete tour.
    He was an accomplished artist. He had one pairing of B17s in formation with the head and shoulders of an airman in leather helmet and oxygen mask superimposed over the flight in the background. I complemented the painting and his response was “it’s really difficult to paint fear in the eyes.”

  • Beautifully told. I too rode in EAA’s Aluminum Overcast, an exciting and moving experience. Standing at a waist gunner’s position, I could only try to imagine being 19 yrs old, bitterly cold air rushing in, flak banging on the fuselage, heart pounding and hands trembling, thinking only of surviving one more mission. The last part of your article brought a few tears. Thank you for telling this story.

  • When I was in Flight School at Ft Rucker there was an airport near Dothan (gone now) I think called Wiregrass. They had a mix of old WW 2 planes, B 17, B 25 to spray for Fire Ants, with Mirex. Would go over on Saturday morning and you could just hop in and go for a ride. Did a number of B 17 and B 25 rides.

  • GREAT True-To-Life adventure Lee. When I was in the Air Force flying B-47 aircraft, the A/C, Lloyd Gray was a B-17 pilot in WWII, at the tender age of 17… and his tailgunner was 52 years old….. I just cannot imagine what is was like to have a ‘boss’ that was 30+ years younger than he was…. but that is what was being done in WWII. Finally, I would like, and be honored to have ~5-minute telephone conversation with you sometime..at (206) 382-3643; or better yet email me your phone number with date(s), and time(s) that are good for you: and I WILL call you

  • I have always used a simple criteria to judge a motion picture. If I come out of the theater either laughing or crying, I know it was a great movie because it had the power to move me emotionally. I read your article and came away crying. Great article!!

  • Two big regrets I have along this line: 1) I flew 8 years with Cal Worthington, a B-17 pilot who then owned a Lear 24 followed by a 35. I wish I had asked him more about the B-17 stuff, but we did visit the -17 at Pima Air Museum by Tucson, AZ. 2) A neighbor who lived a few houses away and passed a few years ago was also flew B-17 but also spent 19 months as a POW somewhere in Germany. Last I saw him was at a showing of “Memphis Belle” in a hangar at Chico Air Show (Late 1990’s). Should have talked to him more. The moral: Get their stories !!!!

  • What a story! I was 5 years old when we went to war. This sure brought back the memories of my war experiences in the United States. I didn’t have the experience of meeting kids that had experienced the real thing , only what was shown on the movie screen when going to a movie during that period of time. He talks of using a car as a fighter plane. I flew in the apple tree that was in our backyard. It was my, and the neighborhood boys, fighter plane and bomber, the B-17, in our raids. Of course, we had to bail out a few times, jumping to the ground from the limbs that were our different positions in the plane. If it was a fighter, we sure shot down lots of Messerschmitt 109s, Foche-Wulf 190s and Japanese Zeros.
    I haven’t flown in the 17, but was able to take the inside tour at one of the air show at Boeing Field here in Seattle. They have a B-17 at the museum there. You can take a virtual on-line tour of it on the Museum Of Flight web site, plus several other Boeing aircraft.

  • A very poignant story. I regret that you’ve been “priced out of” traditional flying. My father survived 3 missions as a B-17 bombardier and German POW for over a year. I share your feeling that we can’t imagine what it was like, being late teens-early twenties and shot out of an airplane at thousands of feet above the ground. That generation seems to think nothing of it from the modesty with which they sparingly share their stories.

    Thanks for sharing your experience.

  • Thank you all for your kind comments.
    I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who witnessed this who had to sit in the parking lot for awhile until my eyes cleared up enough to drive.

    There was one part of the story that didn’t seem to fit: He had been trained to be a gunner in B-24’s but was tossed into a 17 instead when he arrived in England. And so he actually had flown only once in a B-17.

  • I am a volunteer B-17 Captain on the B-17G “Yankee Lady” owned and operated by the Yankee Air Museum at the Willow Run Airport in Michigan. I have flown the Lady for more than a decade and every year the number of World War II aircrew members who ride with us gets smaller. Each year it gets more difficult for them to enter and exit the aircraft Each has his own story to tell, some tell all, some tell nothing, some tell stories their families have never heard until after the flight. After each flight and during the photo ops, we present each WW II veteran, aircrew or not, with a special medal and a short speech thanking them for their service.

  • I was privileged to fly aboard the Liberty Belle in 2009. It was and remains my favorite fight ever. We cruised at about 170 knots after departing BUR in MVFR. Having said that I can’t imagine how they flew bombing raids in these machines: it was deafening, freezing cold at altitude, they had flak and enemy fighters to contend with and weather over that part of the world is notoriously bad. The men who flew these WWII missions have my undying respect and gratitude.

  • My grandfather worked for Wright before and during the war as an engineer. He was part of the team that designed and tweaked the B17 engines. He flew on the prototype and production models for testing. I have flown on Aluminum Overcast twice. Anyone who has the inkling to do so, should. It is an amazing experience.

  • Loved the way you write about your experience flying in that B-17. You told it very vividly. There was a song that was popular during WWII. It’s title is “Coming In On A Wing And A Prayer.” I was about 5 years old when I first heard it played on the radio back then. Always loved that song. After reading your story, the words to that song, now have more meaning for me.

  • My Dad first enlisted in 1917 and served in Germany in the Army of Occupation. After discharge into civilian life, he re-enlisted after Pearl Harbor in the Army Air Force and flew fifty missions in B-17’s first from North Africa, then from Sicily and finally from Italy. As a seasoned veteran, he had many stories. His final postings were in Japan and Korea. I was a member of General Aviation and later he was delighted to fly with me in Florida and Minnesota. He left us in 1989. He was a true patriot and outstanding member of the Greatest Generation.

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