Honoring Veterans of the Greatest Generation

By Kai Rambow

“You’re too young to understand,” a mother advised her young son, “but thanks to this man and others like him, we get to enjoy the life we have.”  At the recent Sun‘n Fun event, Col. William Brake and Col. George Hardy were flown on one of only 11 operational B-17s in the world.  Brake and Hardy, like the flying B-17s, are hard to find.  Most of these veterans are in their nineties.

Brake flew 22 missions on B-17s from Italy before WWII ended.  “I loved that airplane. It was well made; it brought us back. Even with a full load of bombs, it was easy to fly.”

The number one thing the flyers recall is the cold. “Most of our missions were at 30,000 feet, but it wasn’t pressurized; it wasn’t heated.  It was very cold about 20 degrees below zero. I suffered frostbite in both feet on one mission.  It took me a couple days to thaw out,” reminisced Brake with a smile.

The men flying out of Italy endured the cold for five or more hours. “We didn’t have to deal with open windows,” admired Hardy after the B-17 flight. Hardy was a P-51 fighter with the famous red-tail, Tuskegee airmen, also based in Italy. Although Brake and Hardy had never met before, there is a good possibility that Hardy escorted Brake on missions.

Brake shared, “I was more concerned about flak than fighters. Towards the end of the war the fighters were not as experienced, although they still shot down some planes. But it wasn’t like it was in the beginning. The flak was intense, dangerous and deadly, especially over some of the heavily fortified targets. You just had to clench your teeth to fly through it because you knew one of them could hit you and blow up your plane. I don’t know how I got through it.”


Living History Flights

The surprise ride for Brake was provided by the Commemorative Air Force, a nonprofit organization, dedicated to restoring and maintaining historic combat aircraft. They started in 1957 restoring a P-51 Mustang. Today they have over 165 aircraft in flying condition in 25 states cared for by 12,000 volunteers.

Len Root, a captain with American Airlines, and John Bixby, a captain with United Airlines flew the B-17 all week for the living history flights and air show demonstrations.  Bixby noted, “It’s an honor to be flying the B-17.”  Root cited the honor of, “the people we get to meet.  Meeting the veterans and their families who get to see what grandpa flew in.”

Curt Rowe, one of the crewmembers, related his favorite memory. “We had a guy who was a ball turret gunner. He wouldn’t talk after the war. We noticed him and thought he’d flown on the airplane. On the second day he stated, ‘I was the ball turret gunner,’  ‘Do you want to see it?’ we asked.  ‘No, not really,’ he answered.  He came back the third day and we open it [ball turret] up. He held class the rest of the week.  His wife came up the day we left and shared, ‘He’s never talked about the war.’ That’s the reason we do this.  It’s for them and it’s for the younger generation to understand. It’s was a different time in our country, when everybody pulled together.”

Col. Brake signing a poster with a B-17 and P-51 after taking his living history flight.

Col. Brake signing a poster with a B-17 and P-51 after taking his living history flight.

The Greatest Generation Right Here

Seventy years later, not every veteran contacted was willing to talk. One of these quiet, understated veterans is Richard Wright who flew 31 missions rotating as waist, ball turret and tail gunner. “You never knew when your next mission would be.  Between 2 and 4 a.m. a guy would come in and holler, ‘Get ready to roll.’ If you got scrambled eggs and cereal we were going on a milk run, but if you got fried eggs the way you wanted them, bacon, orange juice – the works – you knew it was going to be a bad day.”

Bad days included seeing the plane beside you getting blown apart and watching parts and bodies falling through the clouds.  “A shell went through our right wing after we dropped our bombs.  One engine quit and then another as we headed for England. We landed safely. The plane was full of holes but no one was hurt,” recorded Wright.

It was the ability of the B-17 to still return crews home after these ravages that made it a beloved aircraft. Wright encapsulated the brutal missions, “We never had a plane long enough to name it.”

Bill Halloran, another local veteran, had a different experience. “I was selected and sent to the Boeing factory in Seattle to learn how to repair and maintain the B-17. I spent two years in England and was not on the front lines. We weren’t allowed to go on missions, but every time we needed to take one up I was on it. We could do almost anything, replacing lots of engines and patching up damage from flak. No one complained; there wasn’t anything you could do, so we all made the best of it.”

Sixteen million served in WWII; fewer than 700,000 are with us today.  We are grateful to those who told their stories to us. Despite the horrors, Wright reflects on the good, “My brother served in Patton’s army. There aren’t many brothers who survived the war.”  Both recently had their picture taken together wearing WWII veteran caps.

Brake and Hardy continued to serve in the Air Force, both retiring in the early 1970s. Brake got to fly the B-17 again, flying a commanding general around Europe. Hardy ended up flying B-29 bombers and flew 45 missions in Korea.  Both have resilient attitudes.  Brake enthused, “So much has changed, it’s a whole new world for those of us over 90. I have two computers, my wife has one. We try to keep up with technology changes.”

Yes, it is a very different world for us, thanks to their service.  Special thanks to the veterans who gave interviews, Sun‘n Fun and the Commemorative Air Force.