Vanishing heroes: World War II veteran & B-17 provide historic time travel


No one can ever really know what it was like to fight in World War II except those who actually did. The number of those veterans still with us dwindles by the day. 

Their stories are worth cherishing whenever they tell them about combat on the ground and from the air.  A lot of the equipment they used has disappeared too. 

That includes one of the mightiest weapons in the sky — the B-17 bomber.

“It’s like the coolest airplane in the world,” said B-17 Pilot Rex Gray.

“It’s really amazing,” said B-17 Crew Chief Richard Taracka.

“It’s great,” said World War II Veteran Al Nelson.

You can’t help but be awestruck as soon as you step onto the B-17.  Dubbed the Flying Fortress, its purpose is clear. A 50 caliber machine gun stares at you immediately. There are ten on the B-17. 

I’m actually lucky to have a seat. 

“They didn’t have seats,” Gray said.

I got even luckier with my seat assignment by sitting next to Al Nelson. This 92-year-old from Burlington is the only man in Iowa who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. 

“They say, I’m an icon,” Nelson said. “And, some people say it’s a vanishing icon, but I don’t, I like the icon part, but I don’t care for the vanishing part.”

Al joined the Marines at 17 fresh out of high school toward the end of the war, finished boot camp and got on a ship not knowing where he was headed.

“We got out to the middle of the ocean and they said, well, we’re going to Iwo Jima,” said Nelson. “We said, Iwo Jima? Where the hell is Iwo Jima? Everybody was afraid.”

Al drove tanks there through the end of the war and taking the island was critical to support the B-17’s missions in the air. 

“Once we secured the first air strip there on Iwo Jima, they came landing in because they were flying from there to, to Japan,” Nelson said. “I’ve seen a lot of them crack up coming in on, coming back from Japan.”

Glamorized on the big screen in films like ‘Memphis Belle’ for being one of the first B-17 bombers to return after 25 combat missions with everyone on the crew surviving, the B-17 bomber was among the most technologically advanced at the time.

“It was extremely important. I’d like to say and I think not too many people will argue the point, is that this airplane turned the tide of the war in Europe,” Gray said.

A minute into our flight, we got the chance to walk around.  It’s not easy to do through some pretty tight spaces and the natural vibrations of the plane. 

Now imagine what it must have been like for the men more than 70 years ago while taking enemy fire.  It’s something pilot Rex Gray does. 

“Every flight!” Gray said.

It took a crew of ten to do all the jobs on the B-17 all in working conditions nowhere resembling first class.

“Twenty-five to 30-thousand feet, minus 30 below,” Gray said.

“Guys, ball turret gunners, that were in there for 11 hours and had to be picked up and pulled out afterwards because their legs no longer worked because they were down there for so long,” Taracka said.

There was space for the pilot,  co-pilot, six machine gun operators, the navigator and next to him in the catbird seat at the front of the plane, the bombardier.  Every assignment was a life or death mission. 

Lets put that danger in perspective. Boeing made more than 12,700 B-17’s for the military from 1935 to 1945. The country lost more than 4,700 of them during combat. 

“They had a 30 percent chance when they started out, 30 percent chance of coming back from a mission without being bailing out or shot down,” Gray said.

It didn’t take long after the war for the B-17 to lose its luster.  Better engines brought the next generation of American bombers and jets. The military scrapped most of the B-17 metal.

The Aluminum Overcast actually never saw combat.  It was built toward the end of the war and sold into the private sector. That is, until the Experimental Aircraft Association got a hold of it, restored it and now flies it across the country as a living museum. 

“It’s quite humbling and honoring to think that I’m here doing this because somebody else 20 years old, who was, you know, somewhere between fearless and dumb, not being insulting, was out there doing it,” Gray said.

Our flight on the Aluminum Overcast lasted only 16 minutes.  World War II missions could last 14 hours. Another reason to marvel at this machine and the man I got to sit next to. 

“I think people should know, they should know about what happened and what went on and everything,” Nelson said. “Seventeen, 18-year-old guys, you know, coming out of home, never been away from home and stuff like that. It’s it was rough.”

B-17’s like the Aluminum Overcast are extremely rare.  Pilot Rex Gray says about a dozen are technically in flying condition, but don’t really fly. He says there are about five that regularly fly.

As for the original Memphis Belle, it was restored over the last two years and will be rolled out for display May 17th at the Air Force Museum near Dayton, Ohio.

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