Standing at the waist gunner’s position, I could barely suppress the urge to pull back the bolt on the Browning .50 caliber machinegun mounted in front of me, squeeze the triggers and fire a burst of tracers at an incoming ME-109. Sadly, the gun, while definitely a genuine article, had been rendered inoperable. Worse yet, the belted .50 caliber rounds in the ammo tray were dummies – bullets crimped into spent cartridge cases, all for show. Then again, this particular B-17, one of the last ever built, had never seen actual combat.
I was aboard the Memphis Belle, a B-17F, one of the 12,726 B-17 bombers built for the Army Air Corps. The plane was painstakingly repainted to nearly match the original Memphis Belle, and “starred” in the 1990 Hollywood movie of the same name. The real Memphis Belle is owned by the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force.
So where the heck was I? I was in Geneseo, attending the July 2012 HAG (1941 Historical Aircraft Group) airshow. As an avowed history nut, I’m crazy about World War II fighter planes and bombers. I was also there to honor the memory of my dad who served with the 9th Air Force during World War II. A radio repairman, he was among the thousands of ground personnel tasked with the aircraft maintenance mission whose motto was “Keep’em Flying!”
Each summer, during the second or third weekend in July, the airfield in Geneseo transforms as vintage bombers, fighters and trainers arrive for a weekend of wartime nostalgia and flyovers. As they stroll past costumed re-enactors dressed in World War II military garb, visitors view and photograph World War II fighters, such as the P-40, the plane flown by General Clare Chennault’s legendary Flying Tigers; a pair of vintage P-51s; and the Sikorsky F4U Corsair, the fighter flown by the Marine Corps’ “Black Sheep” squadron. With its inverted gull-wing design, the plane has a unique in-flight profile. Parked next to the Memphis Belle was a B-25 “Mitchell” medium bomber, the plane made famous by the 1942 “Doolittle Raid” on Tokyo. Past air shows have featured other B-17s, including Yankee Lady, Liberty Belle and Nine O Nine, as well as massive B-24 “Liberator” heavy bombers.
The entire event is hosted by dedicated HAG volunteers. But without fail, the center of attention for nearly every attendee is the B-17.
The “Flying Fortress”
In 1936, the first B-17 prototype made its public debut at the Boeing factory in Seattle, Washington. Rolled out before a specially assembled group of reporters and military brass, the massive airframe bristling with machineguns caused one excited reporter to blurt out, “It looks like a flying fortress!” And the nickname struck such a responsive chord with the American people that it has never faded.
In their collective thinking, the B-17 embodied the Army Air Corps. The plane’s popularity even prompted Whitman Publishing Co. to print a series of collector cards known as Aeroplane Cards, featuring the B-17 along with other fighters and bombers.
Public perceptions aside, the B-24 was actually a superior aircraft. It carried a heavier bomb load, required a smaller crew (eight versus 11) and had a longer range. Unfortunately, the “Liberator” moniker never stirred the public’s imagination the way the term “Flying Fortress” did – and who could blame them.
Another aircraft also proved to be a bona fide crowd pleaser – “Whiskey 7,” a C-47A. Also called the “Dakota,” this plane is the pride of the 1941 HAG aircraft collection. Nicknamed “Gooney Birds,” hundreds of these planes ferried the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions into combat the night before the D-Day invasion.
When it really counted, that old warbird was quite literally “the tip of the spear.” Coincidentally, in 1944 it was assigned to the ninth Air Force, my dad’s old outfit. There’s a chance my father serviced its radio. Realistically, with 3,500 aircraft assigned to the ninth that possibility is remote, but if nobody minds,
I’m going to believe he did.
When it wasn’t being toured by show attendees, the plane went aloft, and in a simulation of the D-Day invasion, dropped several parachutists. In the photo, a lone paratrooper can be seen as Whiskey 7 climbs and banks away.
As for smaller military aircraft, the show featured 18 Stearman N2S and PT series biplanes, plus TA-6 “Texas” trainers, including a trio owned and flown by the Canadian Harvard Aerobatic Team. When flown by the Canadian Forces, the TA-6 was known as the “Harvard.” To view a video of the planes performing, visit canadianharvards.com.
The HAG Museum
In addition to hosting its annual airshow, the 1941 HAG maintains a museum housing other vintage warplanes. Many have been restored, while others are currently undergoing the arduous process. Among these is an A-20H (Douglas Havoc), a B-26B (Douglas Invader/Martin Marauder) and a rare B-23 (Douglas Dragon).
One of only 38 built, B-23 showcased at the HAG was acquired from a source in Midland, Texas. Volunteers made a series of trips there to dismantle, crate and ship the plane to the museum. It will eventually be reassembled and restored – a project likely to take several years and thousands of hours. Keep in mind: Reassembling a real airplane is not like building a plastic model. Besides the structural components, inside the fuselage are dozens of cables, wires and hydraulic lines, which must be reconnected and tested. The photo of the B-23’s rear cockpit area should give you a better idea of what I’m talking about. The museum also owns a C-119 (Flying Boxcar), which is displayed outside.
1941 Historic Aircraft Group
Besides the museum hangar, the HAG complex includes an administrative office and a visitor’s center/gift store. I toured the museum in January 2012, and while paying my admission fee, encountered someone every bit as fascinating as those old warbirds themselves: Raubie (Robby) Hopkins. Raubie is the office manager and can usually be found “manning” her post in the administration building. In addition to greeting visitors, she writes content for the member newsletter, and according to HAG president Austin Wadsworth, “Generally keeps the rest of us guys in line.”
Founded in 1994 by a cadre of 250 aviation enthusiasts, the 1941 HAG boasts a current membership of nearly 1,000. “Our members live from California to Maine,” elaborates Raubie. “Some have never even visited the museum, but nonetheless continue to support us financially. We’re an all-volunteer organization with no paid staff. We do this because we love these old warplanes, and want to share them with the public. We receive no government funding, either. Our operating revenues are derived from member dues, donations, gift store sales, proceeds from our annual air show and posthumous bequests.”
As with other organizations, the 1941 HAG has a slate of elected officers and a board of directors, but Raubie stresses that the group is very much member-driven. As an example, when the decision was made to acquire the B-23, the board didn’t decide on behalf of the members. The members voted. Had the nays prevailed the plane might still be in Texas.
The 1941 Historic Aircraft Group is always eager to attract new members. If you’re interested, surf to 1941hag.org. You can download an application, read the events schedule, display/print driving directions, make a donation via PayPal or view photos from the museum and prior airshows.
By 1944, the United States Army Air Corps numbered 2.4 million personnel and nearly 80,000 aircraft. Now, 70 years later, the handful of remaining World War II fighters and bombers still considered airworthy dwindles as time continues to weaken their airframes. The dedicated owners of these vintage warbirds and the volunteers of organizations like the 1941 HAG deserve our admiration, but more importantly, our support. They battle the structural degradation of these magnificent machines with the same fervor our fathers and grandfathers displayed while vanquishing America’s enemies. So remember the fighting spirit of the valiant airmen who flew them, and never forget these words written by Army Captain Robert M. Crawford back in 1939:
“Down we dive, spouting our flame from under,
Off with one helluva roar!
We live in fame or go down in flame,
Nothing’ll stop the Army Air Corps!”
• To view a restored B-23, visit the McChord Air Museum website at mcchordairmuseum.org.
• To read a fact sheet about the original Memphis Belle, visit nationalmuseum.af.mil and search “Memphis Belle.”
• The B-17 inspired the 1949 film “Twelve O’Clock High,” and a 1960s TV series of the same name starring Robert Lansing and “Memphis Belle.”
• On June 13, 2011, Liberty Belle was destroyed by an onboard fire, which began during a routine flight. With the loss of the plane, the number of surviving, still operational/airworthy B-17s now stands at only 12.
• Shortly after this article was completed, Raubie Hopkins passed away. I will always consider it a privilege to have met and photographed her.
• Last, if you can bear the sound of your own heart breaking, you might wish to read Randall Jarrell’s poignant poem, “Death of the Ball Turret Gunner.”
Small Advice for Big-Time Viewings at the Geneseo Air Show
July 12, 13, 14, 2013
Despite the blistering July heat and total lack of shade, the air show and flyovers in Geneseo were well worth the trip. For first-time visitors, however, a few words of caution are in order. Wear a sturdy pair of closed toe shoes. The field is huge, and the ground is somewhat uneven – definitely not a venue for flip flops. For those with sensitive skin, UV protection is another must. And for goodness sake, don’t forget your camera!
by Rich Finzer