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One last time, WWII veterans take flight in restored B-17 bomber

A restored B-17 ''Flying Fortress'' sits at Trenton Mercer Airport, August 13, 2012. Nose art on the ''Aluminum Overcast,'' which also carries the colors of the 398th Bomb Group of World War II, which flew hundreds of missions over Nazi-held territory during the war.

OSHKOSH, Wis. — There were no bombs to drop, and the skies were not filled with German Messerschmitts intent on shooting them down.

A group of World War II veterans got a rare treat Monday in a short flight in a restored B-17 that transported them back seven decades to a time when they were young men and the world was at war.

EAA organized a gathering of 10 B-17 bomber veterans representing each of the crew positions from pilot to tail gunner for a unique gathering and flight in EAA's restored B-17 "Aluminum Overcast."

The Wisconsin veterans in their late 80s and 90s were giddy as they slowly boarded the plane around 11:30 a.m.

Family, friends and well-wishers, including Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy, whose father-in-law was among the bomber veterans, stood in the biting cold outside a hangar at Wittman Regional Airport in Oshkosh, Wis., as the B-17 taxied down the runway and flew in a slow arc over the airfield.

Before taking off, they posed for pictures in front of the B-17 just as they did during World War II with their flight crews. All brought old photos. Scott Welch, 91, a B-17 pilot from Silver Lake, Wis., wore his original brown Army Air Force cap and uniform jacket.

Welch flew 32 missions over Europe in B-17s and remembered some very cold flights in the unpressurized cabins, one time seeing the cockpit temperature gauge at 40 below zero. He stayed warm in fleece-lined uniforms.

"I always admired the aircraft. I'd love to fly it again. I know I could," Welch said before Monday's flight.

He brought a box of mementos of black and white photos of his bomber crews, his Distinguished Flying Cross, Purple Heart and Air Medal with four clusters plus one nasty-looking, jagged piece of metal.

"I got hit by this piece of flak right here. It was red hot when it went in me. Fortunately when it's that hot you don't bleed much," said Welch, who still had four hours in the air before he could land at his home base in England to get treatment.

Robert Abresch, 92, of Wauwatosa, Wis., piloted 33 missions in the B-17 and said matter-of-factly Monday that he could still fly one.

"I don't think I could take off or land it but flying level, I'd be OK," said a smiling Abresch, who worked at Allis-Chalmers for 45 years.

He fondly recalled the B-17 as a strong, well-built plane that was great at flying in formation. Abresch was never shot down though on one mission he lost one of four engines over Berlin. He had to break out of formation, turn back and fly home alone, a situation that often proved fatal to bomber crews because of fast ME-109 fighter planes that chased after them.

"We had to fly low and slow. It seemed like the aircraft was flying backward," said Abresch, who saw two fighters in the distance as he crossed the English Channel and was relieved to discover they were American P-51 Mustangs.

Bob Schuh, 89, of Chilton flew 35 missions as a tail and waist gunner. Monday's flight was the first time he flew in a B-17 since World War II. He, too, kept a piece of flak that pierced his plane and landed harmlessly at his feet.

"I was scared every mission. When I went up I never knew if I'd come home," said Schuh, who earned a college degree on the G.I. Bill and taught freshman English for three decades at Chilton High School.

He lost friends and comrades, young men who didn't come home.

"I saw a plane take a direct hit. It took a hit in the radio room and just crumpled. I saw smoke coming from it as it went down," Schuh said.

Each veteran's name was stenciled next to his position in "Aluminum Overcast," just like it was often done during World War II. Harry Oestreich, 89, of Oshkosh couldn't get to his former spot in the tail so he sat on a chair just outside the tail gunner's nest.

He liked being a tail gunner even though he had two .50-caliber machine guns to clean while the waist gunners only had one. Oestreich sometimes saw the German pilots who were trying to kill him fly so close he could see their faces and watch them waving.

"You only had a split second to get a few rounds off," said Oestreich, an Oshkosh police officer and later a tavern owner.

Harvin Abrahamson, 89, of Wauwatosa flew 17 missions as a radio operator and waist gunner. Each time the bomb bay doors were opened and bombs tumbled from the plane's belly, the bombardier asked Abrahamson to check to make sure the entire payload dropped. On one mission Abrahamson was shocked to see one bomb still dangling.

"If we would have closed the doors, we would have been toast," said Abrahamson, wearing a blue tie adorned with World War II aircraft.

The pilot told him to kick out the bomb. Abrahamson jumped up and down on the bomb. He stomped it. He kicked it. It wouldn't budge. Finally another crew member grabbed a screwdriver and hung down into the open bomb bay to loosen the bomb as Abrahamson helped.

"We were four, five miles up. I didn't look down," Abrahamson said.

One of only 15 B-17s — out of more than 12,000 built — that is still flying, "Aluminum Overcast" travels around the country much of the year, visiting 40 to 50 cities. It flies to Memphis later this week for the first stop on this season's tour. Before it left, EAA organizers wanted to assemble a group of Wisconsin bomber veterans for a unique experience.

"Putting together an actual crew would be pretty much impossible so we thought we'd assemble a crew with all of the positions," EAA spokesman Dick Knapinski said. "We wanted to pay tribute to these veterans."

As the veterans slowly descended the steps of the B-17 after the flight, their faces lit up like they were teenagers again. For Abrusch, hearing the familiar hum of the four Boeing engines took him back to the sounds, sights and smells of a different time, when he was young and could easily scramble into the cockpit.

"Years ago I could crawl in and it seemed to be pretty roomy," Abrusch said. "It seems smaller now."

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