Memories flow as 3 veterans fly in WWII aerial relic
A PV-2 Harpoon sits parked at the National Naval Aviation Museum at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Fla., on June 18, 2009.
STOCKTON, Calif. — When Pat Patteson sat down in the front right seat of Taigh Ramey's PV-2D Harpoon World War II aircraft on Friday morning, it was the first time he'd been in that position in nearly 70 years.
"I brought one back home when peace was declared with Japan," said Patteson, 92. "That was in 1945."
Ramey, who operates Vintage Aircraft and Stockton Field Aviation Museum at Stockton Metropolitan Airport, invited Patteson, who lives in Danville, Lodi's Bob Handel and Earl Snyder of Sacramento to take seats in the same type of plane in which they'd flown for the Navy during World War II for a 20-minute flight to Travis Air Force Base. The trio will spend the weekend at "Thunder Over Solano," the base's annual open house and air show. Gates open at 9:30 a.m. each day and admission is free.
"This is the first time we've had three," Ramey said. "We'd like to get a whole crew, but that's hard to do."
The three veterans waited patiently Friday morning for Ramey and his crew to finish the final maintenance on the plane that hadn't been in the air since October.
"I figured if it could make it to Wisconsin, it could make it to Fairfield," Handel joked, referencing the plane's trip in June to AirVenture Oshkosh.
There were no fears among the three, though, just excitement.
"It's going to be quite a thrill," said Patteson, a Navy pilot who did three tours in the Aleutian Islands from 1943-45.
Handel, 89, who trained as a pilot, was a gunner, as was Snyder, 90, who flew reconnaissance missions over the East Coast looking for German submarines.
"We lost an engine one time," Snyder said. "We were about 100 miles off the coast. I didn't think we were going to make it back."
The memories flowed as the three veterans, meeting for the first time, visited in advance of their flight back in time.
"I've been in some of these planes, just static and crawling around in them," said Handel, who mostly flew on B-17s and B-24s and was part of the battle of Okinawa. "Those doggone airplanes have shrunk. It's harder to get around in one.
"I had to crawl through like a tunnel for about 10 feet to get past the nose wheel to get to the nose of the plane. I didn't even wear a parachute. You couldn't. It would get hung up."
Handel said he had about 17 combat missions and whenever the crew returned, it was served an eighth of an ounce of brandy "to calm your nerves."
"The thing about it was, the brandy was made in Lodi," Handel said.
There were times Snyder could have used a good shot of brandy after a mission.
One was when a German sub hit his plane and he wondered if it would make it back to Brooklyn, N.Y. Another was when a PV-1 on which he'd given up his spot at the request of another gunner turned over, split and crashed into the Gulf of Mexico after leaving its Florida base, killing all on board.
"I wouldn't be here if we hadn't switched," Snyder said.
He kept flying after the war, joining the Air Force. The West Virginia native, who still speaks with a trace of his southern roots, spent 31 years in the military.
Three years were enough for Patteson, who first donned the Navy uniform on Jan. 2, 1942, in his native Texas.
He spent the war patrolling the Aleutian Islands, where the Japanese had secured two of them, Attu and Kiska, in 1942. The U.S. regained control of the two islands in 1943, then launched reconnaissance missions from the region to northern Japan as well as attacks on ships.
Climbing back into the PV-2 meant a great deal to Patteson.
"I'm a tie to an era, an activity of World War II that has been mostly a footnote," Patteson said.
The pilot and his crew were among those prepared to attack Japan from the north during the planned invasion of Japan.
"Fortunately we had the nuclear bomb and we didn't have to," Patteson said.
Most veterans of the Pacific campaign believe they would have perished if that invasion had occurred. Instead, a few of those veterans were around Friday to partly fulfill Ramey's dream of assembling a true crew for his restored piece of naval aviation history.