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WWII warplanes draw fans of all ages in West Virginia

PARKERSBURG, W.Va. — Earlier this week, Charlie Marshall of Williamstown was among hundreds of people to walk through one of only six B-17 Flying Fortress bombers still in flying condition when the Collings Foundation’s “Wings of Freedom” flying tour made a three-day stop at Parkersburg’s Mid-Ohio Valley Regional Airport.

While the chance to view, go inside, and even take a brief ride in flying-condition B-17 and B-24 Liberator bombers, as well as a P-51 Mustang fighter, gave most visitors the opportunity to connect with an important era in world history, the visit was a homecoming of sorts for Marshall. The 93-year-old Wood County man was a turret gunner and flight engineer on a B-17 during 16 missions with the 390th Bomb Group over occupied Europe in 1943.

Marshall and his B-17 crewmates were involved in the war’s first shuttle raids, in which aircraft took off in England, bombed targets in Axis-controlled sections of Europe, and then landed for refueling and re-arming at sites in Russia or North Africa before repeating the process in reverse.

On one such raid, industrial sites in Schweinfurt, Germany, were targeted.

“Our bomber group suffered enormous losses that day,” Marshall recalled. In all, 60 B-17s from Marshall’s 390th Bomb Group were shot down during the Aug. 17, 1943, raid, and another 60 were seriously damaged, Marshall’s among them.“We had to make an emergency landing in a dried-out swamp in North Africa.” After the plane was patched up enough to fly, Marshall and his crew filled the makeshift runway’s ruts with used jerry cans that had been brought to the site to refuel their aircraft. The took off without incident and made it safely back to England.

In all, Marshall’s crew completed 15 bombing runs over Nazi-controlled Europe until their luck ran out while bombing the port city of Bremen, Germany, on their 16th and final mission.

“We were shot down and had to bail out at 20,000 feet,” said Marshall, who was wounded by shrapnel when a German anti-aircraft round struck his airplane and exploded. “I landed in a plowed field where a farmer kept on plowing for a while, seeing that I was shot through the shoulder.”

All but one member of Marshall’s crew lived through the shoot-down and bail-out.

Marshall spent the duration of the war in Stalag 17 B, the German prisoner of war camp in Austria that was the inspiration for the movie “Stalag 17,” in which a performance by William Holden, the starring actor, produced Oscar.

“It turned out that there were five of us from the Parkersburg area — all from different squadrons — who were held there,” Marshall said. “Two of us are still around.”

As Marshall got reacquainted with the inside of the B-17, “Wings of Freedom” tour volunteer and B-17 co-pilot Heather Penney was outside, fighting the good fight in attempting to keep the aircraft’s wings and fuselage free of fingerprints and smudges.

“When you get the opportunity to fly an aircraft like this, you can’t help but think about the generation of young men who flew across the English Channel in B-17s like this and helped save the world,” Penney said.

Their efforts came at a huge cost, she added. “The 8th Air Force lost more men in World War II than all of the U.S. Marine Corps,” she said. “But without their sacrifice, Operation Overlord — the Allied invasion of Europe — wouldn’t have been possible.”

Penney has personal experience with the concept of sacrifice. Although she made no mention of it during this interview, Penney is one of the first two fighter pilots ordered into the air over Washington, D.C., on Sept.11, 2001, after terrorist-commandeered airliners crashed into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon. She and the commanding officer of her Air National Guard fighter wing had orders to take down by any means possible the terrorist-controlled Boeing 757 carrying United Airlines Flight 93 back toward Washington, presumably to attack a fourth target. Because their F-16s lacked live ammunition and armed air-to-air missiles when they launched from Andrews Air Force Base, the plan was for Penney to fly her aircraft kamikaze-style into the tail section of the 757, while her commander crashed into the nose section. As it turned out, their willingness to sacrifice was trumped by the passengers of Flight 93, who rushed the flight deck and brought the plane down themselves over rural Pennsylvania.

Now a major in the D.C. Air National Guard, Penney said she mainly flies military Gulfstreams these days.

To qualify for co-piloting the B-17, a wide array of pilot ratings are required, including commercial, multi-engine and tail wheel certificates. “Then you start years of training on these aircraft,”she said.

Aside from flying the B-17, Penney said the best part of her job is being able to see World War II veterans who flew the same aircraft showcased in the “Wings of Freedom” during World War II reacquaint themselves with the flying machines. “They all seem to stand a little taller when they leave here than they did when they arrived,” she said.

The B-17 Penney co-pilots has led an interesting life, although it was manufactured too late for duty in World War II.

In 1952, after serving in an air-sea rescue squadron, the bomber was equipped with sensors and subjected to the effects of three nuclear explosions. After a 13-year “cool-down” period, the Flying Fortress was sold for scrap, and then plucked from the scrap heap by a restoration company that gave the B-17 a new 20-year career as a bomber — this time bombing forest fires with a fire-retardant slurry. The Collings Foundation bought the bomber in 1986 and restored it to its original wartime configuration.

The B-24 Liberator appearing in the “Wings of Freedom” program is the only restored aircraft of its type still flying. The Texas-made bomber was initially used by Britain’s Royal Air Force in the Pacific Theater, where it bombed Japanese warships and ports and dropped cargo to resistance fighters. At the end of World War II, the B-24 was abandoned in a scrap yard in India, only to be restored and made operational again by the Indian air force in 1948. The American-made bomber remained in use until 1968, when it was abandoned once more and left to rust for 13 years until a British collector bought it and resold it to Dr. Robert Collings of the Collings Foundation. Collings and the Foundation initially planned to restore the B-24 as a static display, but were convinced by former crewmen and their children to restore it to flying condition.

The restoration of the B-24 included the complete disassembly of the aircraft and restoration work on about 80 percent of its 1.2 million parts. It took five years and 97,000 hours of labor to get the Liberator in flying condition by the end of 1989.

The North American P-51C Mustang aircraft in the “Wings of Freedom” program was built in Texas and rebuilt in 2002-2003 to include a fully operational controls system in a back seat. The new configuration allows the P-51C to accommodate flight training, as well as single-passenger flights.

The “Wings of Freedom” show departed Parkersburg and arrived in Morgantown on Wednesday, where it will remain open to the public through noon today. Cost is $12 for adults and $6 for children under 12.

Thirty-minute flights aboard the “Wings of Freedom” B-17 and B-24 and flight training sessions aboard the Mustang can be arranged by calling 1-800-568-8924. After Morgantown, the next stop on the tour is Altoona, Pennsylvania.

For more information on the tour, flight fees, Wings of Freedom aircraft and their history, visit www.collingsfoundation.org.

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