History aloft: WWII veteran reflects on serving in a B-17 over Europe

The B-17 Flying Fortress served in every World War II combat zone but is best known for daylight strategic bombing of German industrial targets.


By MIKE GENET | The Examiner, Independence, Mo. | Published: June 14, 2017

INDEPENDENCE, Mo. (Tribune News Service) — When Roy Shenkel rides aloft in a restored Boeing B-17 airplane Saturday, it will be far less dramatic than his last trip inside one of those bombers.

Staff Sgt. Shenkel, who turns 94 years old next month, was a waist gunner and had to jump out of his B-17 after it was hit by enemy fire over German-occupied Yugoslavia on April 6, 1944. The crew had been based in Italy.

After parachuting to the ground, he spent 13 months and one week as a prisoner of war before the Russians liberated his camp in the last days of World War II in Europe.

This B-17, dubbed the "Madras Maiden," is at Kansas City's Wheeler Downtown Airport this week, courtesy of the non-profit Liberty Foundation.

The group, based in Claremore, Oklahoma, is taking the plane around the country on a Salute to Veterans tour. It flew into Kansas City in preparation for the public tours and flights that will be offered Saturday and Sunday.

The B-17 was nicknamed the "Flying Fortress" because of its defensive firepower, and of the more than 12,000 produced between 1935-45, the Madras Maiden is one of just 12 that still fly.

"You're looking at the best; it took a beating," Shenkel, a native of Kansas City, Kansas, who now lives in Shawnee, said Monday after seeing the plane at Wheeler. "It's the best plane – not taking anything away from B-24. What I like – the sound of the engines. What a pretty airplane.

"I trained a lot, but I didn't get to use it much," Shenkel added, as his plane was shot down on its fourth mission.

The Madras Maiden was built in Burbank, California, in October 1944 but never saw combat, instead serving as a research and development aircraft during its military career until 1959. It was then sold and used as a cargo plane to haul fresh produce between Florida and the Caribbean, then sold again and used by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a fire ant sprayer.

From 1979 to 2014 it was purchased by three different aviation museums and restored back to its original look. The Liberty Foundation began operating the plane in 2016, continuing its mission to honor veterans and educate later generations about a piece of aviation history and part of the price of freedom.

Saturday and Sunday, flights of about 45 minutes over Kansas City will be offered from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. both days at Wheeler Downtown Airport, at $450 per person, or $410 for Liberty Foundation members. A B-17 Flying Fortress costs about $5,000 per flight hour, the foundation says, and keeping a B-17 airworthy and on tour costs at least $1.5 million annually.

Public tours after the flights, as well as viewing the flights from ground level, are free, though donations are accepted. Call 918-340-0243 to schedule a flight.

©2017 The Examiner, Independence, Mo.
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