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Florida World War II veterans soar in B-17 bomber

Jimmy Knox, 89, left, and Angelo Yerace, 92, both World War II veterans, took a Veterans Flight on Thursda in a B-17G Flying Fortress. The event was organized by the Sara Desoto chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Fort Myers-based Collings Foundation.

CARLOS R. MUNOZ/THE SARASOTA HERALD TRIBUNE (TNS)

By CARLOS R. MUNOZ | The Sarasota Herald-Tribune (Tribune News Service) | Published: February 8, 2018

VENICE, Fla. — World War II veteran Jimmy Nixon stood up from his seat on the floor of a B-17G bomber, placed his hands at the top of a window and peered out. The 89-year-old man has flown single and double engine planes and Lear jets for decades, but he never felt the rumble of an old four-engine heavy bomber in the air.

Toward the front of the plane, Angelo Yerace, 92, his neighbor for the past 10 years in Osprey, Fla. and fellow WWII veteran, joined him on the Veterans Flight that was sponsored by the Sara Desoto Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Their old warbird was operated by Collings Foundation, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit that preserves WWII aircraft.

The Collings Foundation visited Page Field in Fort Myers Thursday as part of its "2018 Wings of Freedom Tour," which offers rides on four different warbirds: a B-17G, a B-24 Liberator, a B-25 Mitchell, and a P-51 Mustang.

The 30-minute flights cost between $400 and $450 per person, while the Mustang flight was offered for $2,200 for 30 minutes or $3,200 an hour.

Yerace's neighbor told him about the Veterans Flight and referred him to Mary Lou McFate, the volunteer coordinator who organized the trip. He "begged" Nixon to go with him, but in reality, Nixon never thought about saying no to the once-in-a-lifetime flight.

Nixon, a former Navy Seaman First Class, has been a pilot since he was discharged in 1947. He flew Lear jets and has owned six planes in his lifetime. He flew a sport plane his son, who died in a plane crash, bought when he was 24.

Nixon, who has deteriorating vision, quit piloting planes two years ago, and sold his son's plane last year. The man who bought it said he would keep his son's hand-printed, gold leaf signature on the aircraft.

Nixon and Yerace arrived at Page Field an hour before flight time Thursday. They explored every part of the B-17G before take off.

Both veterans were very familiar with the four radial engine heavy bomber's role during the war, and both credited it with saving their lives.

When asked what it was like to see the plane fly over during the war, Nixon said, "That somebody was in trouble because they were going all the time. They are a good airplane — a solid airplane. I guess without them we would have probably lost the damn thing. They could come in there and drop the bombs and go. Then, we'd stay in there and clean up the mess they made."

Yerace was a Navy motor machinist who was aboard a landing craft headed across the English Channel to deliver heavy equipment to the beachheads of Normandy, France during the D-Day Invasion.

His boat, which was much like a barge, struck a mine, sending the 18-year-old sailor running for safety behind some meager signal flag boxes.

"I was only 18 years old. I was scared-er than hell," said Yerace, remembering the moment the mine exploded. "It just felt like something hit us and felt like we had run into another ship."

The heavy equipment they were carrying took the brunt of the blast and saved his shipmates' lives. They tied up to another ship and made it ashore, where they saw the D-Day carnage.

"We got on the beach and all you could see was dead soldiers laying along the breach," Yerace said. "It was terrible."

He later took another landing craft back to England and returned to Cherbourg, France with more equipment.

Yerace admits the B-17 flight stirred up memories he didn't want to talk about.

Inside the plane, the 92-year-old warrior walked around the bouncy aircraft like a young man. He peered out the window at a P-51 Mustang that was accompanying the plane on the first part of the journey.

Yerace walked a slim catwalk over the front bomb doors, holding a pair of guide ropes to the front turret area.

When he returned to his seat he sat down next to a young boy who discovered the Yerace's military past and bombarded him with questions about WWII. The boy said it was "awesome."

The veteran smiled and told the boy about the war. Many others approached Nixon and Yerace on the trip for photos and to offer their thanks.

Nixon, still in the belly of the lumbering bomber that was surprisingly smooth in the air, stayed at the window until the Venice landing strip came into view.

The 89-year-old wasn't drafted like Yerace was. He was 16 when his friends left; he felt alone and an obligation to join them.

Nixon faked his paperwork using a baptismal certificate he took from a pastor who looked the other way. He filled it out with "trumped up information and everything."

Another man in line at the recruiter's office was turned away with a wrinkled, but legitimate birth certificate. They accepted Nixon and sent him to maritime training in Brooklyn. He later joined an Army transport and was sent to the Philippines where he celebrated his 17th birthday.

He also spent time in Okinawa.

Nixon returned from the war and joined a police department to "make up for the lies I told."

Standing next to the B-17G, Nixon, with a grin, said "I have a license to fly that."

The men de-planed and they were immediately wrapped in the arms of Yerace's daughter.

Yerace called the flight "amazing."

"I remember them making a lot of noise dropping bombs," Yerace said of wartime.

His daughter Pamela Sigmund said she was glad her dad, with her approval, could fly in the bomber.

"I knew he would love it," Sigmund said. "He okayed it with me. I showed him the YouTube video and once he saw it he said, 'I'm going on that.'"

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