Restored B-17 brings WWII veterans back to the clouds
By JORDAN NAILON | The Chronicle, Centralia, Wash. (Tribune News Service) | Published: May 11, 2017
OLYMPIA — The Aluminum Overcast is a magnificently restored B-17 Flying Fortress bomber that shimmers in the sunlight as its four prop engines roar to life. The historic aircraft is one of just 13 B-17s left from a wartime fleet of some 12,731 planes that can still fly.
The captivating aura of the old war plane is readily apparent, particularly when viewed and touched by World War II veterans who remember what the Flying Fortress bombing missions meant for the war effort in the European theatre.
Like the fleet of operational airplanes though, that contingent of veterans with service time aboard a B-17 has steadily declined over the years as the cruel hand of time remains undefeated. While their flight jackets may not fit quite like they used to, for the veterans who are able to lay eyes on the Aluminum Overcast, the rust falls right off the hinges to the old memory bank.
From May 12-14, the B-17 will be at the Olympia Regional Airport at the Olympic Flight Museum, where the public will be able to speak with that dwindling but vibrant cast of veterans and take touring flights on the well-preserved aircraft.
On Wednesday, The Chronicle and other members of the media were invited by the Cascade Warbirds and Experimental Aircraft Association for a round of courtesy flights in the rarified company of those World War II veterans, and the wartime stories came pouring out like bombs from the open belly of a B-17.
Louis Stoffer, 92, of Centralia, was one of the veterans on hand. Stoffer was a top gunner and engineer who flew a full 35 missions during his service, but he said one mission in particular comes to mind each time he sees a B-17 up close. On that particular mission, Stoffer’s plane wound up crashing headlong into an oak forest shortly after takeoff. Fully loaded with fuel and bombs, the airplane exploded just minutes after Stoffer was helped off the plane, while two of his crewmates perished in the accident.
“It was kind of harrowing and that keeps haunting me to this day is why I survived and they didn’t,” Stoffer said. “When I go to Europe I always go to (David) Flores’ grave and I tell him, ‘You missed it all.’ He was just a 20-year-old guy and he missed it all.”
Time and time again, Stoffer circles back to reiterate how terrifying of an experience flying over enemy territory was. Nazi fighter planes were always a lingering fear, but Stoffer says that the threat of exploding projectile flak was what twisted the guts of most airmen. As Stoffer recalls, the 88 mm shells were launched 6 miles high in a pattern “a mile wide and a mile deep” by German troops who affixed timed exploding devices so that the rounds would splinter and inflict maximum damage.
“They’d get two or three shots at you flying through that mess and by the end you didn’t know how a fly lived through it,” said Stoffer, who recalls flights over Berlin as being the most heavily fortified with anti-aircraft artillery.
Stoffer was a member of the 8th Air Force, from 398th Bomb Group and the 600th squadron. By coincidence, Fred Parker, 93, of Lacey, was a hard-fighting member of the same outfit. Although they did not know each other during the war, Stoffer says he and Parker became acquainted about a decade ago at a luncheon for veterans in Seattle.
“We started out with 10 guys but we only have three or four now,” lamented Stoffer.
As luck would have it, the Aluminum Overcast was painted with the insignia of the 398th Bomb Group during its restoration, which was a particular treat for both Stoffer and Parker.
Parker was a tail gunner who speaks with the cadence and candor of a man familiar with the unsavory radio chatter and the inside of a military barracks. When he gets close to the Aluminum Overcast, though, his tone takes on a notable reverence.
“It brings back a lot of memories. Most of them are good because I’m still alive,” said Parker with a chuckle that seemed to mask the pain of losing so many of his brothers in arms during the war effort. “I figure this plane saved my life. It could take a beating and still get you home. We never came home with all four engines running.”
As a tail gunner, Parker had a completely different perspective on life above the clouds than the rest of the crew. Often, it would be up to him to call out the blindingly fast approach of Nazi fighter planes as they snuck up from the rear of the Flying Fortress formation. He said the opportunity to engage a fast-flying fighter plane was a fleeting prospect that lasted only a matter of seconds at best.
“It’s just a spot. Then you see a flash and they are gone,” recalled Parker.
The regrettable fact that the war machines themselves are likely to outlast the men who made them go is not lost on Brandon Edwards, veteran’s liaison for the Cascade Warbirds.
“I just felt the need to honor our veterans was important,” said Edwards, who helps to coordinate the availability and transportation of veterans to events and services, particularly once they are no longer able to drive themselves.
The son of Kerry Edwards, a Vietnam veteran who sits on the board of directors for the Cascade Warbirds as the head of public relations, Brandon Edwards knows firsthand how important it is to recognize those who dedicated themselves to selfless military service. Moreover, he strives to make personal connections with each of the veterans he meets.
Edwards said that he first met Dick Nelms, a former pilot from Mercer Island who flew 35 missions in a B-17, about a year ago at a similar media event.
“He got off the aircraft after that media flight and he was like, ‘I feel 50 years younger,’” said Edwards while imitating the 94-year-old Nelms with an exaggerated double arm flex. “That’s my reward right there.”
Edwards said it is his calling to help spread the stories of military veterans like Stoffer, Parker and Nelm, as well as those who are no longer here to tell their own tales. It is a time sensitive mission too, because he knows that the very last of the Greatest Generation will likely all be gone within the next decade.
“It falls to us in our generations to learn about what they did and pass those lessons and values on,” said Edwards. “These guys are the finest example I can choose.”
Ken Wheeler, 94, of Gig Harbor, was another veteran on hand Wednesday with stories to tell.
“I was a navigator,’ said Wheeler. “The pilot flew the plane, alright, but we told him where to go and how to get there and back.”
As the plane taxied on the runway in Olympia Wednesday, Wheeler delved deep into his most lasting memories from his time aboard a live fire B-17 during World War II. Wheeler said on one bombing mission to Poland, his plane wound up losing the function of two of its engines mid-flight. The trek back to the air base required an ascent over the Dinaric Alps, but with just two of four engines, the aircraft struggled mightily to maintain the necessary altitude. Wheeler said he and the rest of the crew began tossing all of the gear they could from the plane, including guns and ammo, in an effort to lighten the load.
“At that point we were just praying that the Germans didn’t find us,” recalled Wheeler.
Those efforts would prove futile as the plane made the final approach to the peak of the Alps when the third engine caught fire and flying back to safety ceased to be an option.
“The pilot came over the radio then and said, ‘Let’s get the hell out of here!’” remembered Wheeler, who wound up bailing out of the front of the plane and utilizing his parachute. “I knew what I was doing but I said a little prayer on the way out. I don’t care if you’re an atheist or what, in a time like that you’ll take any help you can get.”
Safe from free fall but still neck deep in trouble, Wheeler’s parachute wound up snagged in a tree about 30 feet above the ground at about 12,000 feet of elevation. The terrain reminds Wheeler of the Paradise area of Mount Rainier with its thick alpine woods and snow-covered ground. Unable to cut himself loose or swing himself far enough over to reach a tree and shimmy his way down, Wheeler was afraid he would wind up a defenseless hanging target for enemy forces in the area. When he saw movement nearby, he feared the worst and remained as silent as possible from his dangling perch. As the figure drew closer, still unaware of Wheeler’s precarious presence, he realized it was the radio operator from his jettisoned aircraft.
“When he got right under me I called out to him and he just about came out of his boots,” laughed Wheeler.
With the aid of his crewmate’s knife, Wheeler was finally able to cut himself free. Not nearly out of the woods yet though, he and the radio operator wound up finding one other crew member shortly thereafter and spent the first night huddled under a fir tree with drooping branches from the snow that provided some semblance of cover. Over the next two weeks, the harried trio walked down the mountainside while actively evading enemy forces before being rescued.
Despite that gut-wrenching experience, Wheeler said he still gets a stimulating feeling that is difficult to describe to those out of the know when he has the opportunity to see a B-17 Flying Fortress up close or go for a flight like he did on Wednesday.
“It’s like having a piece of cake all over again,” said Wheeler. “I love to fly.”
Disembarking from the Aluminum Overcast, Wheeler strolled around to the front of the airplane to show the hatch that he had once been forced to take a leap of faith from.
“It was a helluva career, the whole Air Force story,” said Wheeler. “I love this old bird.”
Paid flights aboard the Aluminum Overcast will be available to the public based on demand this Friday, Saturday and Sunday with ground tours offered each day until 5 p.m. The Olympic Flight Museum is offering a special discounted admission for this visit. There is a small charge with a special family rate for visitors who want to walk through the aircraft on the ground.
Additional information on the Aluminum Overcast and flight booking information can be found online at www.eaa.org or by calling 800-564-6322. The Cascade Warbirds website can be found at www.cascadewarbirds.org.
©2017 The Chronicle (Centralia, Wash.)
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Fred Parker points to where he would sit in the tail while serving in the U.S. Air Force on a B-17 Flying Fortress during World War II. On Wednesday, May 10, 2017, Parker, along with several other WWII veterans, were on hand at the Olympic Flight Museum to share their experiences about serving on the plane.
PETE CASTER/THE CHRONICLE