WWII veteran reunites with B-17 bomber

By AUDRIE PALMER | Midland Reporter-Telegram, Texas | Published: May 27, 2012

It's hard for John Campbell to talk about his history. When he relives different events now that bring back memories of the war, he changes the subject.

"Every time I think about what is missing, I start choking up. We had lots of good times together and we had lots of bad times," the 88-year-old Odessan said Saturday.

For three years during World War II, he served as a flight engineer and top gunner with the Air Force and flew in 35 missions over Europe on a B-17 bomber.

On Saturday, the "Texas Raiders" brought to West Texas one of those original planes.

The plane, one of only 11 flyable remaining in the world and one of nine in the United States, will be the star of the Commemorative Air Force's Memorial Day celebrations.

From 1935-45, officials said there were 12,731 B-17s in existence.

A full restoration took eight-and-a-half years and cost $600,000, said volunteers with the Gulf Coast Wing. The plane has been flyable and on display at air shows around the country since 2008.

Those wanting to ride in the authentic, vintage aircraft can schedule a half-hour trip with the Gulf Coast Wing, a non-profit organization.

Tickets for flights are $425 per person and $625 for a seat in the nose of the plane. Plane rides are scheduled at 2, 3 and 4 p.m. on Monday, officials said.

It was in a plane similar to the one in Midland this weekend, that Campbell made his missions. He survived three separate plane crashes with only minor scrapes and bruises. Only one crew member was ever seriously injured.

That was on Campbell's seventh mission, he said, when the navigator took a piece of flack to the face and punctured his jaw and cheek.

At last year's AirSho, Campbell rode in a B-17, his first time in one of the warbirds since his last mission on Feb. 9, 1945. He took a seat in the bombardier's chair because he said he never got to sit there before and saw the view of the Midland skyline.

It was from that seat that crew members of a bomber aircraft in World War II were responsible for the targeting of aerial bombs.

As a top turret gunner and flight engineer, his duties, Campbell said, were routine. He called off the air speed and operated the throttle.

He always was interested in planes and when he joined the military at the age of 18 in 1942, he was sent to engineering school in Seattle.

After he was discharged from the service, he worked in Houston and then settled in Odessa.

Getting close to the aircraft still causes Campbell to remember his WWII journey and he opted Saturday not to take a ride in the plane.

"I get choked up thinking about it, so I don't enjoy it," he said.

His son Scott, of Midland, though, took a ride in the plane on Saturday.

It's been only in the last 10 years that his dad, he said, has started to open up and share about his time in the war and talk of his experiences.

Climbing aboard the plane, one can imagine themself in the shoes of those who fought on the plane overseas. Original seats and weaponry are still intact; the rumble and roar of the plane can be heard as you pass over the Tall City.

For Scott Campbell, Saturday's flight in the B-17 bomber was one of several he's taken over the past couple of years.

Sitting in the seats of the plane causes him also to reminisce — but in a different way.

"It makes me think about all the sacrifices those in the military made," he said.