100-year-old WWII British airman takes ride over Bakersfield in 80-year-old biplane
BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (Tribune News Service) — British-born World War II veteran Ron Holdsworth turned 100 in September.
But Holdsworth, who has lived in Bakersfield since 1954, made it clear Thursday morning he was not too old to climb into the open cockpit of a 1940s-era Boeing Stearman biplane and take flight over Bakersfield.
After Holdsworth gave a thumbs-up, pilot Molly Littlefield lifted the vintage aircraft off the tarmac and gave Holdsworth what she hoped would be the flight of his life.
“It’s been a privilege to provide these flights to members of the greatest generation,” said Littlefield, who has flown about 60 veterans aboard the restored, open-cockpit biplane.
“You look into their eyes and hear their stories,” she said.
It’s important for us to honor the World War II generation and to always remember what they did, what they sacrificed, she said.
“Because pretty soon it’s gone.”
Thursday’s flight out of Bakersfield Jet Center at Meadows Field Airport was just one of hundreds flown on behalf of Operation September Freedom, nonprofit Dream Flights’ last mission to honor members of the greatest generation with free flights aboard several restored WWII-era Boeing Stearman biplanes.
Since 2011, Dream Flights has honored more than 4,200 seniors and veterans with these and similar flights.
For Holdsworth, a resident of Brookdale Riverwalk, the flight was remarkable, but likely not as adrenaline-inducing as the 32 combat missions he served on as a rear gunner aboard a four-engine Halifax bomber for the British Royal Air Force.
Holdsworth had already served three years in Africa as an airplane mechanic before joining combat missions in 1944 as a bomber crewman.
“I left England in April ‘41 and got back in January ‘44,” he said. “I spent time in South Africa, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Kenya, Madagascar, Egypt.”
But the war changed for him in 1944, when he began flying six bombing missions over France, and 26 more over Germany.
On Christmas Eve 1944, Holdsworth and his fellow crew members were on a daytime bombing mission to target an industrial section of Germany’s Ruhr region.
“We were going to an airfield in the industrial Ruhr,” he recalled. “I believe we were flying over Duisburg when we got hit with the flak.”
Duisburg is a city in western Germany, at the junction of the Rhine and Ruhr rivers.
“Me being at the back, and the only one that faces the other way, I didn’t know what had happened,” he said in an English accent that hasn’t left him in 100 years.
“I felt the initial shock,” he remembered of the metal flak slamming into the plane’s fuselage and causing an oxygen canister to explode.
“At the time I thought I was going to be a guest of Adolf’s,” he said, referring to the infamous Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler and the fearful possibility that he might have to bail out.
But that didn’t happen and plane and crew limped back to England in one piece, but not before dropping its payload.
Deb Johnson, who heads up the California Veterans Assistance Foundation and is closely associated with Veterans of Foreign Wars 10859, was there Thursday to witness the flight.
As a veteran of the Gulf War who was deployed to Saudi Arabia, Johnson said it’s an honor to be involved in any way with veterans of World War II.
Both she and VFW California’s State Junior Vice Cmdr. Tim Bryant, who also attended, stressed the importance of impressing upon young Americans the value of knowing our history.
“I have two young girls,” Bryant said. “It’s important that they know what our veterans have done, and what our allies have done.”
With Thursday’s leg of Operation September Freedom completed, the 100-year-old guest of honor was asked whether he had any advice for other veterans who may be on the fence about going up on one of these Dream Flights.
Holdsworth didn’t skip a beat.
“Go for it,” he said. “I’d tell them to go for it.”
And when he was asked how it felt to add his autograph to the Stearman’s rudder, where scores of other vets had already signed, he grew quiet for a moment.
“It was something else,” he said. “It really was.”
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