The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Local News

June 12, 2013

VIDEO: Veteran, with help of son, checks out B-17 at Joplin airport

JOPLIN, Mo. — Boone Neal Ruff gently passed his 96-year-old fingers over the skin of Sentimental Journey, a B-17 Flying Fortress. Riveted aluminum was something he had touched a long time ago when the world was at war.

“It was a wonderful airplane that did a wonderful job over there,” he said.

When asked if he wanted to go up in the plane, he said, “No. I’ve had enough flying.”

Ruff was a World War II fighter pilot in the Pacific. He knew about the Boeing B-17 and its role in Europe, but he knew a lot more about the Consolidated B-24 bomber, which saw plenty of action in the Pacific.

Still, he was happy that his son, David, had brought him to the Joplin Regional Airport on Wednesday to see the plane. For Ruff, it truly was a sentimental journey.

Climbing up a ladder to peek inside the plane, Ruff could identify where the plane’s crew sat, and he knew a thing or two about the .50-caliber machine guns on board.

But it also brought back memories of a time when many young men took to the skies and never came back. He recalled how his P-47 fighter was nearly brought down by enemy gunfire that caused an oil leak. His Pratt & Whitney engine locked up as he was touching down on the runway.

“My wingman told me he could see oil on the underside of the plane,” he said. “I throttled down to save oil and radioed ahead for an emergency landing. I had less than a cup of oil left when I landed. The P-47 holds 40 gallons of oil. It was a dead-stick landing. To this day, I believe that 18-cylinder Pratt & Whitney engine saved my life.”

Another pivotal moment that Ruff recalled was a flight on Aug. 9, 1945.

“I was on a mission about 100 miles from Nagasaki,” he said. “I saw this bright flash to the side. The sun was shining, and this light was brighter than the sun. We later saw this mushroom cloud tower above us.”

The mission was so secret at the time that it was not until later that he would learn that he had witnessed the detonation of “Fat Man,” a plutonium bomb.

“It was over within a few minutes,” said Ruff, who could be among the last surviving witnesses to the last major act of World War II. The Japanese would surrender within days.

As he walked around Sentimental Journey, Ruff said, “The kids today need to be educated a little about the war and things along those lines.”

Mel Tiensvold, the captain of the plane, said that is the mission of Sentimental Journey. It is a flying museum that visits as many as 60 cities in a year. The plane will be in Joplin until Sunday to support some local residents and aviators who want to create a Freedom of Flight Museum at Joplin’s airport.

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