JOPLIN, Mo. —
The engines on the B-17 rumble to life one after another. The smell of smoky oil filters into the radio room through the bomb bay doors. Overhead, cables vibrate like strings on a cello.
The vibration intensifies and the plane lumbers forward to the runway. Before takeoff, the pilot stops the plane and puts it at full throttle. The massive propellers rock the plane. The plane is then thrust down the runway for a takeoff that is as smooth as silk.
Richard La Near and his father, Ken, are in the nose of the plane. This would be the first time in nearly 70 years that Ken had been in the bombardier’s seat of a B-17. For him, Friday’s flight over Joplin would be Mission No. 22 — and his last.
For Richard, a veteran of Vietnam, the flight brought him much closer to understanding his father’s role in World War II and how lucky his father was to be among the airmen who survived.
“I had heard his stories, but this gave me a chance to see what he went through. This was a great thrill for me,’’ Richard said. “I didn’t know that the airmen had the worst casualty rate in the war — higher than the Marines in the Pacific.’’
Riding in the nose, the La Nears had a panoramic view of Joplin. They were invited to fly together by the Commemorative Air Force (CAF) Aviation Museum of Arizona because of Ken’s combat experience in the B-17.
Frank Pervanger, with the CAF, said, “This is why we fly this airplane — to honor these men. We intend to fly this plane and honor them for as long as we can.’’
Ken said, “It was pretty neat to be up there. I forgot what an old slow dog it was. But, it was one of the toughest planes they ever had. We would always come back with holes in them. They would put aluminum patches on them and send them right back up.’’
But there was one flight — his last combat mission in the air war over Europe — in which he almost did not come back.
“That’s the flight where we caught hell,’’ Ken said. “We had to fly over Linz, Austria, which was a mean mother because of the anti-aircraft guns.’’
Linz was heavily fortified because it was the boyhood home of Adolph Hitler. The chief architect of the Holocaust, Adolph Eichmann, was from there, too. The town also had an oil plant.
“They beat the tar out of us. We took a hit in the bomb bay at 25,000 feet,’’ Ken said. “It severed the control cables and we veered off to the left in a dive. We were fully loaded and going down at 300 mph.
“At 3,500 feet, the pilot picked us up and we were flying level. The formation, it was usually eight planes, went off and left us,” he said.
The propellor on the No. 3 engine was damaged. Its speed could not be controlled. The prop shaft overheated and locked up. For them to make it back to Foggia, Italy, where the flight originated, they had to drop as much weight as possible.
“We dropped our load, but one 500-pound bomb got hung up. As the armament boy, I was ordered to free that bomb. I straddled the bomb and beat on a shackle to get it to drop.
“When a bomb drops, the plane lurches up. When the plane lurched up I fell out, but I managed to grab a big rope on the catwalk with one hand. The crew chief grabbed me with one hand and pulled me back inside.’’
He did not have a parachute.
The plane flew over the Adriatic Sea on its return trip to Italy. It would land with flat tires. The mission, which was in May 1945, would be the plane’s last and the last for Ken. Germany would surrender within a few weeks.
“I was a funny duck. I never got scared or afraid in combat. It never bothered me,’’ he said. “It was when you got back and you went through the briefing and what had happened — that’s when I felt it. I got scared on my cot thinking about the day and whether we would go up again the next day.’’
The psychological battle was tough for the 10-member crews. Ken, now 88, was 19 when he flew his first mission.
“We lost two guys. They were scared to death. They just froze up,’’ he said. “They had to go because they could get you hurt if they didn’t go. One of them was a radio operator who I really liked. He grabbed onto the radio table so tightly his hands turned white. He would not let go.’’
Ken had another close call. He nearly froze to death. The crew wore electrified wool suits that would keep them warm. As the plane gained altitude, the suits would warm up. His suit did not warm up. The temperature inside a B-17 could fall to 70 degrees below zero.
“I told the pilot what was happening. He radioed back to see whether he could turn back. He was told he couldn’t turn the plane back for one man,’’ Ken said. “The pilot worked with the fuses and got it to work or I would have frozen to death.’’
In another close call in a bombing run over Berlin, the waist gunner came face to face with the future of combat aviation — a German fighter jet.
“We were flying with the Tuskegee air boys who were in P-51s. We were hit by jets. One of them flew up beside me. He was so close I could shake hands with him,’’ he said. “He was 200 feet away before I remembered I was supposed to be shooting at him. He waved at me and I started firing. I followed him all of the way down.
“He hit the ground in a big ball of fire. I never saw a parachute. Since we were in the last plane and no one saw it but me, I did not get credit for shooting down a German jet. You had to have a witness.’’
Hearing the stories, Richard, who is now 67, thinks back to his younger years when he would play war with his buddies and use his father’s old helmet liner as gear.
“He was glad for me to play with his stuff,’’ Richard said. “As I was growing up, I was not smart enough to ask about those things. It was when I became an adult that I started querying him about different things.
“I remember him telling me that the worst thing they had to endure — besides being shot at — was the cold,’’ Richard said. “He has told me he does not want to be cold ever again.
“They knew they might not come back every time they went up, but he never dwelled on that,” Richard said.
Growing up, he and his father would travel to Civil War battlefields and “have these conversations about what had happened. We shared these conversations because we have a love of history.
“And, we both love this country so much that we were willing to give our lives. We both are still very patriotic. He instilled that love of country in me.’’
Having a chance to fly in a B-17 with his father, he said, “reinforces my relationship with him and makes me even more proud of him.’’
When Ken thinks about the airmen who do not survive the war and did not have the chance to have a loving family like the one he has today, he pauses to reflect.
With tears in his eyes, he said, “God has been good to me in so many ways. It was like he shielded me. I feel awfully blessed, and that he was too good to me and not as good to somebody else.’’
The B-17 Flying Fortress can be seen from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. today at the Mizzou Aviation and Alpha Air Center. Activities will include tours and rides on the B-17 for a fee, static aircraft displays and hands-on educational activities for children and adults. General admission is free to the public.