Friday, May 23, 2014

B-17 Crews--From the 91st Bomb Group--Gather to Remember

Ace Johnson and Don Freer flew B-17s over Germany during World War II. They visited the Moffett Museum as part of their reunion.

Members of the 91st Bomb Group gathered at Moffett Field this week for a reunion. The men and their crews flew B-17s over Germany, out of Bassingbourn, England, during the toughest years of World War II.  

All of them, on this Memorial Day Weekend, remember the men who didn't make it back.

The World War II veterans and their families timed their reunion to coincide with the visit of the Collings Foundation's planes to Moffett Field. This is a B-17 like the one these vets knew well.

Ace Johnson was just 19 years old and on his sixteenth mission when he flew the "Yankee Belle" on a bombing run over Germany, February 3, 1945. When the aircraft was hit by antiaircraft flak and caught fire, all nine of the crew got out and were able to parachute to what was laughingly called "safety" on enemy ground below. For all, including Johnson who was injured, that meant capture and imprisonment at Stalag 7A. They were liberated several long months later by General George S. Patton's 3rd Army.

Don Freer, 92, was in the B-17 "Easy Does It" when his aircraft was hit and he too ended the war in a prison camp. His parachute brought him down in a German forest where his collision with the trees broke his collar bone, dislocated both of his knees and damaged his feet and ankles. "I passed out," he said with a smile. "Just me and the German snow." Still, though his injuries still plague him today, he feels like a lucky man. Two other members of his crew were killed. 

William Hanna, 93, of the 91st Bomb Group, has an amazing story to tell. 

By the time I met William Hanna, of the Flying Fortress "The Liberty Run," I figured he, too, must have been shot down and captured. "Nope," says Hanna, with a grin. "I got home okay." He does not suggest he was the superior aviator. "Luck had everything to do with it, for all of us." He gives the credit for winning the war to British pilots who fought the Germans alone for two years before America declared war in 1941.

(In fact, the British haven't forgotten the Americans. For this reunion, the British Embassy in Washington, D.C., sent along a diplomat to speak at the group's reunion dinner.)

William Hanna, by the way, had quite a career. Not only did he manage to stay out of a German prison camp, he flew 32 World War II missions, including one on D-Day, June 6, 1944. He was called up again, in 1948, when the Russians blockaded Berlin, flying DC-3s loaded with food and fuel in the Berlin Airlift, thus keeping hunger and cold from the doors of the very people who had been trying to kill him just three years before. 

I don't single out these three men because they are more special than the others. They are just the few I was able to meet in the short time at hand. There were stories everywhere: I also met the son of another pilot who joined the gathering to honor his dad. The father flew with the 91st and survived the war but remained in the Air Force and was killed in a post-war crash. 

Thanks to the volunteers of the Moffett Historical Society Museum--almost all of them veterans as well--for hosting the 91st and making the pilots and their stories available to me. As one volunteer pointed out: "It took a long time for the veterans of World War II to begin telling their stories." 

Next month will be the 70th anniversary of D-Day: in 2015 we mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. All of these veterans and their comrades--from those who tuned the engines, to those who manned the hospitals, to those who typed the letters home to grieving familes--all of them deserve our thanks. 
Ace Johnson poses with the author at Moffett Field. 

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Cynthia Riordan said...

Thanks, Robin, for a blog well worth reading because it reminds us of the remarkable men who risked their lives to save Europe and help bring millions out of German occupation.

Laurence said...

I badly wanted to come but sneaky health issues prevented it. My father, Major Harold C. Smelser, was the first CO of the 324th. He had to keep a tight rein on Robert Morgan in training and Morgan never forgave him for it.
My father's plane was shot down off St. Nazaire on November 23, 1942 and all were lost. I have recently reconciled with the family of Egon Mayer, the German ace who brought the plane down.
If I had been to the reunion, could have told the group about my mother's evening with Clark Gable, who was asked to escort her to the officer's club just after my father went missing. Gable was in Spokane at Ft. Wright for gunnery training. He told her that when "Your old man returns, please come and visit." Sadly that was not to happen.