Early one special morning last May, I was awakened by the alarm clock and bolted into readiness with excited anticipation. An hour later, my good friend Paul Josten and I greeted the sun on the concrete tarmac to help prepare for our flight aboard a B-17 Flying Fortress.
Seventy years earlier, to the day, members of the 447th Bombardment Group were being roused from their darkened shacks for a 6 a.m. briefing on the day’s mission to strike an aircraft repair depot in Zwakau, Germany.
My grandfather Loran Heeb flew 30 combat missions with the 447th BG, and thoughts of him already filled my head as we pushed the giant propeller blades through nine turns to distribute the oil in the Wright Cyclone engines; all four of them.
That same pre-flight ritual had been done daily on rain-soaked revetments that lined the Allied airfields scattered throughout England. Straining against pressure from the banks of cylinders, the prop blades left grooves on my palms as we strained to walk them through. I have no doubt the seasoned ground crews of the 447th BG would have been toughened – physically and mentally – to the point where such a chore would be without thought of the effort.
In fact, that very toughness defines a generation of veterans that answered their country’s call to service during World War II.
On this pleasant May morning, Paul and I were hitching a shuttle flight between Renton and Spokane, the longest B-17 flight I had ever taken. This was Paul’s first. By May 12, 1944, my grandfather had five combat missions under his belt and probably would have welcomed a milk run of just over 200 miles winding low through the foothills of Mt. Rainier and across the flatlands of Eastern Washington.
During the flight, I tried to imagine my grandfather leaning forward in his bulky flight suit, squeezed between the two pilots on the cramped command deck performing his duties as flight engineer, or scanning the skies through his Sperry top turret to catch a glimpse of the dreaded Hun in the Sun.
We didn’t need oxygen masks or walkaround tanks as we passed directly over the vintage airfield in Ephrata where the 447th BG was activated during the summer of 1943. I could almost see the dusty flightline covered by Boeing bombers lining up for training flights that helped forge our flyers into the most impressive fighting force the world had ever known.
I treasure the time I spent with my grandfather before he passed in 2000, and he definitely inspired my passion for planes. I recall visiting the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum with him and marveling at the life-size mural of a formation of Flying Fortresses by master aviation artist Keith Ferris. In 1985, we attended the 50th anniversary of the B-17 ceremonies in Seattle. We visited one of the members of his original crew together and went to many air shows where he told stories with a grinning gleam in his eye.
But more than that, my grandfather instilled in me a respect for our veterans. A respect I have worked hard to pass on to my own son, who I took with me to the 447th BG reunion last fall so he could really get to know some of the veterans in person and share their experiences through a week of museums and story swapping. To see Mitchell so quickly and completely befriended by the veterans four generations his senior absolutely filled my heart with pride. I know he shares my appreciation for our veterans on a very personal level now and that his great-grandfather would have gushed on about him as I do – with a grinning gleam in his eye.
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