Veterans recall WWII during flight
By Tony Graf firstname.lastname@example.org August 30, 2012 8:12PM
Updated: October 1, 2012 5:58PM
ROMEOVILLE — Joseph Belman returned to the wild blue yonder in a B-17 Flying Fortress. He observed the .50-caliber machine gun in the waist gunner’s position, and he recalled his first mission over Europe in World War II.
He remembered looking down at the soft white cloud cover, glowing in the sun.
“The sky was beautiful just as we were getting into Germany,” Belman said. “All of a sudden, I see a little puff of smoke coming up to us. Pretty soon, I see another one. Pretty soon, one came maybe around 20 to 30 feet away from where I was standing.”
Anti-aircraft fire — flak — was piercing the clouds.
“Somebody was shooting at us,” he said. “From the German guns down below.”
On Thursday, however, the skies over Romeoville were peaceful and free. And America can thank veterans like Belman for that.
Belman, of Lockport, and fellow veterans were treated to a flight in the B-17 “Aluminum Overcast,” taking off in the early afternoon from Lewis University Airport.
From Friday through Sunday, B-17 flights and ground tours will be offered at the airport, during an event hosted by Warbird Squadron 4. The Experimental Aircraft Association owns the plane.
Cost for ground tours are $20 per family (adults and children younger than 18); $10 for adults (free to veterans and active service members); and free for children younger than 8 accompanied by a paying adult.
On Thursday, veterans had the choice of flying or simply attending and observing the Aluminum Overcast. Before the flight, veterans shared their stories of service.
Don Shee, of Downers Grove, was a waist gunner on a B-17, flying missions over Europe in World War II. Shee served with the 8th Air Force in the U.S. Army Air Corps.
On one mission, Shee and his crew dropped food for people in the Netherlands. The mission was called Operation Chowhound.
“G.I.’s renamed it ‘Spam Over Amsterdam,’” Shee said.
Shee discussed another memory: His crew was prepared and had the guns loaded for a low-flying mission in support of Gen. George S. Patton and his tanks.
“We were all set to go, and had the engines started, and suddenly there were two red flares that came out of the tower, which meant the mission was scrubbed,” Shee said. “So we went back to debriefing — and found out that, where we were going to bomb, General Patton had already been there and gone. He was fast.”
Howard Jacklin, of Lombard, was a B-17 crew member who served stateside, from California to Florida, during World War II. He served with the 8th Air Force of the Army Air Corps.
Jacklin was trained for the ball-turret gunner’s position on the B-17. On Thursday, he observed the turret on the Aluminum Overcast, which reminded him of his training.
The ball turret is a round turret on the bottom of the plane. Inside the turret, the gunner can spin around horizontally, with a 360-degree range. He also can move up or down, and if necessary can face directly downward toward the ground.
Jacklin discussed the importance of the ball-turret gunner in overseas combat missions.
“The ball turret was very important because airplanes would come from the bottom, and come up at you. The rest of the plane couldn’t see them,” he said.
Belman also was a ball-turret gunner in World War II. The Lockport veteran, now in his late 80s, has taken this B-17 “Aluminum Overcast” flight for two years in a row.
During Thursday’s flight, he pointed out cables running overhead inside the plane. Those cables are for rudder and elevator control in the back.
Belman recalled that one cable was hit by flak on his second-to-last mission.
“As a result, the plane just tipped up, and went straight up,” he said.
The engineer, who was the top turret gunner, got down and grabbed the cables. During a crucial moment in the mission, the engineer had to hold the cables together.
“We were right over the target then, so it was a bad spot to be in,” he said. “He had to hang onto them until we got out, and started with evasive action.”
Belman does not remember exactly how the engineer eventually fixed the problem. However, he knows there was not much room between those cables.
In the last seven years, Warbird Squadron 4 has hosted the B-17 for the Experimental Aircraft Association — four times at Lewis Airport.
These are exciting flights. On Thursday, it was fun to see the plane’s shadow make the turn around a curve at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet.
Before returning to the airport, the B-17 flew over Lockport, with its high-level bridge and historic Powerhouse. This is Belman’s hometown. He fought to keep it free.
For more information, visit online at www.warbirdsquadron4.org or www.b17.org, or call 800-359-6217.