SALEM – While many people enjoyed a day off from work Monday, a pair of World War II veterans from the Salem area remembered some of the hardest, most dangerous work they had ever done as crewmen on a B-17 bomber.
Jeff Baker and Clark Cregger toured the Boeing B-17 “Movie Memphis Belle” at the Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport on Labor Day as part of The Liberty Foundation’s 2014 Salute to Veterans tour. The historic aircraft is one of only 13 B-17’s that still fly today.
“Memphis Belle” was built toward the end of the war and never saw any combat. It is painted in the colors and nose art of the original historic “Memphis Belle” B-17 that flew countless missions with the 91st bomb group of the mighty 8th Air Force, and was the first B-17 to complete 25 missions.
Baker, who had served as a waist gunner, and later as a toggleer (bombardier) in a B-17 during World War II, recalled the 18 missions he was a part of during the war. The battle that stood out most in his mind was “Black Thursday,” when Allied forces suffered heavy losses during a bombing run in the second raid on Schweinfurt, Germany on Oct. 14, 1943.
Baker joined the war effort in August of 1943, and served a total of nine years in the military. He said his first mission took him to Hamburg, Germany that same year. The objective that time was to destroy German submarines.
Cregger, who served as a radio operator aboard a B-17 in 21 missions, praised the “Flying Fortress” for its incredibly sturdy build and was excited to see the plane once again.
“It’s something else [to see it again],” he said. “It’s a good airplane. It looks flimsy, but it’ll get you home every time, even if it’s covered in bullet holes.”
For the second time in the last two years, Cregger not only toured, but also flew aboard the B-17, this time in an air tour of Roanoke at about 1,500 feet. He was appropriately seated in the radio operator’s quarters for the flight, which lasted about 30 minutes.
Prior to the flight, John Hess, volunteer pilot with The Liberty Foundation, reminded the crowd of local media, veterans, and spectators gazing through the fence to the runway about the sacrifice of the veterans and commented “how fortunate we are to have these veterans still with us today.”
Hess said the plane was the very same B-17 that starred in the 1990 “Memphis Belle” movie. He said it was chosen because of its realistic features, adding that the gun turrets still are operational.
Although the Monday tour and flights were only open to local media and veterans, Hess said the public would have the opportunity to take ground tours of the “Flying Fortress” for free on Friday, Sept. 5, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport.
Flights will also be offered to the public Sept. 6-7. Cost is $410 for Liberty Foundation members and $450 for non-members. Passengers can become a Liberty Foundation Member for $40 and receive the member discount for family and friends.
The Foundation acknowledged in a news release that although the cost for the approximately 30-minute ride may sound expensive, the cost of maintenance for the “Memphis Belle” must be taken into account. A B-17 flight cost is over $4,500 per flight hour, and The Liberty Foundation spends over $1.5 million annually to keep the B-17 airworthy and out on tour.
The Liberty Foundation is a 501(c)(3) non-profit. For more information, call Scott Maher at (918) 340-0243 or email email@example.com.