Weekly Feature

2017-08-09 / Editorials

Visit of World War II bomber rekindles priceless memories

Managing Editor

History filled the air Monday morning as one of the last remaining airworthy B-17 bombers flew into Western New York, with a member of the “Greatest Generation” there to experience it firsthand.

Dubbed the “Madras Maiden,” the four-engine plane is operated by the Liberty Foundation based in Oklahoma. There were a total of 12,732 B-17s produced between 1935 and May 1945. Of these, 4,735 were lost in combat.

Madras Maiden was built by Lockheed-Vega and accepted by the United States Army Air Force in October 1944. It was assigned to the Flight Test Branch at Wright Field in Ohio and modified to be a Pathfinder aircraft and equipped with a relatively new radar system in place of the ball turret. From 1944 to 1959, the aircraft spent its entire military career as a research and development aircraft. From the B-17s that were converted to become Pathfinder aircraft, it is the only one left in existence.

Today, only 12 of Boeing’s famous bombers remain intact, and the Madras Maiden is one of only nine that can still fly, according to Jim Lawrence, one of the group’s accredited pilots. He should know; he flew single-seat fighters during a 39-year military career that led him to combat missions in Southeast Asia, Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq.

The bomber will be based at Prior Aviation adjacent to the Buffalo Niagara International Airport this week. Public flights and tours will take place Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 12 and 13. Flights are $450 per person, although guests may become Liberty Foundation members for $40 and receive a member discount of $40 for family and friends.

One special guest during Monday’s media flights was a gentleman who already paid his dues.

Roy Phillips, 92, of Royalton, was invited to fly aboard the Madras Maiden. He called it “the trip of a lifetime.”

“My battalion went in at Omaha Beach on D-Day plus one,” he said. “I was in five major battles. We were an anti-aircraft battalion. We didn’t fly in these big planes; we shot them down.”

The U.S. 381st Bomb Group supported the Normandy invasion by hitting bridges and airfields near the beachhead.

He recalled seeing literally thousands of B-17s flying overhead, headed for critical missions in Nazi-occupied European cities. Lawrence related a similar story told to him by pilots long since departed.

“They said you could stand on the White Cliffs of Dover and watch planes fly overhead for four or five hours without a break,” he said.

After his gun crew was wiped out in a German attack, Phillips was awarded the Purple Heart.

This week, standing in the shadow of a piece of American history,

Phillips spoke of the men with whom he served.

“Most of my buddies are all gone now,” he said. “I remember those guys every day of my life. I hope people will always remember us.”

The foundation estimates that

1,500 World War II veterans pass away each day.

“With each death, another story of courage, honor and sacrifice is lost forever. This aircraft represents that legacy of courage and valor,” it states.

“The guys who flew these planes were 17, 18, 19 years old,” Lawrence said. When they climb inside today, they feel the same way. They feel like kids. And they all knew there was an 80 percent chance of not coming home.”

For more information on the group, visit www.libertyfoundation.org.

(David F. Sherman is managing editor of Bee Group Newspapers and a columnist for the Weekly Independent Newspapers of Western New York, a group of community newspapers with a combined circulation of more than 200,000 readers. Opinions expressed here are those of the author. He can be reached at dsherman@beenews.com.)

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