He wore his very best poker face as he climbed carefully through the bomb-bay doors and into the fuselage, his grandsons scrambling in close behind. For my wonderful father-in-law, it had to have been an emotional moment. During World War II, Papa John had served with the 450th bomb group, a nose gunner in a B-24 Liberator like this one, making runs from Italy into southern Europe. Unlike many, he was fortunate enough to return, wed, raise a family and see his kids raise families of their own.
Ever since learning about the Fantasy of Flight museum, a private collection boasting what may be the world's largest assemblage of airworthy vintage aircraft, it had been my husband's goal to bring his father and our children together in the museum's display hangars in Polk City, near Orlando, Fla. Now, here they were ? Granddad, son and grandsons, in a brief but not-to-be-forgotten moment.
Even with its bomb racks empty, the bomb bay was a surprisingly small and cramped space. Between the racks, the only way forward to the flight deck and to his former battle station was a narrow girder, not even wide enough to be called a catwalk. Negotiating that, then hunching down, and finally crawling forward, Papa John advanced as far toward the nose turret as his now-creaky knees would let him, ultimately just far enough to brush aside a patch of spider webs and peer inside through its double hatch.
He had certainly had a good view from that position, as far forward as one could possibly be in an airplane, with only a bubble of a Plexiglas between him and the frigid, onrushing air. How had he folded himself, his parachute and other gear into that tiny space? How could he stay in that position for 10 or 12 hours? How did it feel to be shot at the first time? What did it feel like to climb back in for a second mission? A third? And what did you do to expel the thought that the next mission might be your last?
True to form, Papa John was a fount of knowledge about all things technical. He pointed out the dials and knobs and handles, explained their purpose and how they worked. Those things seemed to come back pretty easily. But how it all felt was more difficult to put into words, maybe even to remember.