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Veterans' memories take flight

Published: Sunday, Aug. 30 2015 12:26 p.m. MDT

Bill Drake, former pilot in command, talks about his days at the controls of a Consolidated B-24 Liberator in front of the plane at the Wings of Freedom Tour in Provo Monday. The tour, featuring the B-24, World War II vintage Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress and North American P-51 Mustang, stopped at the Provo Municipal Airport Monday. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News) Bill Drake, former pilot in command, talks about his days at the controls of a Consolidated B-24 Liberator in front of the plane at the Wings of Freedom Tour in Provo Monday. The tour, featuring the B-24, World War II vintage Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress and North American P-51 Mustang, stopped at the Provo Municipal Airport Monday. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News)

HEBER CITY — It was the middle of World War II, and Bill Drake was flying a B-24 from his base in Italy to his target in Vienna, Austria. As he approached, every gun was pointed at him.

"I had a pair of sunglasses shot off my face," said Drake, an 85-year-old Orem resident. His face, though, was not even scratched.

That was just one of many memories flooding Drake's mind as he stepped aboard the last flying B-24 at the Heber City Airport on Monday, entering such a plane for the first time since April 22, 1945.

The B-24, along with a vintage Boeing B-17 and a North American P-51 Mustang, flew from Heber to Provo as part of the 20th annual Wings of Freedom Tour put on by the Collings Foundation, a nonprofit educational organization devoted to supporting living history events to encourage learning by participation.

Robert Lewis, left, and Bill Drake shake hands as the two former pilots prepare for another flight in a B-24 plane. The Wings of Freedom Tour, featuring the World War II vintage Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, Consolidated B-24 Liberator and North American P-51 Mustang, stopped at the Provo Municipal Airport Monday.  (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News) Robert Lewis, left, and Bill Drake shake hands as the two former pilots prepare for another flight in a B-24 plane. The Wings of Freedom Tour, featuring the World War II vintage Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, Consolidated B-24 Liberator and North American P-51 Mustang, stopped at the Provo Municipal Airport Monday. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News)

Drake said his mission to Vienna was the scariest of the 20 missions he flew in the B-24.

After having his sunglasses shot off, he said, a shell left a 2-foot gash in the side of the plane and shattered his left boot. A crew member cut up a jacket and wrapped it around Drake's frozen foot.

"I got back in the seat and got back to work," he said. He hit his target and landed in Yugoslavia until help came.

Sitting outside the plane Monday, Drake said flying has been a passion of his since he was young. He remembered as a child nailing two sticks together perpendicularly and running around his yard, making it fly.

"I was born to fly," he said.

Hearing World War II veterans' stories is Jayson Owen's favorite part of the tour. The B-24 mechanic said it is hard to understand what veterans went through, but when people see the planes, they get some insight into what it was like.

View from the right waist gunner's window of the B-24 as it flies over the mouth of Provo Canyon. The Wings of Freedom Tour, featuring the World War II vintage Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, Consolidated B-24 Liberator and North American P-51 Mustang, stopped at the Provo Municipal Airport Monday.  (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News) View from the right waist gunner's window of the B-24 as it flies over the mouth of Provo Canyon. The Wings of Freedom Tour, featuring the World War II vintage Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, Consolidated B-24 Liberator and North American P-51 Mustang, stopped at the Provo Municipal Airport Monday. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News)

Owen said if the three planes were sedentary, only about 3,500 people would see them each year, but by touring 120 cities nationwide, about 3 million people see the planes annually.

"We have a little piece of their experience," he said. "There is so much history in each airplane."

Mark Henley, a P-51 Mustang pilot, said the tours help preserve the legacy of the war.

"If it weren't for these airplanes, half of the veterans' stories would go untold," he said.

And for Robert Lewis, a World War II veteran living in Sandy, that is true. He said he usually doesn't talk about the war because people don't understand what it was like.

But before boarding the B-24, he told of being a Navy airplane navigator looking over the Pacific Ocean for enemy submarines. He said the B-24 was the best airplane built in World War II.

View from the front right side of the B-24 plane as it flies over Provo. The Wings of Freedom Tour, featuring the World War II vintage Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, Consolidated B-24 Liberator and North American P-51 Mustang, stopped at the Provo Municipal Airport Monday.  (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News) View from the front right side of the B-24 plane as it flies over Provo. The Wings of Freedom Tour, featuring the World War II vintage Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, Consolidated B-24 Liberator and North American P-51 Mustang, stopped at the Provo Municipal Airport Monday. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News)

His granddaughter, Tori Olson, 34, was on the flight with him and started to tear up as the plane took off.

"It's emotional," she said, sitting on the plane's dusty floor. "The last time he was in here with this sound was the war."

Both veterans walked off the plane at Provo Municipal Airport and were greeted by family, friends and veterans wanting to hear about the flight.

"I keep checking my pacemaker to check if I'm alive, to see if this is real," Drake said with a smile. "I was real glad nobody was shooting at us."



Tours and flights

The planes will be in Provo through Tuesday for flights and tours.

The World War II vintage Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, left, and the Consolidated B-24 Liberator sit at Heber City Municipal Airport Monday. The Wings of Freedom Tour features the B-17, B-24 and North American P-51 Mustang.  (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News) The World War II vintage Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, left, and the Consolidated B-24 Liberator sit at Heber City Municipal Airport Monday. The Wings of Freedom Tour features the B-17, B-24 and North American P-51 Mustang. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News)

Tours of the planes cost $6 for children under 12 and $12 for adults.

Thirty-minute flights on the B-17 or B-24 are $425 per person. P-51 flights are $2,200 for a half-hour and $3,200 for a full hour.

For reservations and information, call 800-568-8924 or visit www.collingsfoundation.org.

E-mail: slenz@desnews.com

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