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Memories take wing; WWII aircraft lasting links to time of sacrifice.

Byline: Michael PuttrE[umlaut]

The flight from Hyannis to Worcester Airport is loud and uncomfortable. There's a stiff breeze through the kitchen-window-sized open waist-gun ports. There's no beverage service. But you are free to move about the cabin, if you're svelte enough to squeeze through the bomb racks on the narrow catwalk over the bay doors.

The B-24 Liberator "Witchcraft" sortied yesterday from Barnstable Airport in the company of "Betty Jane," a P-51 Mustang escort fighter. Also on the mission was "Nine O Nine," a B-17 Flying Fortress. Blue skies, fair winds and a warm welcome awaited the warbirds in Worcester.

The three WWII-era aircraft are owned and operated by the Collings Foundation of Stow. Founded in 1979, the nonprofit organization is dedicated to the recovery, restoration and presentation of historic aircraft with an emphasis on warplanes. Since 1989, Collings' flagship event has been the Wings of Freedom Tour, centered around the foundation's pair of four-engine bombers.

This year, the organization has added a P-51 fighter to the mix. The three aircraft, plus assorted armored vehicles, vendors and veterans ready with a story are visiting the Worcester airport this weekend through Monday morning.

Aboard the "Witchcraft," Irving Lerner was content to occupy a seat near his old position at the flight engineer's station. A native of Brooklyn, his family moved to Worcester during the Depression.

After America entered WWII, Mr. Lerner saw his draft number looming and decided to enlist to at least get his choice of assignments. He signed up for the Army Air Corps, the precursor to the Air Force, because he wanted to avoid the infantry.

"I don't like mud," he said.

Mr. Lerner, 92, trained on B-24s but upon arrival in Italy in late 1943 he was assigned to a bomber group equipped with B-17s. The veteran staff sergeant recalls both aircraft fondly, saying what the B-17 lacked in speed and bomb load compared to the B-24, it made up for in toughness. However, on his 35th mission, with the target the synthetic oil plant in Blechhammer, Poland, his B-17 met its match.

"We were hit by three 88 flack shells," Mr. Lerner said, referring to rounds from a deadly German radar-directed anti-aircraft gun. "They killed the radio operator, the photographer and the ball-turret gunner. The radioman was a good friend of mine. I still think about him."

The hits crippled the aircraft and cut off the cockpit off from the rest of the plane. The commander activated the autopilot and signaled for the crew to bail out. Mr. Lerner rallied the crew in the back to prepare to abandon the aircraft, except for the bombardier, who wouldn't budge.

"He was new, he wouldn't put on a parachute," Mr. Lerner said. "I couldn't convince him, so we left him."

At its operating altitude near 30,000 feet, the air is freezing and oxygen-starved. Crews wear parkas and oxygen masks. On bailing out, a person can expect to pass out, perhaps regaining consciousness somewhere below 20,000 feet.

"This is the last thing I saw before I passed out from lack of oxygen," he said, peeling back his shirt to reveal a large tattoo, still bright, of a B-17 going down in flames on his left shoulder.

Mr. Lerner figures he came to about 1,000 feet and pulled his chute. The sharp jerk at that speed ripped both rotator cuffs. But he was alive. He was quickly captured and spent the next nine months as a prisoner of war.

Events like the Wings of Freedom Tour maintain that fraying link between the generation that experienced the greatest war in human history and the present. The nation heaped tremendous responsibility on the shoulders of brash youths in their early 20s. Those youths are now men in their 80s and 90s.

"The oldest guy in our crew was the pilot," said John Katsaros, another veteran B-17 flight engineer. "He was 23."

Mr. Katsaros, 89, a native of Haverhill, underwent an ordeal of his own after his B-17 was shot down by German fighters near Reims, France. During the mission, his 11th, his aircraft became separated from its group and hounded by a pack of Me-109s.

The survivors bailed out, but Mr. Katsaros' adventure was only just beginning. He was captured by the Gestapo. The French resistance killed the guards and liberated him. Over the next couple of months, he was tended by friendly French personnel, operated briefly as an intelligence agent under the codename "Burgundy," and was eventually smuggled over the Pyrenees into Spain.

Mr. Katsaros plans to be at the Worcester Airport today signing copies of his book "Code Burgundy: The Long Escape."

Walk-through tours of the B-17 and B-24 are $12 for adults and $6 for children under 12 (includes access to all aircraft). WWII veterans will receive guided tours at no charge.

For more information, visit the organization's website at www.collingsfoundation.org.

ART: PHOTO

PHOTOG: T&G Staff/PAUL KAPTEYN

CUTLINE: Irving Lerner, 92, a World War II veteran of the Army Air Corps, walks in front of a B-24 Liberator heavy bomber yesterday after a flight from Barnstable Airport on Cape Cod to Worcester Regional Airport.
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Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Sep 15, 2012
Words:863
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