World War II planes bring back memories.
It's been 67 years since Ken D. Blake of West Brookfield has set foot on the deck of a B-24 Liberator, from when he was a gunner on the heavy bomber during World War II.
On Sept. 23, he and his wife, Barbara, will be aboard a Liberator, the only one of its kind still flying, on its inbound flight to Worcester Regional Airport at the start of the Collings Foundation's 22nd annual Wings of Freedom Tour and display of vintage World War II aircraft, including a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, the Liberator and a P-51 Mustang fighter plane.
Barely 19 years old, Mr. Blake flew on his first mission from his base in southern Italy to the oil fields of Ploiesti in Romania, heavily defended by German fighter planes and anti-aircraft gun emplacements.
"They woke me up at 4 a.m. and told me to get my parachute and Mae West and the rest of my gear. They told me we were going to Ploiesti. It was relatively uneventful - the anti-aircraft fire was intense, and yes, it was scary. The next day, we went to the sub pens in France, and I made a perfect ass of myself, coming off-target. I said that wasn't so bad and one of the guys climbed all over me, as the anti-aircraft fire we had to fly through a little later was very intense," said Mr. Blake, adding that the bomber could carry up to 10, 500-pound bombs on an average mission.
Then followed missions to France, Austria, Hungary, Germany, Yugoslavia and Greece aboard the "Shirley Jean." The plane was named after the pilot's girlfriend; Mr. Blake says the crew was not asked to vote on it. He manned a .50-caliber Browning machine gun that stuck out one of the windows.
The temperature inside the plane fell to 30 below at more than 10,000 feet, and crew members wore gloves so their hands would not stick to the metal of the plane and guns.
His last flight on the B-24 was to Vienna on Friday, Oct. 13, 1944, a date he will never forget.
"I smelled smoke coming from somewhere in the airplane. I turned around and looked up into the waist, and there were two guys up there standing there with their chutes on. We fortunately made it back to base," said Mr. Blake.
With 50 missions under his belt, he was sent back home in the fall of 1944.
"I lost some good friends along the way. Some got shot down, most bailed out and were POWs. A fellow that I know that comes to the reunions was shot down three times! And he said he thought that they sent you home after getting shot down once," said Mr. Blake.
Stanley Palmer of Paxton, 90, piloted a Flying Fortress 4-engine heavy bomber, "The Green Hornet," from an airfield in England on missions to Belgium, Denmark, Holland, France and Germany.
"On June 20, 1944, we were bombing Berlin and I got a radio call that my first child, my son, was born. We were pretty busy at the time; we came back on two engines and couldn't keep up with the group, flew back alone. But we made it - two engines, no brakes and gas leaking from the wing. No fire, luckily; we got back on sheer luck," said Mr. Palmer.
He was never shot down. "We had a lot of bullet holes; only one of my crew was wounded, we came back on two and three engines many times. Every mission was an adventure," he said.
His last mission was in September 1944. He handed the Green Hornet over to another pilot, and on its next mission it was shot down. Everyone bailed out and survived, but that was the end of the Green Hornet.
The Wings of Freedom Tour and display of WWII vintage aircraft will run from Sept. 23 to Sept. 28 at Worcester Regional Airport, 375 Airport Drive. Visitors will be allowed to view the aircraft inside and out, and can experience flying aboard the planes.
Walk-through tour times are 2-5 p.m. Sept. 23, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Sept. 24-27 and 9 a.m.-noon. Sept. 28. Tour tickets are $12, $6 for children younger than 12 and free for WWII veterans. Flights take place before and after the tours. For flight prices and reservations, visit www.collingsfoundation.org.
The Collings Foundation also will present a re-enactment of World War II battles from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Oct. 8 and 9 at the foundation, 137 Barton Road, Stow. All-original equipment from tanks to mess kits, 150 re-enactors and more will be featured and participate in performances at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Cost is $20, $10 for children 12 and younger.
For more information, call (978) 562-9182.
PHOTOG: T&G File Photo/PAUL KAPTEYN
CUTLINE: World War II planes mingle at a past tour in Worcester. This year's Wings of Freedom Tour will be Sept. 23-28.