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Straight out of Romania

by: SPOKESMAN PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Wilsonville resident Duane Buck Buckmaster was recently honored by national group Ageless Aviation Dreams for his service during World War II, when he was shot down while copiloting a B-24 bomber over Romania. Buck survived seven months in a German POW camp and later returned to service.

(This is the first of a two-part series featuring Wilsonville’s Duane Buckmaster’s World War II experience. The second story will appear in the Oct. 9 issue of the Wilsonville Spokesman.)

Duane Buckmaster’s story reads like something straight out of Hollywood.

Only, it was all too real for Buckmaster and the fellow crewmembers of his B-24 Liberator heavy bomber.

Now 93 years old and a resident of The Springs in Wilsonville, Buckmaster has never been able to forget the long seconds as his cockpit filled with smoke and pilot Victor Ullman’s command to bail out rang in his headset.

It happened on D-Day, June 6, 1944, during a long-range bombing effort against Ploesti, Romania, a key German-controlled oil refining sector responsible for some 60 percent of the Nazi war machine’s fuel supplies. Ploesti was a dreaded name among American aircrews. One August 1943 raid against the sprawling complex saw 53 four-engined Liberators — each with a crew of 10 men — shot down in flames over Romania.

Less than a year later it was Buckmaster’s turn. Then a second lieutenant and copilot of the plane, he remembers the chaos of trying to get the crew organized enough to bail out of the burning aircraft.

“We were on the bomb run and we got some direct hits from anti-aircraft fire,” said Buckmaster. “We got one in the bomb bay, where, over the bomb bay, there were fuel tanks, and we got hit in several places. And then we had fire all over the airplane.”

Nine men managed to escape the stricken bomber and survive. A 10th was killed when his parachute failed to open.

“I still mourn him,” said Buckmaster.

“He was the crewman closest to Buck,” added Buckmaster’s wife, Sharon.

That was just the beginning of a seven-month ordeal that saw Buckmaster and his fellow crew members imprisoned at the hands of the German military. Ultimately, they were rescued from captivity by a daring airlift operation into the heart of Romania that everyone involved fully expected to fail.

by: SPOKESMAN PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - This Stearman Kaydet biplane is owned by Salems Bill Fisher and flown here by Ageless Aviation volunteer pilot Wayne Cartwright.Last week, Buckmaster was given a unique opportunity to return to his days as a cadet airman in the U.S. Army Air Corps, thanks to the pilot group Ageless Aviation Dreams foundation, a national nonprofit dedicated to providing “dream flights” to seniors and military veterans.

More specifically, Ageless Aviation tries to provide those flights to seniors and veterans living in long-term care facilities like The Springs. So when Fee Stubblefield, company president, heard Buckmaster’s story at a Sept. 11 commemoration at The Springs, he connected the dots and helped pair Buckmaster up with a dream flight.

“Fee had arranged this Ageless Aviation outfit to accommodate another veteran out in Hillsboro,” said Matt Gannon, director of community resources for The Springs and himself a U.S. Navy veteran. “So they arranged behind the scenes to have it done today, and Buck didn’t find out until a couple of hours ago; we weren’t sure about the weather.”

Thus it was Sept. 25 that a beaming Buckmaster was driven out to Aurora Airport for a welcome blast from the past. He had to get a bit of help hoisting himself into the cockpit, but he managed to strap on a vintage canvas flying helmet and buckle himself into the front seat of a two-man Stearman Kaydet biplane. Built by Boeing after it acquired the Stearman Company, more than 8,500 Stearmans came off the assembly line in the 1930s and 40s for use as the primary training aircraft of the U.S. Navy, Army Air Corps and the Royal Canadian Air Force.

The plane in which Buckmaster rode is owned by Salem businessman Bill Fisher, a former state senator, and was flown by Wayne Cartwright, who pilots corporate jets for a living.

“It’s a really small way that we can give back,” said Cartwright. “And thanks to our sponsors and Ageless Aviation, we’re able to go around, buy a little aviation gas and make this work.”

It was certainly working for Buckmaster, who sported a giant grin as the Stearman rolled gently down the taxiway for takeoff. And 20 minutes later, when the biplane set down gently on the runway, that smile had not lessened one bit.

“This whole thing is a young man’s game,” he said with a laugh. “And I’m not a young man. But it was wonderful; it was so great. It took me back. I loved it, it was a great feeling.”

That’s exactly the aim of volunteers like Cartwright and Mike Winterboer, a pilot with U.S. Airways who assisted with the dream flight and has volunteered to pilot them in 2014.

“These things are so slow, we have three airplanes that are positioned around the country,” Cartwright said. “Volunteer pilots go and pick them up and they look at the itinerary and they leave them where they are supposed to. ... Mike here flies Airbuses for a living, and I fly corporate jets. This is what we do for fun.”

Prepare for war

Back safely on the ground, Buckmaster was more than willing to sit down and share his wartime experiences in as much detail as his 70-year-old memories would allow.

Part of the U.S. Army Air Force Class of 1943-G, Buckmaster had little trouble with preflight school, which he termed “a bunch of paperwork.” But actual flying, he added “proved to be a little different.”

Nonetheless, he advanced through primary then basic flight training before moving on to advanced training, where he prepared to learn to fly the B-24 Liberator, a four-engine heavy bomber manufactured in greater numbers than any other American military aircraft, a distinction it still holds.

“I felt the Stearman was just a superb airplane,” said Buckmaster. “It was rugged and it could take a lot of punishment.”

Good thing, too, because he even managed to crash a Stearman at one point, thanks to engine failure.

“I didn’t make a very good landing,” he quipped.

In advanced flight training he was first assigned to the famous B-17 bomber. He was soon transferred to the B-24, however.

“I first learned the B-17, and that was a wonderful airplane,” said Buckmaster. “I just loved that airplane. It was stable, reliable, just everything was right about it and I was sold on that. Then the Air Force, without asking me if it would be OK, moved me to B-24s. I bitched my head off about that, but it didn’t do any good.”

He got over his initial apprehension and learned to appreciate the B-24’s qualities — it was faster and carried a heavier bomb load than the B-17. Buckmaster finally met the men he would fly with in combat when he was assigned to the 464th Heavy Bombardment Group and given a training assignment at an airfield in Utah.

“I was assigned after the transitioning to a crew as copilot, and I wasn’t too happy about that either,” he said. “But as it turned out it was probably the best thing that ever happened to me. They assigned me to a crew with a man named Victor Ullman, a Jewish guy from New York and a damn good pilot. He was excellent and he taught me a lot.”

From there, months of more training lay ahead, followed by the group’s initial deployment in spring 1944 to Pantanella Airfield, near Foggia, Italy. There, the 464th shared space with the 465th Bomb Group, with more than 150 bombers based at the temporary facility. But just getting to Italy took quite a bit of work, Buckmaster recounted, mainly because of the roundabout route they took.

Flying south out of the United States, the 464th headed to South America, stopping in Brazil along the way before crossing the Atlantic Ocean to Africa.

“We had to make a forced landing in the desert in North Africa,” Buckmaster said. “We were picked up there by a few Arabs who had camels. It was my first camel ride.”

(Next week, read about Duane Buckmaster’s wartime story of being shot down and captured.)




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