Memories come home for local veterans in unique flight

by: COURTESY PHOTO - The Memphis Belle, a Boeing B-17 bomber from World War II, will be at the Hillsboro Airport May 3-4 for public tours.The roar and vibration of the B-17’s four engines and the squeal of tires rolling across the tarmac sparked a wave of memories for James Miller.

Miller, now 91, was a World War II tail gunner on a B-17 just like the one that came to the Hillsboro Airport Monday, part of a “history tour” to honor the sacrifices of the men who flew them in combat during World War II.

The “Memphis Belle” — which was built in 1944 in Long Beach, Calif., and came complete with the classic World War II-era artwork of a beautiful dame on the aircraft’s nose — visited Hillsboro on behalf of the Liberty Foundation, a Claremore, Okla.-based organization dedicated to preserving the heritage of the iconic aircraft.

The Liberty Foundation’s Keith Youngblood said the organization is working to ensure people get to see a living B-17 — not just a static display — and hear about the experiences of those who flew in them.

On Monday afternoon, Miller was among a small group of veterans and journalists who were able to experience something only a relative few people have done — flying in a B-17 bomber that was itself a veteran and survivor from World War II.

Before Monday’s flight, Youngblood told the passengers they were in for a tiny taste of what B-17 crews experienced during WWII. He passed out earplugs and warned everyone to keep a tight grip on their cameras when standing in the open gun ports.

“This is a non-certified aircraft,” he explained. “You’ll feel, smell and taste this flight. This is an assault on all your senses. It’s a spectacular piece of history.”by: HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: DOUG BURKHARDT - Veterans James Miller (right), 91, and Howard Bunker, 93, share a laugh before taking a flight on the Memphis Belle. Miller, a Hillsboro resident, was a B-17 tail gunner in World War II, while Bunker, who lives in Portland, served as a radio operator on the iconic bombers.

Taking to the skies in 2014 was a very different experience for Miller, who now lives in the Orenco area of Hillsboro. Miller, a veteran of the 379th Bomb Group, was stationed in Kimbolton, England, in 1944.

He said flying in a B-17 again was something he treasured. Although he had to be helped into the airplane, Miller said he appreciated being asked to go on the flight — especially since, he joked, this time no one was shooting at him.

Because the four-engine B-17s were heavily armed with machine guns, including some housed in rotating turrets, the aircraft earned the nickname “Flying Fortress.” Although the bombers were rugged and durable, with anti-aircraft fire and German fighter planes attacking them, a staggering number of B-17s were shot down. During the war, the 379th Bomb Group was assigned a total of 345 B-17s, and of those, 141 were lost in combat.

Miller was invited to be at the Hillsboro Airport to share a bit of his individual story, and it was a dramatic one. Sent to England in March 1944, the 21-year-old Miller started going out on missions right away.

“On my first mission, a plane on my right got a direct hit. I saw a flash and looked up and saw four balls of fire going down. That was an introduction of what I was in for,” he said. “It hardly seems so long ago to me, but that was 70 years ago.”

Miller went on 18 combat missions, and then, on May 13, 1944, his B-17 was shot down.

by: HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: DOUG BURKHARDT - On Monday, Hillsboro resident James Miller, 91, took a flight on a B-17 like the one he served in as a 21-year-old tail gunner in World War II. Millers aircraft was shot down in 1944 and he spent nearly a year in a German prison camp.“Our plane had seven holes in the wing and it caught fire,” Miller recalled. “The pilot told us to bail out.”

The aircraft was put on automatic pilot, and everyone on board Miller’s plane got out safely. But they were over German territory, and were rounded up.

“I spent 11 months and 13 days in a German prison camp,” Miller said.

“We want their stories to go out,” said Don Keller, a Beaverton resident and a member of the Eighth Air Force Historical Society, an organization that works with veterans to keep their memories and history alive. “It’s very important to remember what these men did in World War II. We are losing World War II veterans at a very high rate.”

Youngblood pointed out that B-17 crew members — who were typically in their late teens or early 20s — endured almost unimaginable stresses.

“This airplane would have carried a crew of 10,” he said. “They flew in unpressurized planes at 25,000 to 30,000 feet, and at that altitude the temperatures would be negative 30 degrees. They were constantly on oxygen and had electrically-heated suits. What these guys did for hours on end is pretty remarkable. It had to be miserable and cold; pretty horrible conditions.”

“Our mission is to educate the people of America about the courageous World War II veterans, and remember those brave aircrew who never made it home,” added Scott Maher, director of flight operations for the Liberty Foundation. “‘Memphis Belle’ is a living museum, our heritage not in mothballs or the pages of a dusty book, but real life, three dimensions, here and now.”by: HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: DOUG BURKHARDT - The Washington County landscape stretches out below the Memphis Belle during a Monday flight.

Keller said he had been fascinated with B-17s since the first time he saw them flying when he was 16 years old in Santa Barbara, Calif.

by: HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: DOUG BURKHARDT - One of the four engines of the B-17 roars into life with a blast of smoke as the Memphis Belle prepapres for takeoff at the Hillsboro Airport.“I heard two B-17s flying low and slow, and it was all over for me,” he said. “I had to learn all about them after that. This history needs to be remembered.”

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