Traveling WWII planes big hit with veterans, others

Becky Campbell • Oct 18, 2012 at 10:20 PM

BLOUNTVILLE — War veterans David Hambrick, of Kingsport, and David Johnson, of Chilhowie, Va., never flew on a B-17 bomber or a B-24 Liberator, but seeing the two old warbirds on a tarmac here brought back many memories for the two men.

The planes are part of a traveling museum project sponsored by the Collings Foundation, a nonprofit educational foundation that supports living history events. According to the foundation’s website, the “Wings of Freedom Tour” has two goals — “to honor the sacrifices made by our veterans that allow us to enjoy our freedom; and to educate the visitors, especially younger Americans, about our national history and heritage.”

The crowd viewing and touring the planes Thursday — the second day of the event at Tri-Cities Aviation — was a mix of young and an older generation more familiar with the planes, which will be at Tri-Cities Regional Airport until noon today.

Hambrick served in the 101st Airborne Division at the end of World War II, in Korea and the Vietnam War while Johnson served in an Air Force rescue squad.

“I spent most of my time in air rescue. We flew amphibious aircraft. We’d pick up all those guys who bailed out in the ocean,” Johnson said. He was in the 33rd Air Rescue in Okinawa and flew standby for line reconnaissance missions, he said.

The Witchcraft is the only existing B-24 Liberator that still flies, according to Frank Hale, a commercial pilot who takes off one month each year to help with the annual 10-month tour. He said war veterans have different reactions to the planes.

“Some are really happy to see the airplanes and some want to see them, but don’t want to get in them,” he said. On one stop, Hale said a 91-year-old ball turret gunner from World War II wanted to see inside the ball turret on the B-17. As soon as Hale opened the hatch for him, the veteran got right in.

That triggered something in the elderly veteran and he began to talk clearly and tell stories from the war when prior to that his speech was unintelligible. Hale said the man’s son said his father had not spoken understandable words in years.

The companion aircraft on the tour, the B-15G “Nine O Nine” flying fortress, is only on of 10 in flying condition in the United States.

At many locations on the Wings of Freedom Tour ,a third plane, the P-51 Mustang, also is on display.

Hambrick stood outside the B-17 with his wife, Betty. They didn’t know each other during Hambrick’s war years, but she knows some about his service.

Hambrick said he loved seeing the planes as they brought back many memories of a time long ago when he was jumping from a plane into a war zone.

“I lost many friends” during war times, he said.

“I’ve always been enamored by them,” Hambrick said about the warbirds. “Jumping out of them was never a problem for me.”

There is a $12 entrance fee to see the planes.

The next stops for the warbirds is Hickory, N.C., Oct. 19-22, followed by Asheville, N.C., Oct. 22-25, and then Greenville, S.C., Oct. 26-28.

For more information about the planes and locations to see them, visit www.collingsfoundation.org.

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