Lee Hutchinson was just out of high school when he first saw the B-17. (Source: Lee Hutchinson)
Lee Hutchinson (Source: WAVE 3 News)
Kenneth Payton (Source: WAVE 3 News)
LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - It is our history -- here to see, touch and experience. The "Movie Memphis Belle" is in Louisville this weekend. It's a World War Two era B-17 "Flying Fortress" bomber redone as an exact replica of the plane made famous during the war and again in a movie released in 1990.
WAVE 3 News was invited for a ride to experience the tour's true purpose: learning more from the veterans who flew the plane to American victory in the war.
"I was in England, between Ipswich and Norwich," said Lee Hutchinson.
Hutchinson was just out of high school when he first saw the B-17. "Eighteen years old, out of Bedford, Indiana," he said. "Couldn't drive a car. They told me they'd make a pilot out of me."
Two months later, he was a radioman, flying in a B-17 on his first mission to Berlin on December 5, 1944.
Only the plane's aluminum walls stood between him and German fire. "We believed in everything," he said. "We believed in God. We had the little armored New Testament. I wore it. I wore the St. Jude medal. Anything people sent me, I'd wear. I looked like a traveling jewelry store."
Tens of thousands of airmen didn't make it back. Some of Hutchinson's friends were among them.
"Just before the war ended," he said, "our group flew all the way to Czechoslovakia and the jets hit them and in about four minutes they took down four planes. Nine of those men bailed out right over an SS training camp and so they were captured. They shot one as he came down. They captured the other eight, interrogated them and shot them in the head that night and buried them in a ditch."
Kenneth Payton's work with the B-17 was on the ground, as a mechanic, keeping the planes flying.
"We had good luck where I was," he said. "In fact, I never worked on a plane that didn't come back."
For both, seeing the "Flying Fortress" again was hard to put into words.
"A thousand things run through your mind, some good and some bad," he said. "A lot of it you wouldn't give a nickel to see again and a lot of it you wouldn't take the world for."
"I told my wife, I have to go one more time," Hutchinson said.
Their flying days are behind them. Payton is 93 years old and in a wheelchair. Hutchinson said he, "picked up a pacemaker and I'm a little leary of what's happening and so I won't ride today."
But the crew of the Movie Memphis Belle now takes the public along for a ride on the B-17 to experience just a little bit of what it was like for the airmen in World War II.
"Typically they'd be six to eight hours long on a mission," said one of the plane's pilots, David Lyon.
Lyon is on a mission of his own, flying the B-17 around the country making history come to life.
"These were open to the wind and as you can imagine, if you fly around at 25,000 feet where it's 40 degrees below zero, it gets a little breezy and a little cold," he said. "They'd be on oxygen masks a lot of the times like lee mentioned. They'd freeze up. One of the hallmarks of, or one of the identifying features of a bomber crews were the burns around their face and nose form frostbite."
Inside the plane, it's small -- quarters are cramped for what was a 10 member crew. It's thrilling for a short time, but then, we're not braving enemy fire. We're all but guaranteed a safe landing.
"We don't have bullets zinging through," Lyon said. "We don't have shrapnel zinging through, we're not going to lose engines and have fire ... What they endured over in Europe and over in the Pacific was unimaginable for most of us.
Those who came home are losing their ability to share their stories.
Hutchinson said, "What we try to do is just tell the story for this generation because it's being lost. I'm one of the youngest. I'm 89.
The National World War II Museum estimates we lose 555 of the Greatest Generation a day.
"I just lost a couple of good friends this week, last week," who were in the Air Force, Payton said.
"World War II vets, we started with 16 million World War II vets and we're down to maybe a million or less," said Hutchinson.
So stories like Payton's and Hutchinson's are ever more valuable and sharing them is more important.
Hutchinson said, "It's sort of a last mission. I only did 20. The war ended before I got through."
The Memphis Belle stands ready for that final target.
"It's a living history lesson and also a living tribute to all of our combat veterans," said Lyon.
Hutchinson has just finished his fourth book on the Airmen who flew B-17s and their stories. They're on sale at each stop of the Memphis Belle.
The B-17 will be at the Clark County Airport Saturday and Sunday from 10 until 5. Flights are available for $450 in the morning and free tours on the ground for adults and children are in the afternoon. Call (918) 340-0243 to reserve your seat on a flight.
Tuesday, April 20 2010 11:21 PM EDT2010-04-21 03:21:00 GMT
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