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Airport displays legendary planes
World War II aircraft can be seen until Friday
A B-24 Liberator “Witchcraft” bomber comes in for a landing Wednesday at the Blue Ridge Airport. The B-24 is one of three World War II-era planes on display through noon Friday at the airport as part of the Wings of Freedom Tour. (Bulletin photo by Mike Wray)
Three World War II-era planes thundered into Henry County on Wednesday, ushering in memories for several veterans of that war who were part of a crowd gathered at Blue Ridge Airport for the event.
The Wings of Freedom Tour, sponsored by the nonprofit Collings Foundation, features two heavy bombers — a vintage Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress “Nine O Nine” and a Consolidated B-24 Liberator “Witchcraft” — along with a P-51 Mustang fighter. They flew into the Blue Ridge Airport on Wednesday afternoon and will be on display at the airport’s main ramp through noon Friday.
The planes will be open for tours today and Friday. World War II veterans are invited to tour the planes at no cost, and several took advantage of that Wednesday.
“There it comes. There comes that B-24,” Daniel E. Gardner of Martinsville marveled as he watched the Liberator streak across the sky, land and taxi around the runway.
Gardner, 87, said he joined the Army in 1944. He was 18 at the time and served under Gen. George S. Patton and Maj. Gen. Alexander Patch.
He was wounded in an explosion on the Siegfried Line (which was built by Adolf Hitler in 1940) and knocked unconscious, Gardner said. When he came to, he struggled and crawled out from under a “big piece of cement” that trapped his body, he recalled.
Disoriented from the blast — and likely a loss of blood — Gardner said he wasn’t sure which way to go. He knew there were underground cellars on one side and Nazis on the other.
Fortunately, he went in the right direction and came upon American troops. But then, Gardner said, he couldn’t recall his password.
“All I could say was, ‘Don’t shoot. Don’t shoot. I’m an American,” he said.
En route to a hospital in Paris, Gardner rode in a Jeep and an ambulance before he was finally aboard a C-47 that flew him the rest of the way.
That aircraft, he said, was filled with injured servicemen. Knowing that many would not be able to visit landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower, the pilot flew a couple laps around the city, Gardner said. “He was a real nice pilot,” he recalled.
After Gardner’s three-year stint in the Army, he returned to Henry County, raised a family and worked at DuPont for 38 years.
Army Air Corps Col. Frank Luschen, 95, of Dyersburg, Tenn., climbed into the B-17 on Wednesday. “I was a bomber pilot” and flew B-17s both in Alaska and in the Pacific, he said.
What he remembers most now is “mainly that I survived. That’s the best part of all,” Luschen said, and chuckled.
His daughter and son-in-law, Linda Kay Jones and Gary Jones of Moneta, explained that Luschen was in the area visiting, and they thought he would be interested in seeing the planes.
Gary Jones said that when Luschen saw the Mustang flying in to land, he said, “‘Oh, I feel young again.’”
Herbert Gibbs, 93, also of Martinsville, spent 30 years in the Navy and was among those to survive the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He recalled that he was 20 when he enlisted in 1941. Gibbs said the supply ship he was on — the USS Vega — stopped in the harbor to load supplies before it was to head to the Philippines.
It was a Sunday morning, and “I was getting ready to go ashore. We were all dressed to go on the beach, but we had to wait” until 8 a.m. to leave the ship, he said. “The Japs came over us” on the way to bomb U.S. battleships and destroyers.
Gibbs said he then heard a voice over a loud speaker directing the sailors to “Man your battle stations. This is no drill.”
Asked if he was frightened, Gibbs said “No, I was too young ... too foolish” to worry about his fate.
Gibbs remained in Hawaii for six weeks before he was ordered to return to the states on the Vega, he said. After serving on multiple ships and traveling “all over,” Gibbs said, he was transferred to a destroyer to finish out the war.
Memories and stories like those are the reason for the tour’s stop in Henry County, said Justin Davis, manager of the Blue Ridge Airport.
“That’s the beauty of it,” Davis said.
The tours are done to honor World War II veterans, according to the Collings Foundation. The 110-city nationwide flying tour is a tribute to the flight crews who flew the aircraft, the ground crews who maintained them, the workers who built them, the soldiers, sailors and airmen they helped protect, and the citizens and families who share the freedom that they helped preserve, according to information from the foundation.
The planes will be open for tours from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. today and from 9 a.m. to noon Friday. Tickets are $12 for adults and $6 for children under 12, which includes up-close viewing and inside tours. Discounted rates are available for school groups.
Flights also are available on all of the aircraft — which are rare pieces of history, according to the foundation. The B-17 is one of only eight remaining in flying condition in the United States, while the B-24 and P-51 are the sole remaining examples of their type flying in the world, according to a news release.
A 30-minute flight aboard either the B-17 or B-24 is $425 per person. P-51 flights are $2,200 for a half hour and $3,200 for a full hour. Flights generally are scheduled before and after the regular tour times.
For more information, visit www.collingsfoundation.org.
For reservations and information on flights, call 800-568-8924.