Flight with an old friend - Two World War II vets soar down memory lane
November 24, 2008 · Updated 4:48 PM
By Jim Cnockaert
Reprinted from the King County Journal
Dick Nelms caught up with an old friend Wednesday morning at Boeing Field: a vintage B-17 bomber nicknamed ``Fuddy Duddy.''
Nelms, a Mercer Island resident for nearly 60 years, was a B-17 pilot during World War II, flying 35 missions over Europe. While Nelms didn't actually pilot ``Fuddy Duddy'' during the war, he flew a B-17 just like it for the same 447th Bomb Group.
He had not been inside one of the famed heavy bombers since the war ended but, as he explored the outside and inside of the airplane and pointed out small details to reporters, it was as if the clock had been turned back 60 years.
``I think every guy who came out of pilot training wanted to fly fighters, and that's what I wanted,'' Nelms said. ``But the B-17 was a beautiful airplane, and it wasn't long before you got used to it. It become very endearing. You got to love that airplane.''
``Fuddy Duddy'' is parked on the tarmac at Boeing Field outside the Museum of Flight today through Monday.
It is the showpiece of the Experimental Aircraft Association's (EAA) ``Salute to Veterans'' barnstorming tour that commemorates the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II.
Flights in the airplane are available each day during the stopover, as are ground tours.
``You see that plane now and you remember what it was like to fly it in combat, and you can't help but think about how lucky you were to survive,'' Nelms said.
Plane showing its age
``Fuddy Duddy'' is showing its age. Each engine cranks to life, spewing a cloud of exhaust. The roar from all four engines is loud, but not so deafening that it drowns out the creaking of the fuselage or the screeching of the brakes as the plane taxis to its takeoff position.
Nelms and another former B-17 pilot, Hank Hendrickson of Auburn, aren't fazed.
Each sound is a familiar voice from the past.
By the standards of their day, this Wednesday morning media flight in the skies above Lake Washington, the University of Washington, the city of Seattle and Elliott Bay qualifies as a ``milk run.''
There is no deadly flak from anti-aircraft guns to contend with, nor are there any German fighters to contest the B-17's comings and goings.
Both veterans got a brief opportunity to steer the plane while it was in flight.
``We called it a `grandmother ship,''' Hendrickson said. ``It was so easy to fly, we used to say a grandmother could do it.''
Nelms described the B-17 as ``the perfect bombing platform,'' but said it took a lot of muscle to fly it.
At 5-foot-7 and 135 pounds, he said, he had to be strapped tightly into his seat; otherwise, steering the bomber might have lifted him right out of it.
Flak and bullet holes
Hendrickson shows a reporter a photo of his B-17 crew, and he points to the four members of his crew who were killed in action.
Another photo shows the bomber on its return to England with a gaping hole in its side, the result of a direct hit over a target in Leipzig, Germany.
The radio operator was blown out of the hole by the explosion. He parachuted out safely but spent the remainder of the war as a prisoner.
Nelms said one of his worst missions also was over Leipzig. When the B-17 returned to its base in Rattlesden, England, Nelms and his crew counted more than 300 flak and bullet holes, and they noticed that a chunk had been taken out of one of the propellers.
The damage was so extensive that the plane, nicknamed ``Pandora's Box,'' was retired from service.
``Those gunners at Leipzig were very accurate,'' Nelms said. ``The sky ahead of you would be black as a storm, and you'd be flying right into it.''
Nelms' Leipzig mission produced a grizzly souvenir -- a piece of shrapnel from an exploded anti-aircraft shell -- that he found embedded in the armor plating that protected the back of the pilot's seat. Had that plating not been there, he likely would have been decapitated. He has kept the 3-by-1-inch piece of metal ever since.
`Those guys were heroes'
Phil Riter, the chief of the EAA crew that is flying ``Fuddy Duddy'' on its tour, said it is always an honor to be joined on a flight by World War II fliers such as Hendrickson and Nelms.
On one recent flight, he said, the guests of honor were seven members of one B-17 crew.
``You never know how they will react,'' Riter said. ``Most are OK, but I remember one guy who totally froze as soon as we started up the engines. Whatever their experience, it's usually pretty hard to describe.''
Riter said it is an honor to help maintain and fly a piece of history.
``Look, this airplane is the star of the show, but those guys are the heroes,'' he said, pointing to Nelms and Hendrickson. ``Anyone who flew when the bullets were flying ... those guys are heroes.''