They flew bombers, helicopters or C-141 transport planes. All military veterans, all former aviators, the men who experienced different wars stood in the Stanwood Eagles hall chatting with 95-year-old Dick Nelms.
There were handshakes, quiet chuckles and shared stories of flight. And then, Walter Paul Lawless approached Nelms. A 69-year-old Vietnam veteran, Lawless straightened his tall frame, raised his right hand, and gave Nelms a crisp salute.
“Do you have any idea who this is?” Lawless asked, looking at me and wiping tears from his eyes.
Lawless and others at Thursday’s lunchtime program later listened as Nelms spoke about the 35 missions he flew in a B-17 into Germany to help the Allies win World War II.
Nelms, who grew up at Niagara Falls, New York, joined the U.S. Army Air Forces — later the Army Air Corps — in 1942. He was in the 710 Squadron, 447th Bombardment Group, part of the Eighth Air Force, which early on in the war was losing half its men.
From a base in Rattlesden, about 80 miles northeast of London, Nelms flew first as a co-pilot and later as pilot of B-17s. The legendary plane carried a crew of 10 and was nicknamed the “Flying Fortress.”
“Flying Fortress was a misnomer,” quipped Nelms, who talked of landing after a mission to count hundreds of holes in the plane from enemy fire.
He was just 21 when he flew those 35 missions in 1944, completing them in less than six months. “It was one every two or three days,” Nelms said of bombing missions over Germany. Each time, he was flying in formation, in sub-zero temperatures, about 11 hours.
A four-engine heavy bomber, the B-17 was armed with 13 machine guns and carried up to 8,000 pounds of bombs. Nelms recalled bombing oil refineries and areas on the ground to support advancing Allied troops.
“On bombing runs, the sky was exploding all around you,” he said. Once the plane reached the continent over Holland, antiaircraft fire would begin — sparsely at first. By the time they were over Germany, “flak was everywhere.”
If a bombardier, navigator or gunner was injured, “he was on his own,” Nelms said. “Wounds happened over the targets. We were five hours from medical attention.”
Bob Blank, 83, founded the aviators’ group that invited Nelms to their monthly meeting in Stanwood.
In 1957, Blank was a Cold War-era Navy flier based on Whidbey Island. “I flew an A-3,” said the Camano Island man, describing a twin-engine carrier-based aircraft that was “prepared to drop nukes.”
The group began meeting more than two years ago. Blank placed a small ad in a newspaper seeking former military pilots for friendly get-togethers.
The men first met at a senior center, but now enjoy lunches — some with a cold beer — at the Fraternal Order of Eagles near the Stanwood-Camano Fairgrounds.
More than 20 people were there Thursday to hear Nelms’ war stories.
Lawless, who lives in Skagit County, was part of the U.S. Military Assistance Command in Vietnam, working in aviation electronics. He said he was in Vietnam from the fall of 1969 until July 1971. He later worked for the Boeing Co. “I helped put together 747s, numbers three to 15,” he said.
Among those gathered was Robert “Bob” Jones, of Stanwood, who is nearly Nelms’ age and also flew over Germany during World War II. Jones was captured by German soldiers after his P-38 engine failed and the plane crashed. His story was featured in The Herald in 2016.
Roman Millett flew attack and light observation helicopters and was a platoon leader in Vietnam. Then an Army Ranger with the 82nd Airborne Division, he is also a volunteer with the Museum of Flight, and brought Nelms to the lunch.
“Dick is a storyteller,” said Millett, 74, of Mill Creek. When Nelms is scheduled to speak at the museum, it’s standing room only in a quonset hut where programs are held, Millett said.
Steve Bond, 71, comes from Lake Forest Park for the Stanwood gatherings. He spent 1969-76 in the Air Force, and during the Vietnam era flew a C-141 strategic airlifter out of what was then McChord Air Force Base.
“Guys here were in the Marines, the Army, the Air Force,” Bond said. “It’s fun to be around a group of guys who have all this military experience.” It’s not all military talk, though. Bond was recently talking in the group about going on cruises.
Camano Island’s Jim Joyce, 74, spent 26 years in the Navy.
In Vietnam, he was part of a Helicopter Attack Squadron (HAL-3), nicknamed “Seawolves.”
Joyce appreciates his time with the aviators’ group, and his fellow veterans. “I know this has gone well beyond what Bob Blank envisioned,” he said.
Blank was motivated to start the group after reading an obituary of a man he had flown with while in the Navy on Whidbey Island. He was saddened they hadn’t gotten together in the years since.
“This has evolved into a wonderful comradeship,” Blank said.