There are not many people still alive today who can say they have actually been in flight in the belly of a B-17 bomber. Morgan resident Alan Vesper and his father, Nick, can now mark that off their bucket list.
The two took to the skies in this World War II “Flying Fortress” the afternoon of Memorial Day. It was a perfect day to take such a historic flight. This particular aircraft was built toward the end of the war and never saw any combat. However, it still contains plenty of history.
After being used by the Forest Service in the 1960s as a fire tanker, this plane was hired for use in the filming of the “Memphis Belle” movie in England in 1989. The original “Memphis Belle” flew countless missions with the 91st bomb group of the 8th Air Force and was the first B-17 to complete 25 missions.
This aircraft is one of only 13 B-17s flying today. Most of the planes that actually saw combat were smelted down when new aircraft arrived. Therefore, there are only three B-17s left that are combat veterans and none of them are currently airworthy, said pilot Bob Hill.
Hill said, “Memorial Day is not all about burgers and beer. It is really a holiday of reverence for those that really sacrificed for our behalf.” He talked about how important it is that the Liberty Foundation keeps these “living history” experiences alive. They are paramount in helping youth understand the price of freedom, said Hill.
“You can actually experience all five senses when you are in flight. You can even taste it. That is the difference between seeing it in a museum and going up in the aircraft,” said Hill. The flights may seem expensive at $450 a pop, but when you consider it costs $4,500 an hour to fly this historical beauty, it doesn’t seem such a high price to keep history alive.
Vesper said, “There is nothing quite like it. It is the most amazing thing I have done in a long time.” There were openings at the top of the aircraft where you could stick your head or your camera out mid-flight. But you had to be careful how far you went. If you stuck your camera, or more importantly, your head out more than 10-12 inches...you could start losing pieces, the pilot warned.
As incredible as the flight was, Vesper claims his favorite part of the flight was meeting his “new hero,” Sam Wyrouck. Wyrouck flew 36 missions over Germany as a lower belly turret gunner in a B-17 bomber like this one. His stories were chilling, almost unbelievable. Wyrouck gave bystanders a whole new understanding of what it really meant to fly in one of these planes during combat.
“The biggest threat to the B-17 was flack, which was ground to air assault. It made the belly turret a very scary place to be,” said Wyrouck. He said, “It’s a tough old bird. It brought us home 36 times so it’s pretty special to me.”
Wyrouck said servicemen didn’t generally choose to go in there, but he did. He fondly recalled choosing that position because it was either that or he would have to be paired with a different crew. He said, “I wanted to stay with my crew. We were like a family.”
The flights over Germany would be flown at high altitudes to avoid the flack. “We flew at about 30,000 feet and it was 60 degrees below zero,” recalled Wyrouck. They had to have electric heated flying suits, but they didn’t cover the soldiers’ eyes, so he said he would have to switch covering one eye at a time with his glove. “Some flights would last up to 11 hours and I could not get out of my own fruition. I had to have people lift me out and it would take some time to recover.”
The flight units had to be up and preparing at 2 a.m. Wyrouck said. “You had to have a good shave before you flew a mission or the oxygen mask would kill you. Sometimes you would have time for breakfast before you left, but it could be 10:30 at night before you got back to your quarters sometimes. One time we had flown three missions in a row. The morning after the third flight was a Saturday and it was customary that we would have an inspection. An officer came in our tent about 8 a.m. and yelled for everyone to clean up their mess but no one moved. This captain walked up and down the aisle between the bunks just hollerin’. He pulled the covers off two guys and that did it. About six guys jumped up and grabbed him by the arms and legs, carried him out the door and threw him in the mud. We thought there would be hell to pay, but nothing was ever said to us.”
In order to survive some days, there had to be some humor. Wyrouck laughed saying, “One day I was talking to another gunner who had about the same number of missions under his belt as I did. He said to me, ‘Hey! Today I had a dry run!’ I asked him what he was talking about as we had plenty of artillery to deal with that day and he said, ‘No, I mean today was the first day I didn’t wet my pants.’”
Wyrouck spoke fondly of his fellow servicemen back in the day. He said, “Back then, everyone wanted to do their part. There were not many who didn’t. Most volunteered.” However, he was more somber when speaking about all the “good men” he met who didn’t come back. He said he thinks about them a lot.
Wyrouck met his bride, Eloise, while roller skating in Logan while he was in pilot training and he says he has been skating with her ever since. He said, “She was my girlfriend for three days before I left for my first mission and she prayed for me every day. I know that’s why I made it back home.” His sweet wife responded by saying, “Did you know we’ve loved each other for a long, long time?”
The couple had been staying in the South Towne Ranch Retirement Center, which Wyrouck said they loved, but they had to move after 14 months because the VA help they were waiting for never came through.
Those who want to share this experience can view the bomber at no charge on the ground at the South Valley Regional Airport, 7365 S. 4450 W. in West Jordan from May 31 – June 1. To book your 30-minute flight on this historic aircraft, call 918-340-0243. For more information visit www.libertyfoundation.org.