Memories From an Aircraft That Changed the World

By Mitch Traphagen (mitch@observernews.net)
 

SARASOTA - Many of the people standing next to the B-17 had to be playing hooky from work or school. It was the middle of a beautiful autumn day in the middle of the week at the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport. Parked next to rows of sleek Learjets at Jones Aviation was a relic from the past. A relic that many credit with changing the face of the Second World War.

The B-17 Flying Fortress named Aluminum Overcast stood out for all to see. All of the hatches and doors were open and the few dozen visitors appeared to have difficulty pulling themselves away from the airplane. I had difficulty too. It is almost a mesmerizing sight.

There were a few WWII veterans there but there were many enthusiasts of all ages who came to see a specter from a different time.

"The response has really been good, the turnout has really been good," said Chuck Hoeppner of the Experimental Aircraft Association, owner of Aluminum Overcast. "Mothers have been here, theyíve taken their children out of school to see this."

For those who flew, built or worked on the B-17s, a visit to Aluminum Overcast may be like a short visit back to their youth. For others, it may open painful memories.

"Some of the veterans have mixed emotions," Hoeppner said. "Some of the veterans their emotions have gotten the best of them because of whatever happened way back when. Some guys have had an extremely traumatic experience. You have an 18 year old kid going through that trauma and then he comes back as an 80 year old. We tell them not to worry about it, weíll give them time to sit in the radio room or whatever to have some time for themselves."

By the time this edition hits the streets, Aluminum Overcast will be flying over the skies of Ft. Lauderdale. On her trip out of Florida, the aircraft will make a stop in Orlando on Nov. 6 through Nov. 10.

For Bay area veterans and aircraft fans, however, there is more to come. On November 1 and 2 at the Dunnellon Airport the Florida Division of the Yankee Air Force will sponsor the Centennial of Flight Air Show. Included in the show will be another B-17 and the only remaining flight capable B-24 Liberator.

For information call 352-465-0727.

RUSKIN - I have a nice house, two nice cars, a great motorcycle and overall a really good life. I have Gene Saur and the people like him to thank for it.

Almost certainly Saur will not be happy to read that I think of him as a hero. He was just doing his duty, heíll say. But there is far more to the story than that.

The word hero is overused today. But, to me anyway, Saur is the definition of it. He flew in a B-17 in the war to save the world in 1944. He survived harrowing missions and was shot down and taken prisoner on his 12th mission over Berlin. After more than 10 months as a prisoner of war, he returned home, went to school and raised a family. His children are successful and both Saur and his wife Dorys are wonderful and warm people enjoying their retirement.

He probably doesnít think anything of it but to me, he is a hero. If for nothing else because he doesnít even realize the impact of the duty he performed, the sacrifice that he made for the good of our country, the standard that he has set for others to follow.

In Sun City Center and everywhere in south county, it is likely that there are similar stories. In fact, Iíve heard and reported on some of them and I hope to report on many more. Tom Diggs, Vincent Palumbo, Ed Socha, Len Perry, Tony Sendrowski, they are all heroes and it is important for the subsequent generations to hear their stories, to appreciate exactly where our incredible success as a nation came from.

SUN CITY CENTER - The black and white photograph of the smiling young second lieutenant is striking. Despite being only recently released from 10 months in a prisoner of war camp, it is a face full of optimism - an optimism felt by an entire nation after the victory in Europe. There was a new star on the world stage.

In all likelihood, the 57 year old photograph of a smiling Gene Saur reflected his happiness about his release. But there is more to it - it is an optimism, a courage, an energy that tells the tale of his generation.

Saur grew up in Davenport, Iowa. He joined the Army Air Corp hoping to be a pilot but ended up in bombardier training. He trained at McDill and flew practice runs over the waters of Tampa Bay.

The photograph of the B-17 Aluminum Overcast on the front page in part one of this series caught his attention.

In the center of the photograph, framed by the view offered by the plexiglas nose of the aircraft, is a Norden Bomb Sight.

It was top secret during the war and Saur was trained to use one. "We worked with it in training but when I got overseas we didnít have one," he said. The lead bombardier [in the squadron] had the Bomb Sight and everyone else just followed his lead."

On one mission over Dresden, Germany, Saurís B-17 was heavily damaged. "We got shot up real bad," Saur recalled. The propeller on one engine blew off and the engine was on fire. "The pilot put the plane into a dive and that blew out the fire," he said.

For Saur the view of that maneuver from the plexiglas nose of the aircraft must have been terrifying. "There was a war, you know," he said. "You did what you had to do."

On that mission his disabled B-17 landed on an emergency runway in England, lacking the fuel to return to their base. "We were given a five day flack leave after that," Saur said with a smile.

On his 12th mission over the German city of Berlin, the outcome would not be so happy.

"We were a diversionary force that was to bring up the German air force - they wanted us to stir up the air force and we did!" he said.

Their mission was to draw the fighter planes away and Saurís B-17 was shot down along with six or seven other aircraft. Two of the crew were killed instantly, a few managed to evade capture for a few days and one of them didnít live to see the prison camp.

They were at 28,000 feet when the pilot ordered them to jump. "I never saw the plane," said Saur. "They told me later that it blew up after we got out of it. Thatís how badly it was damaged. We had a real good pilot, though, and he kept the plane flying while we got out. There was nothing else to do, the plane was beat up so bad, there was nothing to salvage."

From there it was the literal definition of jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire for Saur.

"I attracted a lot of people because they saw the parachute," he said. A German soldier grabbed my dogtag and saw the name Saur and he said to me, "Welcome back to the Fatherland." It was probably a good thing because the people there wanted to kill me."

Back in Iowa, Dorys knew nothing of her husbandís fate. They had been married only six months when Saur was sent overseas and it would be a year before she would hear from him again. When he would finally return, Dorys discovered that he was a changed man.

"I feel very comfortable talking about it now," he said. "Iíve had that feeling of guilt, why were they killed and not me? But thatís nonsense, you canít have that. Thatís just the way things happened. Iím glad to tell the story but itís really not about me, itís about them. Iím just one of a big group of people."

As for the B-17, Saur still has fond memories. "I think itís a wonderful aircraft," he said. A lot of them came back with a lot of holes in them and they could still fly."

Holding the picture of the smiling 22-year-old second lieutenant and seeing the present day man, still smiling, in the background was a little like traveling through time. "Does it seem like yesterday? Yeah, it does," he said. "It was an experience that you could never forget."

Manning the Bomb Sight

When Gene Saur referred to the lead bombardier manning the Norden Bomb Sight for the squadron he may well have been referring to Sun City Center resident Vincent Palumbo. On his last mission, he was the lead for the 12 B-17s in his group.

"I was there when we started controlling the skies," he said. In all, Palumbo flew 30 missions in the B-17. At that time, 30 was the magic number to go home but Palumbo wasnít quite ready to give up flying. "I came home and went to pilot training," he said. " I was in B-25s in advanced pilot training when VE (Victory in Europe) day came along."

Last week, Palumbo traveled to Sarasota to see Aluminum Overcast. "My 85th birthday was the day before so I gave myself a birthday present," he said.

Palumbo, the lead bombardier of nearly 60 years ago, took to the skies in a B-17 once again. This time over the tranquil environment of Sarasota.

"I was seated in the radio room," he said. "It seems a little narrower than it used to even though Iím thinner now than I was then," he said.

It was not his first flight in a B-17 since the War. About eight years ago, he flew in a B-17 named Ninety-Nine.

Palumbo echoed many of the same sentiments as Saur. He sees what he did, what he accomplished, merely as his duty. "We got into it gradually," he said. "You didnít go into it one day as a civilian and the next day flying combat. But when you consider that the whole world was at war, you had to do what you had to do."

And they did what they had to do. It was their duty, they say. In the process they created a superpower that now stands alone on the world stage.

The arrival of a B-17 named Aluminum Overcast, a specter from a day long past, provided a thread that runs through our lives even today. They did their duty, now it is our duty to remember, to say thank you.


Top photo by Mitch Traphagen

All other photographs courtesy of Gene Saur

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