MARINE CORPS AIR STATION CHERRY POINT, N.C. -- As he flew into Cherry Point for the 2014 MCAS Cherry Point Air Show in “Panchito,” a B-25 Mitchell bomber, retired Brig. Gen. George Bartlett felt a sense of nostalgia come over him.
“As a sergeant here in 1944, I served as a navigator bombardier,” said Bartlett. “It felt fantastic to fly back here again. The purpose of this is to show the kids of today what it was like during WWII to be in a plane like Panchito.”
Bartlett flew out of Cherry Point 70 years ago in a North American Aviation patrol bomber, a naval version of the B-25, for combat in the South Pacific. While there, he flew 75 combat missions. His return flight to the air station for the air show marked a significant milestone not just in aviation history, but in the passing of the torch from an older generation to a new one, said the 90-year-old aviator.
After the war, Bartlett went to college and spent some time in the reserves. The aviator was called back to active duty in 1950. Bartlett, an avid aircraft enthusiast was commissioned after graduating with the 5th Special Basic Course at Quantico, Va., in 1951 with 290 other mustang officers. He earned an advanced degree by attending night school while serving as a lieutenant.
At the air show, Bartlett helped the Disabled American Veterans Flight Team promote Panchito and their mission of providing support and services to veterans, something he said he has been doing since meeting Panchito’s owner Larry Kelly 12 years ago.
“He contacted me and asked me if I would fly with him,” Bartlett said. “So I go to air shows with the plane and tell war stories – some of which are even true.”
The WWII aviator said he loves flying Panchito and believes in the mission of the DAV organization and their aviation outreach program.
“I believe this program is one of the most successful programs I’ve ever been involved in,” said Lynn May, the DAV Aviation Outreach Program media coordinator. “We not only reach out by appearing at shows and performing, we rely on the media to help us get the word out.”
Founded in 1920, the 1.2 million-member non-profit charity organization was chartered by Congress in 1932 as the official voice of the nation’s wartime disabled veterans. They are committed to fulfilling the promises of men and women who served by representing them and their dependents with Department of Veterans Affairs and Department of Defense benefits, providing free rides to and from VA medical facilities and offering free grassroots advocacy and services nationwide.
Bartlett and the DAV Flight Team aren’t the only ones who feel connected to the B-25 they use to promote their cause.
“It has such a rich history after being used in all theaters of the war,” said May. “It is an important piece of our history and most young people don’t realize its significance. We want to keep that history alive and keep these war birds flying. We want people to come here and reminisce.”
B-25 bombers are most known for their role in the Doolittle Raid. The raid was an early American operation during WWII launched on Tokyo and other places on Honshu Island. It was the first air raid to strike the Japanese home Islands in retaliation for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
According to May, it is not uncommon for former service members to get emotional when they see the aircraft.
“They will come up to the plane and literally stand there and cry,” she said. “It is heartwarming to see that.”
May said she enjoys the satisfaction of helping people that comes along with her job. She said she lives for the intimate moments she shares with veterans and their families.
She recalled a fond memory of a WWII veteran she met who was having trouble getting hearing aids. The DAV was able to assist him with getting the hearing aids he needed.
Her voice cracked and she fought back tears as she talked about a letter she received from his daughter. Thanks to the help he received from the DAV, he read a book with his granddaughter for the first time.
“I get choked up about those kinds of stories because we hear similar stories so often,” said May. “These are people who paid the price. Some of them paid the ultimate price. We owe it to veterans to do everything we can to help them get the benefits they deserve. They earned them.”